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Left on Purpose

Distributed by Good Docs
Produced by Eden Wurmfeld
Directed by Justin Schein and David Mehlman
DVD, color, 84 min. (60 min. educational version)
College - General Adult
Depression, Mental Health, Protest Culture and Society, Protest Movements, Substance Abuse

Reviewed by Phil Salvador, American University Library, American University

Date Entered: 3/13/2017

Filmmaker Justin Schein meant to direct a film about the life of Yippie counterculture activist Mayer Vishner. Instead, he documented Vishner’s death. He discovers the aging boomer’s life in disarray, beset by substance abuse, depression, and strained relationships with family and friends. Soon into filming, Vishner admits that he plans to commit suicide.

With this revelation, Left on Purpose pivots dramatically from a retrospective on the Yippies and Vietnam-era protests to a portrait of a man ending his life. The change is jarring, perhaps intentionally unsmooth. But Vishner frames his whole life through the counterculture movement. Surrounded by boxes of buttons and memorabilia, he considers himself now a useless burden, and he sees suicide as a final “political action” to help society.

The film does not flinch away from its uncomfortable topic. Watching Vishner crawl through the last days of his life is grueling. He drinks large volumes of alcohol, fights with his doctor about his decision, and speaks frankly about his depression and the life he wishes he had. The film ends with a brief, unnerving shot of his corpse.

As Schein bonds with Vishner, the film also raises difficult questions about the ethics of documentary filmmaking. The director and subject frequently mention Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the idea that observing something changes it. Is Schein’s documentary affecting Vishner’s outlook on his life? Does Schein have an obligation to help, even at the expense of his family?

Left on Purpose doesn’t say anything definitive about those problems. It isn’t a film about filmmaking, just as it isn’t a film about the Yippies or mental health or assisted suicide. This is a story of one man choosing to die. The film is recommended as an intimate look at a suicide that touches on all these subjects – with the understanding that it is emotionally exhausting and distressing to watch.