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Front Wards, Back Wards 2007

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Fanlight Productions, 32 Court St., 21st Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201; 800-876-1710
Produced by W.C. Rogers
Directed by W.C. Rogers
DVD, color, 88 min.

Sr. High - Adult
Psychology, Health Sciences, Sociology, Psychiatry, Public Health

Date Entered: 06/03/2008

Reviewed by Timothy W. Kneeland, History and Political Science Department, Nazareth College of Rochester, Rochester, NY

Front Wards, Back Wards, is the story of the Walter E Fernald Developmental Center in Waltham, Massachusetts. Created during the reform era of the early nineteenth century as an institution of care for those deemed to be feebleminded, Fernald, like other institutions created during that time, such as penitentiaries and insane asylums, experienced decline in the twentieth century. Overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and abuse of the inmates became the norm through the 1950s leading mental health advocates to launch courtroom challenges to the conditions at Fernald. Their reform movement was successful, in part due to national trends that recognized the civil rights of institutionalized populations and court decisions that required the mentally infirm be housed in the “least restrictive” environments. The patients or inmates at Fernald were returned to the community in the 1970s and 1980s leaving only a smaller cadre of the most severely ill.

Front Wards, Back Wards, provides a brief but competent discussion of the evolution of Fernald to the present. However the real strength of this film lies in its ability to tell the story of the patients and their families who experienced the reforms of the 1970s and 1980s. Through a series of vignettes, on camera interviews, and narration, the filmmaker presents the story of several patients, representing a spectrum of those at Fernald, and raises important questions about the role of such institutions as Fernald in our society. The filmmaker, W.C Rogers, knows the community well having formed a relationship with it when his Uncle Joe was a resident in the 1970s. This intimacy allows him to tell a story that is deeply moving and nuanced. On the one hand, he tells the story we might expect: the story of the failed policies, a failed institution and abuse. This surfaces in the story of Joe, a patient who along with his brother was incarcerated by their father when Joe was only ten years old. When we meet Joe, now sixty, we learn that he remains deeply scarred by both the abuse he received at the hands of the staff and the stigma of being held at Fernald. For Joe, Fernald was the Inferno. Although Joe physically escaped Fernald, he remains emotionally trapped and haunted by his experiences there. On the other hand, the film also introduces us to Patti who is in need of ‘round the clock care. She is fed through a tube and because she is bedridden staff must turn her over every hour to prevent bedsores. Patti is clearly loved and carefully tended to by family and the staff. Indeed, the staff at Fernald became Patti’s surrogate family without whom she could not survive. In between the two extremes of Joe and Patti is Brian. Brian is not a functional adult like Joe, nor bed-ridden like Patti, but is incapable of living on his own and caring for himself. During the de-institutionalization that hit Fernald in the 1970s, Brian was released and lives with his aging parents. Brian’s parents express anxiety about Brian’s future when they are gone. In so doing they articulate the question this film raises, how do we care for our most vulnerable populations without creating the kind of nightmare that was Fernald in the 1950s? What would happen to Patti if there was no Fernald Developmental Center? Who will look after Brian when his parents are gone? These questions are not easily answered nor are they merely academic, as we find at the end of the film that Fernald has been slated for closure. At this point the film ends, leaving the viewer to ponder the questions raised and seek their own answers.

Thus, in less than an hour the film provides a fine history of Fernald and through the stories of Joe, Patti, and Brian raises critical questions that will stimulate classroom discussion.

Highly recommended for Sr. High School – Adult.