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IDFA Review: For I Know My Weakness

Patty Looper Sills is a homeless alcoholic when she enters the life of documentary filmmaker John Dentino, begging for money. He has his own reasons to document her story, and ends up being involved in her life for several years – longer than he sometimes would have liked. But the resulting film is certainly worth it.

For I Know My Weakness follows Patty, who we can clearly see is – after years of sleeping rough and drinking her way through life – only a mere empty shell of what she used to be. She is not a faceless homeless person, Patty is a mother. However, sadly she made the decision to abandon her own children 25 years ago.

The alcohol and life’s events have clearly psychologically damaged Patty but when she ends up on Skid Row, the notorious homeless district of downtown Los Angeles, she is determined to reconnect with her family. It is at this point that she meets the director. The thought-provoking film that follows is a meandering journey through Patty’s harsh life, her children, and even that of the filmmaker himself.

The documentary provides a frank insight into the life of a woman ravaged by an addiction to alcohol. Her relationships are constantly in the shadow of her addiction which she cannot escape, even when at times she is trying. Although she has not been in her children’s lives for a substantial amount of time, it is clear that they do occupy many of Patty’s thoughts.

The film alludes to questions of whether her troubles are circumstantial within a social context or whether it is her decision that has played the main role in her alcoholism and homelessness. A question which many people who are affiliated with any type of addicts often struggle to find the answer to themselves.

There is an extraordinary sense of honesty throughout, which it seems is, at part, down to the personal relationship that director John Dentino established with Patty and her family. The mother constantly struggles throughout the documentary to admit she has been responsible for leaving her children. A poignant sign of the effect that her alcoholism has had on her life is highlighted by her son recounting how she cannot remember him as a child but only knows him as an adult man.

Dentino starts to play a considerable role in Patty’s life. From the beginning of the film he is seen to facilitate Patty’s reunion; he provides her with money and helps her fill in forms to try to get permanent housing. It is rather unusual for a director not to take on a purely observational role but this really makes the film feel intimate and personal. At one point he even exclaims: “I’m just totally sick of her”, which gives an insight into just how much the two grew together over the course of filming this documentary.

Aside from touching on the illness that is alcohol addiction, the film therefor also raises important questions of how much a filmmaker can or should be involved with his subjects. But as said, without the relationship that was built between them there is no question that the same level of insight and intimacy would not have been obtained in the film.

On a technical level, the use of natural light throughout the documentary is striking and is especially effective in the night time shots which are either left dark or shown through a night vision setting. It emphasises the authentic feel which the harshness of the subject requires and compliments the style in which this immersive and absorbing documentary is shot.

For I Know My Weakness is insightful and personal and hopefully does help to open up the debate about addiction and how it can, or even if it can, be tackled.

For I Know My Weakness will be screening at IDFA at the following locations and times:

Tue 20-11       22:30   Munt 10
Fri 23-11         15:30   Munt 10

For more information and to book tickets visit the IDFA website.


Written by

Nicola graduated from Brunel University with a BSc in Sociology and Media and is now currently studying for a MSc at LSE in Society and Culture, while working in the UK film industry. The Up Series (beginning with 7up) sparked her interest in documentaries, particularly those with a social and cultural themes. She is enthusiastic about documentaries because of their capacity to inform and incite change, as seen from The Thin Blue Line and, more recently, Josh Fox’s Gasland.

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