Artist Mindy Alper perceives the world differently from ordinary people.
Take the marking of time, for instance. Where most of us talk about years, she speaks of “trips around the sun.” Another example would be sitting in traffic on an LA freeway. To most Angelenos, it’s maddening. To Alper, it’s a little bit of bliss.
“Uber drivers, they don’t understand,” she tells Deadline.
In fact, Heaven Is a Traffic Jam On The 405 is the title of a short documentary about Alper directed by Frank Stiefel. The film recently earned a nomination for Best Short from the IDA Awards, and won audience and jury awards at both the Full Frame Film Festival and the Austin Film Festival. It opens with Alper contentedly biding time in bumper-to-bumper congestion.
“I spend that time talking to myself out loud about whatever it is going on,” she says, “Things that I don’t usually say to people, especially politics.”
The Mindy who emerges from Stiefel’s film is a person of unusual candor who talks openly about her long struggle with mental illness, sharing with the camera her impressive regimen of medication. She displays what might be called neurological differences, especially sensitivity to noise and visual stimuli.
“[My] nightmare is Costco. I become very anxious,” she says in the film.
She copes with these challenges with touching humor and honesty.
“She’s the most human of us humans,” observes Stiefel. “She’s the only interview subject that completely answered every question that I asked her without that ‘governor’ that we all have in our brains that wonders whether we’re being smart and who’s concerned about how we look or how we sound.”
Alper throws the praise back on Stiefel.
“Frank asks questions in such a way that you have no choice but to tell him the truth,” she explains. “It’s some kind of diabolical gift he has.”
The director got to know Alper through an art program taught by Tom Wudl, a class Stiefel’s wife also attended. For Alper, art has long offered a refuge from a world that often didn’t understand her.
“I was apparently doing [art] since I could hold something in my hand to draw,” she says. “I was so fortunate to have a mom who put me in art class at four or five. I always loved drawing.”
The filmmaking team animated a number of her line drawings, which are startling for their evocation of phobias and fearsome, unsympathetic adults. Alper’s art has provided her a substitute for words.
“I remember times when I couldn’t speak for quite a long time and using drawings to communicate,” she recalls.
Alper also works in papier mâché to create large-scale portraits of important people in her life, including Stiefel himself, her art mentor Wudl, and her psychiatrist, Dr. Shoshanna.
Stiefel filmed as some of the sculptures were put on display for an art show, an event Dr. Shoshanna attended.
“I said to her psychiatrist when she saw [the sculpture] at the gallery, ‘Other than Mt. Rushmore, I can’t imagine a bigger monument to a person,’” Stiefel remembers.
Despite her obvious talent, Alper experiences anxiety when her works are exhibited, worrying they will be rejected.
“I think that’s hard still,” she concedes. “I have a lot of doubt because a lot of people feel free to tell me what they think and it’s not always good.”
From her instructor, though, she’s at ease receiving feedback.
“I’m lucky to have a teacher still who can say, ‘You’ve done better drawings than that.’ He’s terrific. I appreciate it,” she tells Deadline.
Making any piece of art, including a short documentary, exposes the maker to the judgment of an audience. But Stiefel says he wasn’t concerned how Heaven Is a Traffic Jam On The 405 would be received. The reason? His confidence in his main character’s appeal.
“I was intrigued by Mindy. I loved her art,” he says. “I never asked myself whether anybody else would be interested. I just kept plugging forward because I found her incredibly compelling and just went with that.”