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FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW; The Catch-22's of Recovery

Jennifer Dworkin's compelling documentary Love & Diane immerses you so intensely in the problems of the Hazzards, a troubled New York family living on public assistance, that by the end of its two and a half hours you feel almost like a member of the household.

This profoundly intimate movie, one of the finds of this year's New York Film Festival (it will be shown this morning), focuses on the stormy relationship of Diane, the family's 42-year-old matriarch, who is in recovery from crack addiction, and one of her daughters, Love, the single mother of a baby boy named Donyaeh. Donyaeh, a bright, happy child, was born H.I.V.-positive but converts to negative after treatment.

Love, who is 18 as the movie begins, is H.I.V.-positive but asymptomatic for AIDS and has a steady boyfriend who remains peripheral in the film.

Diane is a brave, outspoken woman with a horrendous family history. Now clean and sober and fortified by her Christian faith, she is determined to get a job and reunite under one roof with her family, which has been taken from her and scattered among foster homes. When she enrolls in a rigorous training program to help adults with troubled backgrounds and no job experience to enter the labor force, you passionately root for her to succeed.

An early scene, in which Diane gathers the family in prayer in her new apartment, suggests that her dreams may be within reach. But things quickly come apart. One son, Willie, leaves home and is lost to the streets. The painful turning point of a story that spans several years comes when Diane feels obliged to report Love as a neglectful mother, and Donyaeh is put in a foster home.

Without indicting New York's social service system, ''Love & Diane'' recognizes the frustrations of being dependent on that system with its Byzantine rules and Catch-22 provisions. Diane, for instance, can afford her roomy new apartment only so long as Donyaeh is living under her roof.

Her reporting of her daughter's neglect is a sad case of the tables turning, for when Love was 8, she reported her mother's crack addiction. The family was broken up, and Love, who still roils with resentment at Diane's neglect, endured a series of foster and group homes. After Donyaeh's departure, Love spends the rest of the movie trying to get her son back. But because she is prone to violent rages and listless depressions and fails to show up at court-mandated therapy sessions, her progress is touch-and-go.

What lifts the film above many other high-minded documentaries dealing with poverty and the welfare cycle is the filmmaker's astounding empathy for both Diane and Love. These smart, complicated women are never made to seem like case studies. As they grope their way toward a tentative peace, you feel how deeply their wounds run and understand with an uncomfortable clarity how fear and anger can sometimes undermine the noblest resolutions.

Love & Diane

Produced and directed by Jennifer Dworkin; director of photography, Tsuyoshi Kimoto; edited by Mona Davis. Running time: 155 minutes. This film is not rated. Shown today at 11 a.m. at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, as part of the 40th New York Film Festival.

Published: 10 - 12 - 2002 , Late Edition - Final , Section B , Column 1 , Page 9


Love & Diane

Jennifer Dworkin's epic 2-hour docu explodes the right wing cliché of the "welfare queen" -- the black woman with a lot of kids and a crack habit -- not by avoiding the stereotype but by fleshing it out. Settling the viewer in to an unmediated intimacy with her subjects, Dworkin follows the fortunes of Diane, recovering addict and mother of six, and her daughter Love over a span of three years. Prizewinner at Locarno, pic's tremendous emotional force and uncompromising honesty make for a strong presence on the fest circuit, and limited theatrical run could precede eventual PBS airing.

"Love" starts three years after Diane has succeeded in reuniting her damaged family, traumatized first by her neglect and then, after the law interceded, by separation, foster care and group homes. In the intervening years, they have become strangers. They fantasized a "happily ever after" ending once they reconnected, but deep-rooted scars and resentments remain.

Dworkin focuses on the most intense of these familial relationships, the mother/daughter duo of the title. Love, emerging from a horrendous hand-to-mouth existence on the streets but still seeking a bond with her mother, is HIV positive. She has just given birth to a boy, Donyaeh, similarly afflicted.

As characters' histories are revealed, patterns emerge that threaten to engulf the principals in a hellish repetitive cycle. Diane is herself the daughter of an alcoholic mother who abandoned her when she was 3 years old. Love, who was removed from her mother when she was 8, sees her baby wrested from her and, like her mother before her, must surmount all manner of court-mandated obstacles to retrieve him.

Both Diane and Love had babies very young to fill the void created by their absent parents only to become absent parents themselves. Love feels like a pariah because it was she who, at age 8, told her teacher that her mother smoked crack, leading to the initial break-up of the family unit. Similarly, it is Diane's mention to her therapist of a violent fight between Love and one of her sisters that leads to Love's son Donyaeh's being taken away.

No mere collection of talking heads, film's p.o.v. subtly alternates between that of a privileged onlooker and that of a distanced observer so that Diane's triumphant graduation from her job-training course is captured by lenser Tsuyoshi Kimoto in lively hand-held close-up while Donyaeh's return home is framed in a long-shot tableau from the next room. Impressionistic imagery, often shot in dreamy, soft-focus black-and-white, accompanies voice-over monologues wherein Diane recounts her addiction or Love her time on the streets.

It could be argued that the presence of the camera gooses the women to greater efforts than they might otherwise have expended, but it soon becomes apparent that, being on public assistance, they already exist under far less benign surveillance, and are continually reported upon and judged.

Dworkin's camera becomes a kind of friendly witness, recording a supervised visit between mother and baby or a meeting with a lawyer or the aftermath of a crisis. At other times, the camera wanders restlessly as couples fight in their separate corners or mother and daughter hammer out a fragile truce.

Haunting the whole family is the specter of Charles, the eldest son who kept his siblings fed and functioning when their mother couldn't, and who had three years of college under his belt when he blew his brains out. Both Diane and Love, unsurprisingly, are diagnosed as clinically depressed. In the face of this legacy, the fact that they keep striving seems amazing. That they often succeed seems semi-miraculous.

The confluence of relatively inexpensive video stock and the all-important precedent of "Hoop Dreams" have led to the opportunity to follow a sweeping story in depth and through time. Dworkin brilliantly uses the form to involve the viewer in a warts-and-all complexity that confounds facile judgment, while recreating the frustrating slowness of a system of social services that often nurtures the very ills it attempts to cure.


Schools of Hard Knocks

Few impulses in movie reviewing are stronger than the desire to pat the back of a worthy project. No surprise then that Jennifer Dworkin's years-in-the-making 2 1/2-hour portrait of a former crack addict and her HIV-positive teenage daughter inspired enthusiastic accolades on its New York Film Festival premiere; what's more remarkable is how much Love & Diane deserved them.

Can you be persuaded to see for yourself? From first shot to last, Dworkin's movie is a continuously absorbing, sometimes revelatory, frequently moving experience; as documentary filmmaking it's not only amazingly intimate but also characterized by an unexpected lyricism.

Dworkin evidently knew her subjects for some years before she began documenting their lives. The movie begins at the point where fortysomething Diane has managed to regain custody of her five surviving children and Love, the eldest of these, has just had her first baby, Donyaeh. That the infant was born HIV-positive is not unmitigated tragedy; his condition enhances the family's public assistance grant and enables them to leave East New York for a better apartment in Flatbush. The birth of the baby also allows Dworkin an emotional recapitulation of the family's history. When the generally upbeat Diane's grandmaternal instinct kicks in, Love becomes wildly jealous of little Donyaeh. Love's sense of deprivation is existential. She spent years in foster care, lived on the streets, and still feels guilty that, at age eight, she told school authorities that her mother was smoking crack.

The relationship between the two women deteriorates; Love neglects Donyaeh and rages at Diane. Diane loses control and calls child welfare. Donyaeh winds up in foster care. (Too late, Diane wonders how they will pay the rent without custody of the child.) Love manages to get herself a lawyer to help get Donyaeh back. Thus, the family's internal dynamics are intimately bound up in the workings of the social welfare bureaucracy and subject to the rulings of family court. The ubiquitous presence of the filmmaker is but another aspect of the surveillance system.

Having prevailed over her own family history of alcoholism and abandonment, Diane is both articulate and self-aware in explaining her life; Love, who is very much her mother's daughter, uses the movie to vent a boundless anger. Her looks keep changing; her moods swing and her weight fluctuates. To a large degree, this is the drama of her struggle with self-knowledge against a complex backstory of abuse, violence, and neglect. In some respects, Love & Diane is an extreme example of a universal situation: Love blames her mother for her condition, refusing to accept responsibility. She resists her therapy, stubbornly clutching her symptoms. (At the same time, she is no less determined in her quest to regain Donyaeh.)

Throughout, Dworkin intersperses interviews and observational scenes with shards of Super-8 subjectivity - footage either shot by the principals or narrated by them. The opening image of a car windshield in the rain, accompanied by Diane's autobiographical voice-over, suggests that heaven itself is weeping. Rooted as it is in a specific milieu, the film has a cosmic aspect: Love recapitulates Diane's life. The passage of time is measured by Donyaeh's development.

It's illuminating that Love & Diane would follow Steve James's comparable Stevie into Film Forum. Both documentaries are epic, highly personal enterprises in which the filmmakers were for years entwined, if not embedded, in the damaged lives of their subjects; both are examples of cinematic social work. The relatively privileged filmmakers expose and dramatize the pathology of poverty, the cost of ignorance, the ongoing generational patterns of abandonment and abuse. The procedural precedent for both movies is Hoop Dreams, a study of two high school basketball prospects, which James made as part of a three-man collective. But while Love & Diane is enormously engaging, Stevie is a disaster, which is not to say that some won't find it fascinating.

If the self-effacing Dworkin is barely in evidence, James makes his own conflicted relationship with his subject central. Brave or foolish, Stevie is thus burdened with the filmmaker's own neediness and guilt. Worse, Stevie appears to realize that the entire basis of his relationship with James is making this movie. His misery has made him a star. Where invisible Dworkin (whose surrogate is perhaps Love's indefatigable lawyer) chooses to show Love and Diane using her film as their means of recognition, James's less expressive, more pathetic subject seems only able to communicate his yearning for any sort of attention.

As Stevie has committed a serious crime, his fate is already sealed. The only possible atonement is the filmmaker's. By contrast, Love & Diane is a more open-ended enterprise. (Will Diane manage to get a job? Can Love handle motherhood? Therapy? Has she really forgiven Diane?) What's more, Dworkin's film feels like a collaborative enterprise; her subjects are the authors of their lives. The struggle for redemption is hardly an uncommon movie story, but Love & Diane redeems that cliché - an ongoing process.


Welfare as they know it: Moving look at a N.Y. family

The next time some idiot complains about "welfare queens," and lumps a whole segment of the population into one big stereotype, refer that individual to Jennifer Dworkin's amazing documentary "Love & Diane."

Dworkin followed a matriarchal African-American family over several years as it struggled with New York's social and family services. The family members tried desperately to break the cycle of dependence and subpar parenting, moving through a bureaucratic maze that often made things worse when it wasn't making things impossible.

Diane, in her 40s, is trying to make up for a drug-addled past when she abandoned her six children to the foster-care system. Now she's straight and has most of her semi-grown children back (her eldest committed suicide in his 20s), but they are all strangers to one another. There is no apartment in the city large enough, even if their subsidies could afford one, to contain the explosive emotions the reconciliation brings.

Love is one of Diane's children, now 18 and a new mother herself. Soon she, too, is repeating Mom's mistakes. She is so choked with anger, guilt and depression that she loses her baby to foster care and spends the remainder of this documentary trying to get him back.

The footage, free of talking-head experts, is mostly self-explanatory, and the fates of these family members are varied and surprising. It is bittersweet to note that behind every stereotype lurks an individual with a back story that would make all the difference if it was known. But there are only a finite number of filmmakers with the devotion, patience and ability to tease out these stories.


Love and Diane

Love and Diane, Jennifer Dworkin's astonishing documentary about a former crack addict's attempts to reunite her family, may be the most captivating film experience of the year. Tender and poignantly insightful, the film is a blessing for those who've found the most recent batch of documentaries either sweetly superficial (Winged Migration, Spellbound) or overbearingly narcissistic (Bowling for Columbine); that these lesser documentaries should even be mentioned in the same breath as Dworkin's film is itself something of a crime against this first-time director's absorbing masterpiece. At a swift 155 minutes, Love and Diane submerges us so deeply in the plight of its titular matriarch Diane Hazzard - who is endeavoring to reconnect with the children she lost to foster care six years earlier as a result of her drug-induced neglect - that one feels like it would be perfectly natural to walk up to her on the street and give her an affectionate hug. Dworkin makes us a part of this fractured family, and it is to her credit that she does so not with sermonizing meant to engender our sympathy, but through the unadorned intimacy of her camera's inquisitive eye.

The director spent years following Diane and her brood around Brooklyn, and the film's casual narrative encompasses two and a half years of the household's troubled existence. Diane has brought her five living children back under one roof - her eldest son Charles, with three years of college under his belt, committed suicide after finding his mother's habit and the chaotic home life that arose from it too much to bear - but has discovered that she hardly knows them. This is particularly the case with her 18-year-old daughter Love, who is HIV-positive and mother to a baby boy named Donyaeh, also infected with the disease. Love's years in foster and group homes have turned her into an angry, petulant child, desperate for love and comfort but quick to shut out the world when things seem too overwhelming. As a result of her baby's HIV status, Love is able to get a subsidy for public housing, allowing Diane and the kids to move into a larger apartment in Flatbush, and for a time it seems to Diane that life has finally gained some semblance of hope and normalcy. But Love's mothering skills are in short supply, and Diane's frustrations regarding her daughter's maternal negligence spill out during a therapy session. Soon, the cops have arrived to take Donyaeh into foster care custody while Love is charged with parental neglect, thus throwing not only the mother-daughter relationship into disarray, but also the family's housing situation.

That Love is perpetuating a cycle of abandonment - not only did Diane desert her kids, but she was raised by grandparents after her mother drank herself to death- is painfully obvious even to those enmeshed in this hellish pattern. Love is forced to navigate through the very foster care system she has loathed and resented for much of her life, meeting with lawyers, social workers, and therapists in an effort to get Donyaeh back from the boy's foster mother (a Hispanic woman who effusively dotes on the adorable tyke), and the film makes clear that this unwieldy social system frequently gives people like Love few opportunities to better their lot. Diane has been on welfare since the birth of her first child at 16 - in one of many candid moments, Diane (like Love later on) admits to having children because she thought they would bring her the affection she never had as a child - and she displays a sincere desire to take control of her life, dreaming of working as an office secretary. But as Love continues to skip the therapy appointments that are a vital means of proving to the court that her anger and depression have subsided, and as Diane begins to lose her grip on home and brood (including second son Willie, who has chosen to live a life of thievery on the streets), the tenuous stability of Diane and Love's relationship with each other begins to crumble, with Love's searing anger over her mother's failures a bridge not easily mended.

Dworkin's film benefits from the decision to intercut traditional on-the-spot footage of the family's daily life with more impressionistic black-and-white interludes of the city's landscape featuring voice-over interviews with Love and Diane, providing us with candid and perceptive first-person perspectives on the events unfolding onscreen. The director was given total access to their lives, and her nearly invisible camera repeatedly captures scraggly, unadulterated beauty in casual activities - Love and her boyfriend cheering on a dancing Donyaeh, Diane putting the final decorative touches on her new apartment. Dworkin's film is overflowing with empathy even as it refuses to shy away from the women's failings. Love is, and may continue to be, a sub-par mother, and Diane may not be ready or able to completely heal the rift between herself and her children. But if these two battered woman can continue to show each other just a small measure of the compassion, kindness, and respect that Dworkin exhibits for her subjects in the heartfelt, masterful Love and Diane, I have hope that they'll be able to overcome any obstacle in their path.


Capturing Resilience

"Love and Diane," the major discovery of last year's New York Film Festival, returns home today, and it's a cause for celebration. One of the Year's best films, Jennifer Dworkin's richly rewarding documentary offers the kind of deep engagement with humanity we ask of the movies and so rarely receive.

Culled from more than 400 hours of footage, the film portrays the passionate and complex relationship between two members of a poor African American family in Brooklyn: a recovered crack addict named Diane Hazzard and one of her daughters, the (at times) ironically named Love.

Love, 19 years old and HIV-positive, struggles with depression, self-destructive behavior, and the responsibility of raising her newborn son, a scene-stealing charmer named Donyaeh. Having survived her addiction and brought her family back together, Diane is determined to set her life on a new course. She enrolls in a vocational training program and maintains an uncompromising honesty with her children.

Patterns of neglect, betrayal, regret, and forgiveness structure an account of several years in these two women's lives. Primarily composed of vérite footage, the film incorporates lyrical sequences accompanied by voiceover. No mere exercise in good medicine cinema, "Love and Diane" is an invigorating, rough-and-tumble, bracingly intimate examination of the heart.

It's a remarkable debut for Ms. Dworkin, a New York native, whose success on the film festival circuit was launched almost by accident when a preview tape of "Love and Diane" was added to a package requested by the extremely selective committee of the New York Film Festival. They turned down the requested work (by a major league festival favorite) and launched a wonderful New York film instead.

Ms. Dworkin grew up in England, but returned to the States to pursue philosophy studies at Cornell University. In the late 1980s, she ran a photography workshop for homeless children in Harlem, which evolved into a Super 8 film project. She became especially close to a girl named Selena - Diane Hazzard's niece. "Love and Diane" evolved unexpectedly from this relationship.

"I was already making a film about Selena," she explained to me recently. "One day I was planning to interview Diane about her, but she wasn't there: The house was empty. The only person there was Love. But I had a [cinematographer] and I had a camera, so I waited about an hour and then just thought: Why don't I interview Love? I'd never really talked to her. She'd been this very silent figure who looked very depressed and I thought, why bother her? But in the course of about two minutes I realized she was absolutely fascinating."

Soon Diane came in, and the mother and daughter started talking to each other. "Some of what they said is in the final film!" Ms. Dworkin says. "They immediately grasped the use of the interview and the camera as a forum for themselves. It's almost like I'd given them this space in which they could engage with each other, not so much with me."

At first, the film was conceived as a self-conscious collaboration, an opportunity for Love and Diane to shape and express their lives using the reflective medium of a documentary portrait for guidance. "We talked about the ways they saw people like themselves represented in the media," Ms. Dworkin says. "They expressed a lot of dissatisfaction with the phoniness and stereotypes, the whole ghetto cliché."

"Love wanted to be a writer, she still does. She thought that this would be a kind of test run of her autobiography, a way to help organize her future. For Diane, it was going to almost going to be a memorial to a finished life: about her past, about the death of all the other members of her family, all her siblings, and finally about the loss of her kids. Now she had them back and that was the end, a happy ending. Which is where the troubles in "Love and Diane" begin."

Love's casual neglect of Donyaeh, coupled with a violent episode of her quick temper, leads Diane to call her therapist for help. Her trust in authority backfires spectacularly: Donyaeh is taken away from Love, Diane's children are removed from the house, and a tortuous navigation of social-service regulations begins.

Ms. Dworkin's collaborative portrait soon became something very different, and "Love and Diane" emerged as an epic tale of individuals and their idiosyncratic behavior patterns colliding with the "system."

"The events that happened put them absolutely back in the past," elaborates Ms. Dworkin. "When Donyaeh and the other kids were taken it was really Diane's worst nightmare: The past emerging as this kind of completely inescapable fate, no matter what you do. It gave us the structure of the film -everybody was focused on issues of guilt and forgiveness- but obviously none of us expected that to happen."

While the setting and extremity of hardship chronicled in the film may be far removed from the lives of the educated art-house audience likely to see it, "Love and Diane's" galvanic drama of basic human fallibility and triumph transcends its specific context. Refusing to either objectify or simplify her subjects, Ms. Dworkin finds the universal in the particular, our own strength and weaknesses reflected in the lives of our neighbors.

But this terrific piece of fly-on-the wall cinema was,for the filmmaker,"the most incredibly manipulated, worked on, edited, and thought-about thing."

"[Cinematographer] Tsuyoshi Kimoto and I developed a working relationship that was so intuitive that we could read each other's body language- it was very fluid," she said. "There were times when I felt something big was coming up I would just leave the house and leave Tsuyoshi there. I would wander off to see what was happening in the other room. I needed to be far enough away so they wouldn't turn and talk to me."

Observation alters the observed in documentary filmmaking no less than in quantum physics, yet the family's familiarity with Ms. Dworkin - before a camera ever entered the situation - enabled the film to capture unusually private moments. "There is an element of stage management that goes on but I don't think our presence changed the fundamental order of events in any way. There were things that I'd have liked to have affected that I couldn't."

In fact, once their initial conception of the film's purpose slipped away into the tumult of daily life, the two women did not alter their behavior before the camera.

"Love is pretty much the way she is in the film," Ms. Dworkin says. "That defensiveness is always there, that lack of trust. You can break through it, and when you do she's very genuine. Love is very honest, sometimes too much so. Whenever she was offered a chance to soften something, or not put something out there, she would reject that; she would insist on it."

Diane, in her own way, is just as uncompromising. "She's an inspirational figure for many people," Ms. Dworkin says. "She changed her life in her forties from such an extraordinarily ruined, awful story, and yet she still has this joie de vivre and enthusiasm. She would describe it as faith.There's a core of optimism, of resilience."

And yet the two do change during the course of the film - especially Love. "I think she does mature in the film; she learns that she's going to have to reconsider what her mother did in light of the fact that she did the same thing," Ms. Dworkin says. "It's going to involve forgiving her mother and herself."

"For me the most amazing moment is when they're sitting on the bed and Diane says, 'You don't trust me'. The discussions that they get into with each other are very honest. They really want to tell the truth to each other."

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