When Henry Darger moved into a Chicago poorhouse in 1973, he was 81 years old, dying, and alone, and only a handful of neighbors knew him. He was a lonely, reclusive janitor, marked only by the eccentric conversations he carried on with himself in his one-room apartment.
When he died, his landlords went to clear out his apartment, and they discovered another world, a world that Darger called "The Realms of the Unreal." Shelves and drawers were stuffed with hundreds of paintings and manuscripts. There was an autobiography, notes, sketches, cut outs from magazines, and a 15,000-page novel detailing the exploits of the Vivian girls, seven sisters leading a slave rebellion against evil grownups. For Darger, this world was not just a means of forgetting his tedious existence; it was a fantasy so elaborate that it seemed to be more of a home than his tiny apartment.
Jessica Yu's brilliant documentary In the Realms of the Unreal pieces together excerpts from Darger's work, a few sparse biographical details, and interviews with the few who knew Darger. Animated scenes of Darger's child rebels--who are mostly naked girls with penises, toting rifles and fighting mustachioed bad guys--bring his novel and paintings to life with an awkward, cut-and-paste style true to Darger's own. Throughout, Yu traces his strange, seemingly innocent fascination with children, his feverish devotion to Catholicism, and his quiet, tragic life.
Most biographical documentaries yield to a desire to encapsulate the subject's life in a tidy package, artificially tying up loose ends and offering forced answers to lingering questions. Lu's work, however, revels in the unknown. Darger was a mystery and this film fearlessly, lyrically excavates the details of his life without posing easy answers, and issues are raised but not resolved: The extent of Darger's mental illness, his obsession with children, his reclusive attempt to keep his make-believe world a secret until his death. As a result, Realms of the Unreal is an open-ended, beautifully constructed exploration of a truly fascinating life--a life spent somewhere between sanity and madness, reality and fantasy.