Portland filmmaker Brian Lindstrom's brutal and bracing documentary about a horrifying 2006 death at the hands of Portland cops, Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse, is receiving some well-deserved national attention months after its February premiere at Cinema 21.
The Rumpus sat down with Lindstrom (over Skype) for a long, deep interview about the film and Lindstrom's efforts to not just tell us about the horror of how Chasse died, but also bring to life the idea that Chasse, diagnosed with schizophrenia, was a human and local icon worth honoring. It's particularly timely. Alien Boy is screening at the Laurelhurst Theater on September 17, the anniversary of Chasse's death.
With Alien Boy, our main goal was to honor Jim and really to kind of restore the depth and dimension to Jim’s life. We wanted to restore his humanity and depth. When he died his whole existence was reduced to this headline, “42 Man with Schizophrenia Dies in Police Custody,” and that’s just such a desolate interpretation of his life. Actually, it’s really just an interpretation of his death not of his life. So we painstakingly researched his life, and found friends, family, his old girlfriend, his neighbors, all these people that could talk about him and give him the kind of fullness he deserved. He lived a life of hardship. He was dealt a hard hand but he played it well. He had a lot of integrity and drive. He built a meaningful life and we really wanted to show that in the film.
There's also this bit of insight from Lindstrom:
Lindstrom: We reached out to the Portland Police repeatedly, requesting permission to film “ride alongs” in order to show the challenges police face when confronting people with mental illness. Unfortunately, the police were unresponsive. One thing Alien Boy makes quite clear, I think, is that many officers themselves are perhaps not getting their mental health needs met. Two of the officers in the film had rather shocking road rage incidents that led to suspension or termination, and another of the officers used questionable judgment in shooting a combative twelve-year-old girl with a bean bag [gun] at dangerously close range. In the same way that we want to expand mental health service for people with mental illness, we also need to make sure that our police officers are getting the mental health help they need.
Rumpus: Do you know what, if any, mental health treatments are available or required of police officers? And do you think police officers operate under the assumption that most people fear them, and that then affects the way they perceive and approach people?
Lindstrom: I asked my co-producer Jason Renaud, who is a policy expert, and he reminded me that mental health treatment is most likely available to the officers, but they may be reluctant to access it due to cultural beliefs within the force, fear of stigma, etc.
Oh, and as a side note, we've learned about a strange bit of drama concerning the film's planned showing at a film festival in Astoria in October. Former Mercury news editor Matt Davis, credited as a story consultant in the film, has had a lawyer threaten to file a legal injunction to block the festival's screening of Alien Boy.
According to a release from the Astoria festival's president (who shamefully compares this "controversy" to the actual one over Chasse's death), Davis is upset he wasn't credited as writer—something of an honorific in a documentary. The Astoria International Film Festival says it plans to screen the movie anyway.