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Unforgotten: Twenty-Five Years After Willowbrook (DVD Review)

21 Sep, 2008 By: Pete Croatto


Street 9/30/08
City Lights
$24.95 DVD
Not rated.

In 1972, New York television reporter Geraldo Rivera exposed the horrors inside Staten Island’s Willowbrook State School, an institution for more than 5,000 mentally challenged adults and children. Residents, who lived more like cattle than human beings, were subjected to diseases, severe understaffing, and an almost total lack of educational and social stimulation.

Twenty-five years after Rivera’s historic reporting, director Jack Fisher examined a handful of families whose loved ones endured Willowbrook in the absorbing Unforgotten. The movie makes a plea for the fair treatment of the developmentally disabled — an argument that can’t be made enough, though it’s done a little heavy-handedly here. Unforgotten’s biggest service is showing how these families stay together. It’s a must-see film for anyone who cares about the human experience.

Fisher turns his attention on two past Willowbrook residents, Luis Rivera and Patty Ann Meskell, and how their families have bonded post-Willowbrook. It hasn’t been easy. Patty’s sister remembers with anguished regret how she left Patty in a store after a tantrum, while Luis’ brother’s life plans are on hold since caring for Luis is a non-stop affair.

Through the remembrances of interview subjects, the movie also shows the past cultural attitudes that allowed Willowbrook, against all common sense, to prosper. The DVD contains Rivera’s original reporting on the subject in New York and later as a correspondent for “20/20,” so viewers can see for themselves just how far society has come. Fisher’s film alone, however, is a stirring, all-too-real reminder.   

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