"The Legacy of the Harp"

The legacy of Howie the Harp

By Niki Patton - March 9, 2006

"Life is difficult.... Once we truly understand and accept that...the fact that life is difficult no longer matters." So starts "The Road Less Traveled," Scott Peck's classic book about personal growth. But for the mentally ill, life is more than difficult - it is nearly impossible. Suffering from severe emotional or mental disabilities, many of the mentally ill are penalized yet again - often excluded from the community at large, with little chance of leading productive lives. The mentally ill are more likely to be imprisoned, more likely to suicide, and more likely to be the victims of violent crimes.

Society struggles toward solutions. Medication and a variety of therapies have met with partial success. But some studies show that a sense of productivity, belonging, and community can go a long way to help heal the "incurable." In "The Legacy of the Harp," Island filmmakers Ken Wentworth and Liz Witham of Film-Truth Productions have documented an extraordinary program that aims for all of the above.

The "Harp" of the title was "Howie the Harp," a homeless, mentally ill patient who began a self-empowerment program that led to the creation of a center for the mentally ill. He died the week before the center opened, and it was named "The Howie the Harp Advocacy Center" in his honor.

The "students" at the Harp Center are up against the hardest odds - they are not only mentally ill but also former inmates of the New York prison system and possible former substance abusers. In the advocacy program they realize that their hard-gained knowledge from an "impossible" past can be invaluable to others, if they can learn how to use it.

"The Legacy of the Harp" tracks graduates of the program who have become "peer specialists" - i.e. trained counselors who can advise people like themselves from a life experience perspective as well as a clinical one. "What we bring to the table," says one graduate "would take a professional twenty or thirty years to learn. We didn't do that. We lived it."

If the subjects of "Harp" are any indication, the results of the program are remarkable; the "graduates" seen in the film seem "normal," for want of a better word - productive and caught up in their working lives. It is only when they tell their stories that we learn the horrifying truths of their pasts. Herman was sexually and physically abused in two foster homes and tried to commit suicide when he was eight. Stephanie was imprisoned for murder. Albert talks about the voices that made him walk in front a city bus. And then we see Albert as graduate talking to a class. He slides into street talk to make a point and his audience gets it, laughing and making loud sounds of agreement. It's obvious that Albert knows, from some deeply-etched lifepoint, of what he speaks.

Ken Wentworth and Liz Witham also co-created (with Nancy Aronie) "A Certain Kind of Beauty," the story of Islander Daniel Aronie, for which Ken took co-producer credit. "Harp" is his first full director's credit, with his partner Liz Witham taking the co-director's credit. Ken's style is crisp and direct. He was also responsible for the camera work, and he shoots his subjects tight, sometimes head-on and close-up to the point of cropping parts of their facial features. His subjects are well dressed, sitting in office settings. The lighting is even. In doing all of this, Ken makes a striking statement of determined normalcy that contrasts to his subjects' previous painful lives.

Ken and Liz have created a 30-minute film that speaks volumes for those who would listen. And many already have. Mental health professionals and the mentally ill themselves are two primary audiences for the "The Legacy of the Harp," and it has been shown at mental health conferences around the country. It is being used in peer-counselor training programs and to demonstrate the value of the peer counselor system to institutional mental health directors. "We can do this," the subjects seem to say, "And you're watching the proof. Now will you help us help others get here?"

"Both Liz and I feel deeply about homeless people and people with mental illness, and it's something that I feel passionate about fighting for." Ken said, in explaining what led him to document the Harp Center, "We made the film to give voice to an underheard segment of society and to give representation to the peer system." With a wealth of material that was taken on shoots, "Harp" is planned as the first of a six part series on mental health issues.

Ken Wentworth is also working on "Pampas," the story of a homeless man who was imprisoned for setting a blade of grass on fire. Film-Truth Productions continues on their mission: "We strive to make films that can be used to raise public awareness about important social issues," says Ken. "To let people know that they are not alone. To give audiences insight into people they would never meet otherwise." As for "Harp": mission accomplished.

Writer Niki Patton contributes occasional articles to The Times Calendar section.