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Sister Helen
Sister Helen
Actor: Paul La Greca
Directors: Rebecca Cammisa, Rob Fruchtman
Genres: Documentary
NR     2004     1hr 30min

One of the most unanimously acclaimed documentaries in recent years and winner of the coveted Sundance Film Festival Directing Award, this emotionally compelling film is an inspirational and uplifting portrait of a truly c...  more »


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Movie Details

Actor: Paul La Greca
Directors: Rebecca Cammisa, Rob Fruchtman
Creators: Alex Aurichio, Andrew Holbrooke, Peter Pearce, Rebecca Cammisa, Rob Fruchtman, Scott Sinkler, Jonathan Oppenheim, Juliet Weber
Genres: Documentary
Sub-Genres: Docurama
Format: DVD - Color - Closed-captioned
DVD Release Date: 12/28/2004
Release Year: 2004
Run Time: 1hr 30min
Screens: Color
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 2
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

Fine documentary--even if it can be controversial
Matthew G. Sherwin | last seen screaming at Amazon customer service | 04/05/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Sister Helen is a superb, insightful documentary partly about Helen Travis, who at 56 became a nun. Two years later, Sister Helen opened a transitional home for men who were addicted to drugs or alcohol. Sister Helen has her personal reasons for trying to help these down and out men: her life had already been very rough. Indeed, Helen Travis had endured more than most of us could ever bear. She lost her husband to alcoholism; one of her sons died of a drug overdose and another son was stabbed seventeen times at the tender age of fifteen.

In order to have empathy for Helen, you need to keep in mind that she came from a tough as nails, rough background. Sister Helen may have been wearing a nun's habit; but yes, she DID keep her own ways. She was very foul-mouthed; and she DID use her power to boss around the men who lived in her transitional home. This is going to cause great controversy because there are some of us who believe that nuns should not swear and refer to urine as some other four letter word which I will not repeat here.

On the other hand, I saw Sister Helen doing a lot of good for the residents of her home. Let's face it: these were people whose lives had been destroyed by their overpowering addictions to drugs and alcohol. This is often precisely the type of person who needs a tough mentor to lead them away from drugs and alcohol and back toward a life of sobriety. I should know: as the son of an alcoholic, drug addicted mother, I will never forget how hard it was just to get my mother to go to a single A.A. meeting--just once. After many years my mother had to eventually hit rock bottom and only then she began a recovery that was never fully completed.

In this film, look for Helen to essentially give tons of tough love to the men in her home in the South Bronx neighborhood of New York City. These men have tried so many times and often failed to stay clean of drugs. What was Helen to do? As you will see in this film, Sister Helen possesses an uncanny ability to see through the lies they tell her when in fact they have abused drugs behind her back. She wisely calls for "emergency meetings" when one member may have to be kicked out--for the fifth time.

Upon close examination, however, you'll see the love she does have for these men. She actually gives a fifth chance to the man who suffers from alcoholism; and she actually tells the men in another group meeting that she loves them dearly. She even goes completely off the deep end with her own grief and anger when a false positive drug report comes back that Major, one of her favorite residents, abused a drug. As it turns out, he was taking a prescription drug containing codeine which caused a false positive for opiate use. Sister Helen really should have publicly apologized to the man named Major; but she's human too and I guess she either couldn't muster it or she apologized privately when the cameras weren't rolling.

There are extras that are equally interesting. Look for some extra interviews with several residents of the home; and there is some great commentary for you to choose if you wish.

Overall, not everyone will like this documentary. If you are easily offended by four letter words, you should skip this one. If you can handle or even prefer to see tough love then you will enjoy this film. The last twenty minutes of the film are almost unexpectedly moving; and if you watch this documentary it will make a lasting impression on you.
Heartfelt and honest
Addictions Counselor 2 | NY | 11/14/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This film is an excellent representation of people struggling to recover, with some actually recovering and other's whose attempts are fall short. Although Sister Helen is unconventional and seemingly tough, her style is effective and she truly cares about the clients living in her halfway house."
Hard as nails, full of heart.
Cynthia M. Vrooman | 03/28/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I loved this movie because I came to love the 'hard as nails' but 'full of heart' Sister Helen. This film will shock some more traditional religious people but it is so honest. Those of us who have only a limited understanding of the power of addiction come to respect this totally dedicated woman. Her language and her urgency and determination remind me that saints come in all packages they are not all demure silent types."
This Sister Donned a Habit -- But Retained Her Old Habits
Tashi | Texas | 10/06/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)

""Sister Helen" is a superb documentary about a rigid, intolerant, foul mouthed, bitter, oblate (civilian) nun who runs a shelter for drunks and dopers in a very rundown neighborhood in the south Bronx. All but one of the 21 residents are gutter drunks/addicts. Robert, the only middle class representative - he had a real job, house, and even a BMW - regrets she died before he could tell her off. Why?

Robert, like six of the residents, was on parole. He complained that Helen wielded a huge stick over him and constantly threatened to turn him in if he didn't cow-tow to her. In an "extras" interview he said Helen ran the center to compensate for the deaths of the three men in her life - her husband and her two boys. The husband was an alcoholic who died of a heart attack at 55. One boy died of a heroin overdose and the other was stabbed to death at 15. Helen was left with one daughter, who she abandoned to run the center. The daughter was not pleased. She wanted her mom.

What's fascinating is how little Helen changed. Outwardly it seems she made a huge sea change. But after seeing this riveting and disturbing video a few times -- once with the directors narrating -- it became clear that Helen substituted 21 male addicts to boss around to replace her three dead males.

Helen admits she ignored her kids and spent every day in bars. But her bossiness, intolerance, and sharp tongue didn't emerge at age 56. Living with her must have been extremely difficult. Even Robert says he stayed clean in spite of Helen.

The film opens with Helen abusively demeaning a man who wants to live at the shelter. Supposedly she is showing off her street savvy. Another time she publicly demeans Mel, her "assistant" for not bathing for a year. Then she waves his filthy pillowcase in the air. The film is viscous with Helen threatening and demeaning people. Her signature song is "My Way." Her favorite phrase is, "I'm going to be totally honest with you." Often, people who use such phrases, turn out o be the opposite.

The residents are really down and out. Only Robert has any marketable skills beyond pushing a broom. They all desperately need a roof over their heads, and Helen, since she runs the place on her own, has the power to admit or evict whoever she pleases. She has no governing board to answer to and gets no public funding. It is her show.

Helen believes in the cookie approach to sobriety. She stopped drinking cold turkey and that means everyone else can too. She blames substance abuse on the drug or booze, and not the underlying issues that drove the men to drink and drug. She's no therapist; just a landlady who dyes her hair, wears a habit, and has wields complete power over her tenants.
Helen also lords it over her inmates by demanding urine (ureen she calls it) tests on requests. Twice Major, a very solid and respected long term older resident -- who she trusted -- failed his tests. Helen was furious and evicted him. Major stood his ground and said the results were wrong because he never did heroin. Helen didn't yield and failed to consider a mistake could have been made. This was especially troubling since she knew Major for a long time. Yet she discounted her relationship with him, assumed he was a liar, and relied completely on the results. Major eventually discovered the codeine in his cough syrup showed up as an opiate. Helen never apologized publicly, but supposedly made up with major privately.

Helen also had a very tainted reputation in her old neighborhood. She tacitly admitted to Robert she once stayed up very late one night to slash someone's tires. The person wronged her and certainly deserved to have his/her tires slashed.

She was not a nice woman. So eventually, she decided the only way to keep the Travis name (her last name) alive - since the three male Travises died - was to start the Travis Center.
For some of the residents it was a great deal. They complied with Helen and in exchange received a cheap, safe, sober, and structured place to live. One however, said he preferred jail.

Addicts and drunks don't all need to be treated like children. Helen employed "old school" techniques which have been discredited. However, no one was forced to remain at the center and for some, it was definitely a positive experience. The Travis Center is not a treatment center. It is a residence for alcoholics and dopers who what to straighten out their lives.

To receive the full Sister Helen experience, see all the extra interviews plus the audio version in which the two directors share their experiences living with Sister Helen and her guests.