Justin Schein’s documentary Left on Purpose, executive produced by Doug Liman, is a chronicle of the life of anti-war activist Mayer Vishner. An original member of the notorious Yippies, the radical movement of the 1960’s, Vishner now lives in a rundown Greenwich Village apartment, a hoarder surrounded by the memorabilia of his rebellious youth.
Funny, colorful and charismatic, Vishner was a political activist at the center of all the action. He hung out with superstars Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon. His pals were counter culture figures like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. “I wasn’t just hanging out with giants. I was helping them be giants,” he tells Schein and co-director David Mehlman.
Intended as a portrait of a colorful man who has a fascinating story to tell about the political and social history of his youth, midway though shooting, the film goes in a dramatically different direction. Now disheveled, alcoholic and depressed, Vishner tells the filmmakers he wants to take his life. If the film gets made, he tells them, “It will be a film about a suicide.” And Vishner wants it all on camera.
“My decision is consistent with a lifelong quest to have agency,” he declares. “I’m dying of loneliness. I’m dying from lack of human contact. My life is totally out of control and it’s time for me to go.” This will be his last political act he tells them.
The director finds himself in a moral dilemma, primarily his responsibility to a friend and fellow human being in pain. “I can’t just stand behind the camera and watch him kill himself,” says Schein. Does he turn off his camera and try to help Vishner stay alive?
Instead of being the downer it could have been, what keeps the film consistently interesting is Vishner, a charismatic man who is witty, introspective and perceptive, even as he becomes increasingly ill. Also there are enough scenes in the film of the central character being engaged with life and his neighborhood that show his life is not as irrelevant as he thinks. We are rooting for him and whatever decision he makes to find peace.
Winner of a number of festival awards, including the Woodstock Film Festival and DOC NYC, Left on Purpose, an Eden Wurmfeld Films/Shadowbox Production, will open in New York City and On Demand on February 10, 2017.