In the last decade, reality shows such as Intervention, Hoarders, and My Strange Addiction began appearing on cable stations like A&E and TLC. Their modus operandi is in detailing the minutia of addiction, mental illness, and compulsive behavior while unflinchingly showing the fallout on the human body. Episodes consist of a camera crew following the subject through their daily routine as the viewer is privy to their destructive behavior. Interviews with loved ones crosscut with home movies reveal how these once guileless creatures spun out. Unfortunately, the documentary “My Name Was Bette: The Life and Death of an Alcoholic” does not have the benefit of its subject’s own voice. As the title suggests, she died years before the making of the film. The documentary was directed by her daughter Sherri L VandenAkker as a love letter to the woman her mother once was.
A good analog for this film is Jonathan Caouette’s “Tarnation”, which saw the director attempt to make sense of his life by dissecting his relationship with his mentally unstable mother. However, where that film was revelatory and eccentric, this film is cold and clinical. VandenAkker simply doesn’t have the craftsmanship to elevate the film to that level. “My Name Was Bette” is essentially a talking head testimonial where VandenAkker and her siblings describe life with their alcoholic mother, a nurse who became a hoarder and recluse later in life. While tragic, her story is rather unremarkable. No great trauma triggers the disease and no insight is given as to why her addiction manifested itself to such an extreme agoraphobic nature. Because she had cut herself off from the outside world, there is no account of what her life was like as a older woman alone with her addiction. Instead, to fill the 59 minute running time, we are subjected ad nauseam to screen after screen of text listing the ramifications of alcohol on the liver, heart, and central nervous system. This is coupled by narration seemingly cut and pasted from a Wikipedia entry on the effects of alcoholism. Not only is this redundant, but it turns what could have been a very human story into nothing more than a clumsily produced health class video.
Films do not exist in a vacuum. Even those made with the best of intentions. The film does shine a light on the greater toll chronic alcoholism has on women as well as the lopsided risk of death and suicide as opposed to men. Other than that, it does not cover much new ground already explored a hundred times by any of the aforementioned reality shows or recent feature documentaries such as Don Argot & Demian Felton’s “Last Days Here” or Liz Garbus’s “There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane”, which was a post mortem attempt to explain Diane Schuler’s role in the 2009 Taconic Parkway crash.
The film is available on Vimeo on Demand and Amazon Prime.