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March 1, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival
60 Minutes
Bill Rose
World Premiere

One of those documentaries where you know someone is dead at the very beginning and then you go back to figure out why. A woman named Elizabeth Wiltsee is one of three children of an international businessman. The children went to school and traveled all over the world in the 50s and 60s. As she is growing up, it becomes clear that Elizabeth is a genius. Not like, kinda smart, but like a 200 IQ score. She is reading Henry Miller at the age of 8. She can't seem to get enough of literature, in nearly any language. She learns Greek so that she can read Homer in its original form.

She graduates from Stanford at the top of her class in 1969. We meet her favorite professor, who has kept her thesis, which is densely-typed with no footnotes or quotation marks. Sort of a 40 page collection of thoughts. She bums around a bit, travels to Europe, and makes her way back to the US. She submits plays and other writing but none of it gets published. She keeps the rejection letters. She writes often to family and friends. She doesn't feel like part of society.

And then one day, a homeless person turns up on the steps of a Catholic church in Watsonville, California. And little by little, this genius becomes part of the town's community. People befriend her, she stops by mass once in a while, she eats at the same soup kitchen every day, she spends most of her daytime hours in the public library. She writes to her parents not to help her and not to commit her into a hospital for help.

She wanted to live life on her terms. She wasn't unhappy and didn't ask for handouts. But handouts came her way all the same. While homeless she taught herself Mandarin and was translating Chinese poems.

She is clearly too smart for the world and this slowly makes her go insane. She begins talking and arguing with herself. She writes letters to an intellectual whom she believes she is having an affair with.

This film has a lot of wonderful things going for it. It has a compelling character whom audiences can identify with. How many of us, on our worst days, feel like we're one step away from being a crazy homeless person ourselves? It has a mystery in we need to know how she died. It has someone who was so fiercely independent that she'd rather be homeless and a writer than be offered help from a society she didn't much care for. And realistically, a film like this needs archival footage. Fortunately, Elizabeth's young life was captured in home movie made all over the world. Elizabeth made a student film at Stanford (which also starred and pre-Sopranos David Chase). Elizabeth kept all of her writing and correspondence. Elizabeth was so impressive to her professor at Stanford that he not only kept her work, but began writing a book about her. After her body was found, she became the front page subject for a Santa Cruz Sentinel story.

It makes you wonder about all the other stories out there without so much documentary material. THIS DUST OF WORDS has been compared to INTO THE WILD in its depiction of a real-life person who turned their back on society, but Elizabeth didn't appear to have any need for other people. She just needed her books.

This is a great one and it moves quickly.



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