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Sister Helen
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Format: DVD
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.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on June 6, 2006
Format: DVDVerified Purchase
Sister Helen (2002) won critical attention at Sundance for its fiery title protagonist, Sister Helen Travis, a sixty-nine year old Benedictine nun, who runs a transitional home for men seeking to stay clean and sober. Rebecca Camissa and Rob Fruchtman's documentary manages to capture in considerable detail the difficulties of running a facility for men who battle their demons.

What makes this documentary exceptional is that the founder, Sister Helen, has her own past with which she has to contend making her more than a `savior', but a fellow traveler who understands the trials the men face. Having lost her husband and two sons to the atrocities of drugs, alcohol, and in one case, murder, we can sympathize with Sister Helen's passion to assist others.

Her no-nonsense style will provoke viewers who believe that members of religious orders should avoid profanity, speak prettily, and invoke God in a particular pious way. Sister Helen reflects the world from which she came: hard-bitten, tough, and demanding. Her tough-love approach guides the men who would have her believe the various lies they tell from time to time but she remains committed to them no matter how often they falter.

Individuals who prefer their religious types similar to the folks in Sister Act and The Sound of Music would do well to avoid Sister Helen.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 27, 2010
Format: DVD
Sister Helen was exactly as she was portrayed: a tough minded, street smart woman who had been around the block a few times and back. At age 56 she joined the Benedictine order after losing her alcoholic husband to a heart attack, one son to a heroine overdose and the other to a stabbing. An acolholic herself, she decided to become sober and grab a second chance. She wanted to help others the way she wished she had helped her sons.

Sister Helen looked after twenty something men at Travis House, which she ran with an iron fist. These men were not only addicts but some had also committed serious offenses. Sister Helen's language was salty, but she knew it was language they understood, because she had been there herself. And she desperately wanted them to understand that this was their chance. So no conning, no blaming, no excuses were allowed. Obey the rules or you are out.

And the rules were pretty simple. Stay clean, pay rent, help out, no women in the house and maintain curfew. If you couldn't ( or wouldn't ) follow the rules, then you were back on the streets and someone else who wanted a chance took your place.

It was pretty clear that many of the men had a love/hate relationship with this abrasive woman much as a teen might have with a parent who has laid down the law. Tough love isn't always appreciated until much later when you can view your life in perspective. But many of the men stayed and worked on their sobreity because deep down, they knew this may be their last chance.

At age 56, Sister Helen brought who she was to the ministry, the sum total of her life's experiences. She didn't suddenly transform into a meek and pious woman because she put on a veil. She understood the language and psychology of the addict because she had been one, so she was able to connect with them. You can't con a con artist, as is said, and all addicts, at some point, are that. Including Sister Helen.
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God's work is done in many ways using many methods. It's not a cookie cutter experience and shouldn't be. Giving a life back in Travis House is no less valuable because the approach doesn't fit our sensibilities of how a " proper nun" should act.

Fortunately, Sister Helen understood that.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on November 14, 2004
Format: DVD
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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 25, 2008
Format: DVD
When St. Paul was in Athens, he noted all the temples to the different gods; even one to 'The Unknown God." When he began to speak to the people, he noted how religious they were and then continued by saying that he came to proclaim the unknown God they worshiped without knowing Him. [See Acts 17:23.] The point is that he acknowledged the way the people were, and addressed them in terms they could understand. While Sister Helen's manner might seem rough to many people, she also recognized the men as they were and spoke to them in terms with which they were familiar. It is important to understand this concept because it is the key to Sister Helen's success in working with down and out men.

When I was in college in New York, I had a friend who came from the South Bronx (who was in school on scholarship). After I went with him to visit his family one weekend, I can say from firsthand experience that Sister Helen had to have been Divinely chosen to work with drunks and junkies like I saw all around my friend's house. I stuck very close to my friend when we passed by vomit-stained junkies! It would take a very special person to understand how to love men that would cause fear or apprehension in most middle-class people. Therefore, I suggest that this movie be watched with this in mind, not by the standards of middle class, churchgoing America. You don't need to be 'called' to work with such people, nor feel guilty because you emotionally couldn't work with them. We are taught that we shouldn't love people because they are Christian, but because we are!

The best way for most people to watch this movie is to view it as a wonderful example of how God uses different kinds of people who are ideally suited for the different ministries to which they are called. Sister Helen probably would be just as out of place in your pastor's place as he would be in hers! Yet, one can appreciate the efforts of both in their calling to fulfil their Lord's ministry to people.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format: DVDVerified Purchase
I thought SISTER HELEN was the "Mother Theresa" of down and out addict, alcoholics, with the best example of " Tough Love " I've ever had the pleasure to witness. Yes, she was rough and raw, but her belief that "the parties over" said it all. Maybe A.A. is a softer gentler way, but Sister Helen provided sick unfortunates a place to stay and one on one guidance. You won't get that at any A.A. fellowship. See this story, you won't regret you did!! Anonymously Yours Louie G.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 28, 2006
Format: DVDVerified Purchase
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.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 6, 2007
Format: DVD
"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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format: DVD
This searing and fearless documentary of a hard as nails Nun who reinvents herself, her faith and her life is unforgettable.

A recovered alcoholic, with a tragic past Sister Helen opened a half way house in on of the most notoriously dangerous places in the US - the South Bronx. The sober living facility she founded catered only to men. All of them long time drug addicts and many hardened criminals with violent history's and long prison records.

She nurtures them, she takes no prisoners and these tough as nails men quiver in her presence. It's simply a remarkable portray of one woman's journey from devastating tragedy to a life devoted to helping others in a style and fashion that's anything but polite and delicate.

We often think of angels as ethereal beings, delicate, beautiful and forever peaceful - the essence of light and purity.

However, this film is case in point that sometimes the most beautiful angel can appear - and did appear in the guise of a loud, crass, often foul mouthed Nun.

Not to be missed, Sister Helen is a character of unrivaled eccentricities, a survivor and a saver of lives.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2014
Format: Amazon Instant VideoVerified Purchase
I love documentaries and was not disappointed by this one. Sister Helen Travis is a feisty Benedictine nun who runs a shelter for recovering male addicts in the Bronx. She believes in the TOUGHEST of tough love, but that's what these guys need; someone who's going to lay down rules and make them pay the consequences when those rules are broken. Underneath the very tough Irish exterior, you can see that Sister deeply cares about these men, and they feel the same. I've watched this a few times because it's that good and that interesting. Do yourself a favor and rent it. I believe you'll feel the same.
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