Customer Reviews: Unforgotten: Twenty-Five Years After Willowbrook
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VINE VOICEon October 5, 2008
Willowbrook is a moving documentary about the lives of adults who are mentally disabled. I have never heard of the Staten Island, New York school before watching this documentary. I am shocked that thousands of people lived in such deplorable conditions for decades. Reporter Geraldo Rivera first exposed Willowbrook as an overcrowded and understaffed facility in 1972. The school closed in 1987, and some of the former residents have gone on to live productive lives. The message of this documentary is that people with mental disabilities should be given the change to reach their potential, no matter what that is. I am touched by the story of Benard Carabello. He was diagnosed with mental retardation when he actually has cerebral palsy. He now leads a full active life as a disability advocate. I am also touched by the story of the late Luis Rivera. This young man did not have the ability to communicate verbally, but he communicated such warmth and love through his smile and facial gestures. This documentary definitely increases my compassion for people with disabilities.
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This documentary about Willowbrook "State School" in Staten Island, New York really pushed my buttons. As a former social worker who specialized in working with the intellectually challenged population, I knew only too well that the conditions in many institutions were deplorable. I myself worked at a facility that was not exactly the best; and it certainly was a baptism by fire at best! This film, hosted by Danny Aiello, demonstrates that the people who were emotionally scarred by Willowbrook and similar facilities remain scarred many years after the closing of this "school" where roughly 80% of the residents were never given any education at all. The documentary moves at a good pace; at 57 minutes the run time is short but it certainly made me tear up a few times. This is mighty powerful stuff, to say the least. The archival footage we get is not the best quality; but I assume that they simply couldn't get the lighting that they would have liked. After all, the archival footage was filmed during Geraldo Rivera's unannounced visit to Willowbrook to expose the horrifying conditions there for his shocking news piece for a television news channel back in 1971.

In this film we meet several people who have a disabled person in their family; and they share with us moving, heartrending stories of the immense pain of parents and siblings who had to give up members of their families to facilities like Willowbrook because that was what all the "experts" would recommend at that time. Religious leaders, doctors and other family members would all encourage the parents of a developmentally disabled child to put the child into an institution and essentially leave them there. There were no group homes in regular residential communities. We even get one story of a man who actually went so far as to tell his family that the child was stillborn rather than let them know that the child was born with a disability and placed into Willowbrook! It's incredible.

We also learn that there was extremely insufficient funding from New York State to get the appropriate levels of staff into Willowbrook. This was an enormous, inhumane disgrace. Although the quality of care has greatly improved since the days of Willowbrook and similar institutions, staffing issues remain a problematic issue for most if not all social work agencies and group homes throughout the country. I never hear of a facility or a social work agency that has too many staff members!

Of course, I want to leave more of this for you so that you can have your own experience when watching this film. Although it may seem that I've given it all away, I didn't. You will see much more footage and the DVD also has as a bonus feature Geraldo Rivera's initial "surprise" exposé report on Willowbrook filmed back in 1971. It's haunting.

Unforgotten: Twenty-Five Years After Willowbrook is a valuable learning tool for anyone studying the issues regarding persons who are intellectually challenged. Indeed, people going into any branch of health care should see this film; and if someone in your family has this type of disability you might want to add this to your DVD collection. I highly recommend this DVD.
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on October 5, 2008
This documentary is a heartfelt account of the effects upon individuals and families of the policy that treated people worse than ASPCA would have allowed for animals. Unfortunately, not many people know how some of our children with disabilities were once treated, and for that reason, everyone should see this documentary. Although the film may be modest in technique and a few years old, it documents something that should not be forgotten. It is hard to believe this existed here in the USA only a few years ago. Those viewers more interested in content than packaging will be greatly moved by this film.
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on June 25, 2011
I first learned of a place called the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island in the documentary Cropsey. Willowbrook was once the largest institution for the mentally disabled in the world. But unfortunately Willowbrook was much more than that, it was a place where society's unwanted could be left and forgotten.

The tragedy that was Willowbrook first came to light in 1965 when Robert Kennedy called the institution a "snake pit" and nothing was done to correct the problems at it and other State run facilities for the handicapped. In 1972 Geraldo Rivera did an expose on the institution Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace for ABC news that exposed the worst of the problems: overcrowding, underfunding, nothing for the patients to do, lack of staff, rampant filth and disease. He compared the New York system with the much more progressive system in California which was moving away from the institutional setting to regional centers and group homes.

In 1982 Rivera revisited Willowbrook for the news show 20/20 to find that not much had really changed. Willowbrook was forced to finally close its doors in 1987 after another wave of public outcry. Unforgotten by Jack and Danny Fisher gives the viewer a glimpse of the changes that have occurred in our treatment of the mentally disabled in the years since Willowbrook closed. It is by turns a documentary of dispair but oddly one filled with hope. Things are getting better but not at the pace we could have hoped for. The film follows the journey of several families as they try to put there lives back together and rehabilitate the members of their families that had been placed in the institution.

This is an important film to watch for anyone interested in the gains that have been made in the care of the disabled. It provides a window into the lives that most of us don't see. It shows that everyone is important for society to function and it helps to redefine the concept of who is normal. It does all of this with great compassion.

The standard definition DVD that I was provided includes the documentary which runs for about an hour amd the two Rivera exposes for ABC news. The news segments should be watched prior to the documentary to get a better appreciation of how things were and to give the viewer an example of how much things have changed.

Well worth the time.
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on January 1, 2013
I am pretty familiar with the history of Willowbrook and found myself really disappointed with this movie.. It was really short and gave almost no history of Willowbrook.. so if you are watching it with someone with no Willowbrook knowledge prepare yourself to pause it every few minutes to explain things..
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on July 1, 2009
I sobbed like a baby throughout the whole film, accompanied with a laugh here and there. Truly a film meant to see for those ignorant of the mentally challenged. I felt guilt and shame for using the phrase "retard" in a derogatory manner. An eye opening experience that will last a lifetime.
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on September 24, 2012
I lived on Staten Island during the original expose'. I teach pediatric nursing and use this film for historical placement to show students how far we have come in the treatment of childhood disabilities. Thanks to brave people like the young Geraldo Rivera.
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on June 15, 2014
I am at odds giving a high rating for this film because of the subject matter. The rating however is for the respect, honesty, and detail given by the filmmakers. For anyone that has researched any of the tragedies of our forgotten or hidden neighbors, the story of Willowbrook will forever haunt our dreams.

Much like Pennhurst and others, the patients of Willowbrook were put into a situation where finance committees determined that saving money was more important than human dignity. This left the residents of these "care facilities" in a situation where there were never enough resources to give them the minimum care required to live. With the facilities grossly understaffed, care givers were sometimes outnumbered 30-1 or more by patients leading to neglect, starvation, abuse, abandonment, and every other horror one can imagine.

If you have never seen the stories behind these facilities you will be shocked that this took place in America. If you do not have a strong constitution you may have a hard time getting through the program but this is a story we cannot forget lest it happen again.
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on February 7, 2015
Whether it was legalities or just poor story-telling, the facts behind these most unfortunate people's lives are almost completely omitted. The alarming circumstances of the institution and the effects on the patients were not discussed or shown in much detail. Only a couple of minutes footage of the institution itself shows up in the entire movie. It leaves a viewer wanting so much more.
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on March 11, 2016
This is touching, as it reunites us with residents of that awful place, a quarter of a century later. You still see the agony and anger in the faces and voices of family members of the residents who were sent there. You also see rhe guilt and sorrow they still feel for sending there loved ones there that they felt even before they knew what a nightmare the place had become.

You'll also see strength, courage and resilience. A fascinating, emotional story.
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