The 1979 class of Charleston, South Carolina's Porter Gaud High School graduated 49 boys.Within the past 35 years, six of these men have died by suicide.
When Paige Goldberg Tolmach received word that yet another former student from her beloved high school had killed himself, she took a deep dive into her past in an effort to uncover the surprising truth and, hopefully, to finally release the ghosts that have haunted her hometown to this very day.
The Emmy nominated What Haunts Us will have a special presentation screening during the 2018 Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis going on from Oct. 11-21 at sites around the city. This film's screening will be on Friday, Oct. 19th at 3:30pm at AMC Castleton Square 14 and the film couldn't be much more of timely film for those who've grown physically and emotionally exhausted over the last couple weeks as the country wrestles with Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination and the ghosts that continue to haunt sexual abuse/assault survivors to this day.
Tolmach was a member of that 1979 graduating class. While she moved away from Charleston, she stayed in touch to varying degrees with classmates and experienced a tremendous unease when the scandal around longtime popular teacher Eddie Fischer finally broke, an unease borne out of the fact that she herself had failed to realize that some of her high school friends were being abused by Fischer. It was even later that she would discover the plague of suicides that had occurred within the class of 1979, a final realization that led Tolmach to dig deeper and to discover the dual-edged beast that had allowed the abuse to go unchecked for years - a popular, charismatic teacher on one side, an unquestioning and incredibly compromised system on the other.
As a first time filmmaker, Tolmach makes some first timer mistakes along the way. The most noteworthy among these would be Tolmach's decision to incorporate her own presence within the fabric of the film, an intrusiveness that occasionally dilutes the film's emotional impact and distracts attention away from the voices and stories that really matter in the film. At a running length of a mere 72 minutes, What Haunts Us covers a lot of territory quickly and the film's multiple diversions toward Tolmach's own thoughts, feelings and questions help to create a powerful film that doesn't feel particularly powerful.
When Tolmach does focus on those survivors interviewed for the film, the results are jarringly intimate and disturbing. It's disturbing how often the victims viewed their experiences, sometimes for years, as true acts of affection while Fischer, seen via recorded testimony in the film, struggles to even remember his victims by name or experience.
A predator in every sense of the word, Fischer was masterful at creating an environment where he could prey on potential victims and create a cultural climate where even if they reported him they were unlikely to be believed. A textbook case of serial offending, some will be alarmed at just how "normal" Fischer appeared to be and acted in his daily life.
Of course, by now it would be lovely if we'd realize there's no "typical" molestor but it's a message that society still resists.
What Haunts Us is an important film, a primer really on the subject of child molestation brought forth out of one story among countless stories that have occurred far too often and with far too consequences.
While What Haunts Us is a difficult film to watch, it's a film that desperately needs to be seen.
For information on tickets, visit the Heartland Film website.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic