Mental Health • Suicide • Psychology • American History • Politics • Film Studies
2015. An Eden Wurmfeld Films/Shadowbox Films Production.
84 Minutes - DVD includes 60 Minute Short Version. Transcript Available.

What do you do when your documentary subject declares on camera that he plans to take his own life? And how can you stop recording if you believe that the film is keeping him alive? That was the dilemma that filmmaker Justin Schein faced six months into making a profile of life long peace activist Mayer Vishner. What unfolds is a deeply moving story about aging, activism and end of life choices.

For Mayer Vishner everything was political. He spent much of his life fighting for social justice. As an original member of the notorious Yippies — The Youth International Party— Mayer was at Abbie Hoffman’s side as they worked to shift the momentum of the fashionable hippie trend toward the political goals of ending the Vietnam War and fundamentally changing society. Their slogan was “never trust anyone over 30”. Now approaching 60 Mayer has decided that his time has passed and that his last political act will be to kill himself. Thus the director must decide whether to turn off his camera or use it to keep his friend alive.

Every 40 seconds a person dies by suicide somewhere in the world. An estimated 800,000 people take their own lives annually. In middle aged men, the age group of Mayer, the suicide rate has increased by 50% in the U.S. in the last decade.
LEFT ON PURPOSE asks viewers to confront these growing issues of depression and aging while providing them a rare cinematic look at what it means to be a friend to someone in pain. 

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An aging anti-war activist decides to take his own life as his last political act


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Aud: C, P. (C. Cassady)

NYC filmmaker Justin Schein (co-directing with an offscreen David Mehlman) befriended Mayer Vishner, a key figure and prodigy during the 1960s "Yippie" left-wing protest movement. Vishner was comrade and partner-in-mischief to Abbie Hoffman, Phil Ochs, and Allen Ginsberg, working at the LA Weekly, among other jobs, but he fell victim to alcoholism and mental illness. Now a slovenly, dope-smoking Manhattan hoarder in his 60s—subsisting with the aid of social workers and friends in the urban-gardening community—Vishner tells Schein that he is desperately lonely, finished with life, and has plans to kill himself. He wants Schein to make this the subject of their docu-collaboration. While the filmmaker shares his apprehension with his producer-wife Eden Wurmfeld and others, the camera follows Vishner on visits to doctors and exasperated friends. Is Vishner’s death wish the result of treatable depression or a rational decision? And is Schein guilty of enabling Vishner's mania? Left on Purpose raises a number of issues, ranging from free will and medical euthanasia to Occupy Wall Street, but never dictates what viewers should think while watching this emotional roller coaster. Highly recommended. 

David Bagnall, Filmmaker and Adjunct Professor, Tisch School of the Arts at New York University

"Left on Purpose is an intimate and touching portrait of activist and Yippie co-founder Mayer Vishner. Having lived his life for community, he now faces a life of isolation and depression. The portrait takes on another dimension when Mayer tells director Justin Schein he wants to end his life and we, along with Schein, find ourselves participants in an ethical struggle. What are our responsibilities as filmmakers? As friends? As a community of people caring for each other? An excellent film for the classroom, film students will consider documentary ethics as well as history, archival use, first person/director narration and character development."

Dr. Diane E. Meier, Director of the Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC)

"Left on Purpose dramatically captures the challenge of remaining present when people are suffering. This is the hard work of palliative care teams– clinicians trained not to turn away, but to accompany patients and families– come what may– through serious illness. A film like this is a unique window into what it means us to stay committed to someone who is suffering. Every medical student and resident would benefit from seeing how it's done."

Deirdre Boyle, Associate Professor, School of Media Studies at The New School

"Left on Purpose is an extraordinary film. Viewers grapple along with filmmaker Justin Schein with his struggle to understand his ethical responsibility to his subject.  Schein's dilemma is as much the subject of the film as the story of the aging social activist and charismatic hippie co-founder Mayer Vishner.  Beautifully edited with wit and sensitivity by David Mehlman, the film considers depression, alcoholism, social isolation, and suicide.  It offers social workers, therapists, social activists, historians, and documentary filmmakers and students with a cautionary tale and a deeply moving portrait of a man in pain whose life has not quite worked out as he expected."


Susan Hay Patrick, Chief Executive Officer / United Way of Missoula County

"As an administrator who has worked to create a suicide prevention program in my community, I was deeply moved by Left On Purpose. This powerful film provides not only a intimate view of one man’s struggle with aging and depression, but also a uniquely view of his loved ones— including the filmmaker— as they try to be there for him. Left on Purpose is a film that will serve as a wonderful training tool."

Hollywood Reporter

Reviewed by Frank Scheck

"Filmmaker Justin Schein became faced with a horrific dilemma when he began shooting his latest effort, about former Yippie activist Mayer Vishner, whom he had met and filmed for his earlier documentary No Impact Man. Originally intended as a portrait of the colorful Vishner, who had served in the trenches alongside such figures as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Paul Krasner, the project took a dramatically different turn when the alcoholic, depressed subject tells the director that he intends to kill himself.


"If this film happens, it will be a film about a suicide," he declares.


Needless to say, this stance puts Schein in a terrible quandary, having to decide whether his continuing to film the troubled Vishner will only encourage him in his plans. That ethical dilemma forms the heart of the fascinating Left on Purpose, which recently won the Audience Award at the DOC NYC festival."

Woodstock Times

Reviewed by Charles Lyonhart

"Powerful...[a] haunting and intimate documentary into the life of somebody who could be the man in the mirror."


"This film will surely be a topic of true heart with no right answer...Though a lover of

peace, Mayer’s love of life waned, and through this beautifully shot film we can witness the platform that lets him explain why."

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