Wednesday, 3 August 2011
There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane
By Alan Bacchus
You may have heard this story already, as it made the press rounds a couple of years ago. It’s a strange case of a seemingly normal, well-adjusted middle-class mom travelling home from the cottage with her two young kids and three nieces. She inexplicably loses her sense of direction and starts speeding the wrong way on the highway before tragically killing eight people, including herself and all but one of her passengers.
So what happened to Diane Schuler? According to the autopsy her blood alcohol level was well above the legal limit and there were strong traces of marijuana. Diane’s husband, Daniel, appeared on Oprah, Larry King and other shows to vehemently deny the allegations. But science doesn’t lie, does it? Liz Garbus’s haunting documentary on the subject follows Diane Schuler’s husband and sister-in-law as they fight to clear her name and search out the truth about what happened to Diane on that fateful drive home.
Director Liz Garbus, fresh off her absorbing Sundance-screened doc Bobby Fischer Against the World, sympathizes with the family, who, because of the alcohol and drug tests, has had Diane’s name dragged through the mud as a drunk-driving irresponsible mother. As Garbus goes through minute-by-minute details of the four-hour journey from the New Jersey campsite to the Taconic State Parkway, we get to know the intimate details of Diane Schuler’s life.
We hear accounts of Schuler’s oldest niece calling home from the car on Diane’s cell phone alerting her parents to her aunt’s mysterious ailment. A migraine maybe? An embolism? We’ll never know exactly what happened in that car.
As important as the investigative details are, the details of Garbus herself and the life she led up until that point are just as interesting. Garbus expertly draws a thorough character sketch of Diane, who at nine years of age, traumatized by her parents divorce, grew up developing a subconscious urge to be in control. This trait helped her succeed in her career and raise two kids virtually on her own while Daniel worked nights. But it was a trait that also may have contributed to her death.
In legal terms this is called character evidence, and it feeds precisely into the objective of the film, which is to exonerate Diane and explain to the world what kind of exceptional circumstances must have contributed to the accident.
The final moments of the eyewitness accounts describing the accident are haunting and confounding. The images and descriptions of true blood-curdling horror have stuck in my mind for over a week since I saw the film. But the strongest lingering effects are the contradictory actions of Diane in these last moments of her life compared to the righteous decency and high level of responsibility she had shown as a wife and a mother. There was indeed something wrong with Aunt Diane and sadly we’ll never know what.
There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane is currently playing on HBO as part of the HBO Documentary Films Summer Series.