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In The Realm Of The Sense

USA 2004
Directed by
Jessica Yu
81 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

In The Realms Of The Unreal - The Mystery Of Henry Darger

Synopsis: A documentary about Henry Darger, a Chicago recluse who worked in menial jobs and lived in the same small apartment for 40 years. After his death in 1973 at the age of 81 he was found to have left, along with a lot of string, a large number of paintings and a 15,000-page illustrated novel about a rebellion led by seven young girls against armies of child-enslaving men.

How do you make a documentary about a quiet little man with no friends and few acquaintances and of whom there are only 3 photographs in existence? It’s not easy and Jessica Yu’s approach is to concentrate on his legacy – foremost, his  vast novel whose full title is "The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion" from which extracts are read to accompaniment of simple animated version of Darger’s painstaking illustrations.

Darger's art is classifiable under the heading of Outsider Art – art made by people with no formal training often using unconventional materials and techniques, crude in execution and showing the influence of religious, particularly Christian, inculcation . Certainly all the descriptors apply here however there is no attempt to contextualize his work in this, or indeed any, artistic context. Rather, In The Realms Of The Unreal is like a toned down version of Terry Zwigoff’s marvellous 1994 documentary, Crumb, a portrait of the man and his offbeat world..

Darger appears to have a unhappy childhood, with first his mother, then his father dying and having to spend the remainder of his youth in a boys' home and, later, an asylum. This much is gleaned from his diaries. Whilst there is no psychological explanation given, Darger appears to have retreated into an imaginary world at a young age and this is pretty much where mentally and emotionally he stayed for the rest of his life, having little to do with the adult world. His primary visual and thematic source material appears to have been illustrated children’s books from his childhood and using a hybrid of drawing, tracing, painting and collage he created a fantasy world that sprawled for 1500 pages about a family of young girls and an epic battle between good and evil, extracts from which are read by Dakota Fanning and Larry Pine.

Despite the title, I don’t know that there’s much mystery here but “fascination” is a certainly a word that applies. One can’t help but be fascinated by the sheer obsessional intensity at work here. Whatever questions are raised by Henry Darger’s legacy, in the final analysis In The Realms Of The Unreal works best as a reflection on the healing power of the imagination and a heartening testament to its marvellous idiosyncracies.




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