WARNING: THIS ARTICLE IS ABOUT SUICIDE AND MAY BE DISTRESSING AND/OR TRIGGERING FOR SOME. A LIST OF HELPLINE NUMBERS IS AT THE END.
There are difficult conversations and then there are conversations about suicide. But this is a conversation that we, as a country together, need to have. That's because last year the number of suicides in New Zealand reached its highest-ever level, with 685 lives lost. By avoiding this conversation, ignoring or misunderstanding it, we are simply failing our most vulnerable.
With that in mind I braced myself and called director Leanne Pooley to talk about her new documentary The Girl on the Bridge, which premieres at the New Zealand International Film Festival on Saturday night.
She said, "hopefully this is a film that helps people and makes it less difficult to talk about suicide and mental health," and I said, yes it's a very difficult thing to talk about and she said, "There's probably no topic more difficult to explore than suicide."
Pooley's film follows Jazz Thornton, a suicide survivor and aspiring filmmaker, as she sets out to make Jessica's Tree, a web series about the suicide of a friend. Pooley spent two years following and filming Thornton and then a further year piecing the story together.
In the interim Thornton finished making Jessica's Tree, releasing it on nzherald.co.nz last year to instant acclaim. Since then her five-part web series has won many awards, including Best Web Series at the NZ TV Awards and a gold award at the International New York Film Festival just last week.
"Jazz is someone special. She's a truly extraordinary human being and I think she makes an impact on almost everyone," Pooley says. "I've never seen anyone connect with people the way Jazz does. She's able to bring her lived experience to people who are going through something difficult and to the people around those people. The message she shares is one of hope and how to support people who are fighting."
The pair met after a producers on Jessica's Tree approached the experienced and award-winning Pooley to mentor Thornton, then 22 and still at film school, through the process of making Jessica's Tree.
"Within 30 seconds of meeting Jazz I felt that I didn't really want to help with the web series. I wanted to make a film about the journey I knew she would go on making the web series," she explains. "As a filmmaker I could see that there was a road ahead of her and that road would be an interesting one, but it also might be an opportunity to explore the conversation. By watching her trying to initiate a conversation I could explore how difficult that conversation is. My film's not a making of Jessica's Tree per se, but it gave me access to the conversations that would have to occur for Jazz to be able to go where she wanted to go with the story."
Pooley, who has an extensive filmography and is a member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, describes making The Girl on the Bridge as "challenging," before revealing how her and her team coped living so close to suicide for three years.
"There was a lot of hugging on this movie," she smiles. "More hugging than any film I've ever made... and I've made a few!"
She also explains that if someone felt they needed more than a hug that there was money in the budget for a therapist.
"That's the first time that's ever happened," she says. "It was acknowledged that we might need to talk about things, that we might want to ask for help. That's positive and indicates to me that as a society we're starting to get our head around this."
She declines to offer any personal theory on what's driving our suicide rates ("I really don't like to speculate on that, because I"m not an expert,") but does say that a lack of understanding is one of our big problems.
"People in my generation we throw the term 'attention-seeking' around, for example, 'oh they're just attention-seeking'. Sorry, not true. If I punch you in the nose and you cry out in pain, is your cry attention seeking? No. It's the signal that you're in pain," she explains.
"I don't tell you if you're crying because your nose hurts that you're just attention-seeking, I deal with the fact that your nose hurts. So if somebody's in pain and it's mental anguish and maybe they're asking for attention then let's give them attention. That was one of the main things I learnt. We dismiss the issues that young people are facing as attention-seeking because we don't really understand them."
"One of the things Jazz provides is a window, she's able to articulate what it's like to be inside the head of somebody who's in a very dark place," she continues. "Because she's lived it."
Suicide is devasatating, but Pooley calls The Girl on the Bridge a hopeful film.
"That's because Jazz is still here and she almost wasn't," Pooley says. "Now she's taking a message to the world that will maybe make it possible for other people to be here. She spoke at the United Nations last year, she's working with the World Health Organisation, she's getting millions of views on TikTok. She's a young woman who is still in the world and thank God, because she's bringing a message to people who are struggling. To me that's a really hopeful thing."
It's no exaggeration to say she's saving lives?
"No. I believe she is. She's been told she is. She gets messages all the time from people saying 'you saved my life'. I don't think there's any question she saves lives. But she also had to learn that she can't save everyone. All she can do is give people the tools to save themselves."
It's a remarkable documentary about an extraordinary young woman. I tell her I believe it will get us talking about something most of us don't want to talk about.
"Well," she smiles. "That's why you do it."
WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.
OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:
• 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
• YOUTHLINE : 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• KIDSLINE : 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• WHATSUP : 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 or TEXT 4202
• NATIONAL ANXIETY 24 HR HELPLINE: 0800 269 4389