Sam Dowdall saw a problem and found a unique way to help. Now, his journey's been turned into a documentary. Sharon Stephenson charts his mission.

It started with an impressively curled, gravity-defying handlebar moustache.

The owner of that moustache was Argentina-born film-maker Ygnacio Cervio; the man admiring it was Sam Dowdall, a 28-year-old hairdresser who has spent the past two years travelling around New Zealand, cutting men's hair in exchange for food, petrol and conversations about mental health.

The pair bonded at the NZ Beard & Moustache Competition in 2016, which Cervio and his partner Valeria Astadillo started five years ago. When the film-making couple heard about Dowdall's mission to change the landscape of Kiwi men's mental health, they knew it would make a perfect subject for this year's Loading Docs, the annual three-minute documentary series which represents a diverse range of subjects and film-making styles.

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"The theme for this year's Loading Docs was impact, which is exactly what Sam has," says Cervio, who came to New Zealand for a year's working holiday in 2003 and never left.

Astadillo, who joined her partner here five years ago, says she was surprised at New Zealand's male depression/suicide statistics.

"This is such a beautiful country, so why are people so sad? When we heard what Sam was doing, we knew we wanted to help spread his message."

The result is The Barter Barber, which follows Dowdall on his mission to get men to talk about their feelings. Initially, the pair planned to travel with him to the markets, fairs and workplaces where he plies his trade, bartering haircuts for everything from petrol and food to hot showers.

Sam Dowdall is The Barter Barber, spreading the word that it's okay for men to talk about mental health and depression.
Sam Dowdall is The Barter Barber, spreading the word that it's okay for men to talk about mental health and depression.

But filming had to be tucked around their day jobs (both work as on-air controllers at Sky TV) and once the couple got to know Dowdall, the focus shifted from his lifestyle to how he overcomes his own mental health struggles and helps others to do the same.

"Sam does so much with so few resources," says Cervio, who directed the documentary. "He really is an inspirational man who's having a major impact on New Zealand."

This isn't the first time the pair have submitted concepts to Loading Docs, but it's the first time either of them have been accepted. The Barter Barber was one of nine submissions that were turned into short documentaries this year.

The couple admit it was a challenge to condense hours of footage into three minutes but are keen to do more with the footage they have.

"This was a first step and we'll talk to Sam and see how he feels about making a bigger documentary," says Astadillo, who produced The Barter Barber.

Dowdall, who Weekend caught up with in Tauranga, would be thrilled. "Anything that gets the message out there," he says via a scratchy phone line.

It was a one-two punch that led to Dowdall and his dog Bo hitting the road. "First, I got frustrated with the fiscal system, that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I didn't want to be part of that any more, so I decided the barter system was more me.

"I won't take any money for hair cuts, just products or services."

That mostly works well, with Dowdall being gifted a new campervan when his other one blew up, and offers of food and petrol materialise often when he most needs it.

"I won't lie, it isn't an easy life," he says. Sometimes I have excess food, which I'll give to others who need it, and other times I'll be lucky to have a pie all day. But being able to chat to men while I cut their hair, for them to talk about their lives and what they're going through, makes it all worth it."

Which brings us to Dowdall's second reason for leaving a secure job, which included stints in Los Angeles and Canberra, to live in the margins of poverty in a draughty van: his desire to do something about New Zealand's high suicide rate.

"I stopped counting after six friends and customers committed suicide," he says. "This is such a hard-man's land where stoicism is huge. But men really need to have that conversation, to talk about whether life is going okay, and they tend to do that while they're sitting in the barber's chair."

Dowdall can cover between 1000-2500km a week and estimates he's travelled to most places in New Zealand at least twice. Reaction has been mostly positive, with clients often putting him in touch with others who can help. "They'll say, 'I know someone who can sort you out for spark plugs,' and so on," he says.

Sam Dowdall travels constantly, spreading good vibes, big chats and decent haircuts.
Sam Dowdall travels constantly, spreading good vibes, big chats and decent haircuts.

However, there were the gang members who bared their bottoms when Dowdall tried to talk to them.

"Thankfully, they're in the minority. I think most of us know we need to talk, that bottling up doesn't help. It's a message that's particularly important this month with Movember, which is aimed at raising awareness of men's health. Not to mention growing a kick-ass moustache, which I can also help with."

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)

Barbers with benefits

SANDRINGHAM: Cut & Style, 533 Sandringham Rd

The interior is 1970s school swimming-pool blue and the service is no frills. But it's fast and friendly and for less than $30 you can get a number one all over, a cut throat shave and an ear-nose-eyebrow trim. Take your change and follow your freshly groomed nose. The samosas from Shubh are addictive, but don't stop there. Spice stores, halal butchers and mangos by the box make this less of a trip to the barbers and more a conundrum: Bhuna or balti, kadai or korma?

PONSONBY: Barkers Groom Room, 159 Ponsonby Rd
If you need to look good quickly, Ponsonby's Groom Room is a one-stop show. Inside, you'll find a cafe offering coffee and treats, a mini Barkers store full of suits and shirts, and a full grooming operation. Services range from a Martini (haircut, $30) to the Whisky Sour (hot towel, cut throat finish, facial steam, cut throat shave, facial massage and a drink, $75). There's also a father-and-son offering haircuts for two ($60). He may not be able to grow one just yet, but it's best to introduce them early: beard culture is here to stay.

CENTRAL: Room 104, Achilles House, 8 Commerce St
There's a motorbike on the shop floor, cold beers in the fridge, and antlers on the wall. "Welcome to Room 104, your first step in the right direction as a man," says the website. A haircut, trim or shave at Room 104 are at the pricier end of the scale, but by all accounts it's worth it. "These guys are the real deal," says a customer on Google reviews. "Fresh cuts, leather seats, wood panelling, epic coffee. Just needs a single malt!"