I recently viewed this documentary which was shown to me by a good friend of the filmmaker. I thought it has great relevance to both professionals and others who care about people with mental illness and might be struggling with suicidal thoughts. It also might be helpful to anyone who has lost someone to suicide as did the filmmaker. The following is a movie review I wrote for my film blog Filmrap.net followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker which he agreed to do for PsychiatryTalk. If you would like more information about the film including where and how you can see it, please go to their website http://www.dontchangethesubject.org/
This is a documentary about suicide, by a film maker who lost his mother to suicide when he was twelve years old. It seems to be his attempt to understand that tragic event in his life at the same time he is making film that he hopes will save some lives. Usually we don’t review films before they are ready to be released. In fact, the final edit on this movie has just been tweaked. It hasn’t hit the film festivals yet and a distribution deal has yet to be made. We hope in a small way, the availability of this review will help the process along as well as encouraging folks in the mental health community to consider using this film as a discussion tool at professional meetings and most of all to be used for educating the public. According to the National Institute of Mental Health suicide is 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and the 3rd leading cause in the age group 15-24. There are 11.3 suicides deaths per 100,000 people in this country. An estimated 11attempted suicides occur per every suicide.
While these and other statistics are important, this film is not about numbers and risk factors. It is about real people who tell little pieces of their stories. It is about people who came very close to killing themselves but for some circumstance or reason didn’t do so. It is about the filmmaker who comes across as a very likeable guy who is trying to figure out why is mother, who he believed loved him, would leave him by her own hand. He reads her letters, listens to tapes of her talking, looks at old film clips and ponders this issue with his older brother, aunt and step mother who married his father after his mom died. His brother never understood how she could have done this when she was in the music business and knew how important was his debut as an opera director that was happening the following week. His aunt, who was a psychiatrist, knew her sister had problems but didn’t see this coming. His stepmother only recently reveals her own special connection with suicide.
While the filmmaker may not have ever completely understood why his mother ended her life, he did realize that more then how she ended her life, she should be remembered for how she lived her life which included much love and support to her children. This message alone gives the film great value.
The filmmaker, Michael Stutz is also the director, writer and producer. He does go beyond just his own story and some close up vignettes of people who struggle with depression and have come close to doing this fatal deed. He follows a talented choreographer who is preparing a group of young dancers to perform a piece about autopsies. The result is as dramatic as is the meaning to young performers who had to come to grips with what their dance was about. We are introduced to a fairly successful comedian who has a team of writers help him prepare his material that daringly enough is going to be about suicide. It is always tricky business when humor is touching a potentially raw nerve. You have to understand, as a psychiatrist I usually don’t even like it when people use the word “crazy” in stories or in every day life but I appreciated the use of humor in this film. In fact the highlight was a piece by a comedian who did a monologue as a character who was leaving a video to his family prior to his suicide. He said just about everything a loved one would dread that their family member who was ending their life might say about them and how the suicidal person felt about them. It brought me to out loud laughter and will be for me one of the most unforgettable parts of this film about a very serious subject.
I said earlier that I hope professionals will view and use this film in their efforts to prevent suicide. It is not because this film will necessarily educate my profession about suicide. It didn’t really examine the difference between suicide attempts and suicide gestures nor did it attempt to show the different psychiatric diagnosis that people who attempt suicide might have. In fact there wasn’t much of a psychiatric presence in the film. However it has the potential to be very meaningful to anyone who has struggled with suicidal thoughts, had fleeting suicidal thoughts or has been close to anyone who has had these issues. Unfortunately there are a great number of people in at least one of these categories. This film can save lives so it deserves to be seen and will be a worthwhile experience for many people. I don’t know yet when and how it will be distributed but more information about it can be obtained on the following website: http://www.dontchangethesubject.org/ (2011)
Shortly after I viewed the movie, I spoke with Michael Stutz, the filmmaker and he agreed to answer some questions for this blog.
MB: What made you decide to make this film?
MS: I wanted to make a film that I would have wanted to see when I was a kid dealing with my own mother’s death. At that time I was struck by the typical adult reactions when talking to a twelve year old and how incredibly awkward they were. Everyone seemed to be walking on eggshells. If they talked about it at all it was in vague clichés or condescending attempts at “she’s in a better place.” My mother was in and out of mental institutions for more than two years before she died. I watched her sob and collapse and sleep for eighteen hours a day. I also was the one who found her after her overdose. I didn’t need clichés. I needed honesty and a path to help me process my feelings and move on. For me that path turned out to be theater and comedy and dance. You can’t really capture all of the raw emotions going on in your head after something like this. It’s surreal. The arts helped me to work through images, fragmented thoughts and deeply conflicted feelings better than a straight on discussion could. With this movie I wanted to suggest different ways of communicating beyond conversation. It’s incredibly important to talk about it but not everyone is able to talk about it in the same way. As I sit down to write this I am remembering the one adult who really helped me the day I found my mom. It was a friend of my grandmother’s who came over to watch me while everyone else was at the hospital. I was crying and she sat down and instead of clucking out soft meaningless words she showed me a book of watercolors she had painted over the years. She said she normally didn’t show it to anyone but thought I might like it. We just looked at the trees and lakes and various images that she had created and it calmed me. I see now that’s a part of what I wanted to do with the film. Share something private in the hopes that it might help somebody out in their own time of need.
MB:Is there a special audience that you had in mind when you made it?
MS: I made this movie for members of the suicide community who would cringe at being identified as part of the suicide community. Over the years I’ve taught a lot of classes to various groups, teens in particular. I’ve taught theater, comedy, dance etc. and I always find the kids I like the best and the ones who ultimately seem to get the most out of class are the ones who were the most resistant and cynical in the beginning. The smartasses, the awkward shy kids, the kids who think they would rather be anywhere but in that class. I made this movie for them. Our movie is a punky, awkward, smartass, oddball little film for everyone who feels like they’d rather be anywhere but in a theater watching a suicide movie.
MB: Was it therapeutic for you to go through the process of making this film?
MS: Absolutely. Though I have to admit when we started out my concept of the film was very different than the film that ended up on the screen. I thought I’d interview several well-known people in the arts who had experienced suicide in some way and then see them creating their own artistic pieces. After being turned down by everyone that I asked, I realized first how incredibly taboo this subject still is, and second that I’d have to be willing to step up to the plate and share my own story if I was going to ask others to do the same. So then my family got dragged into it. At the same time we were making the film my stepmother Judith was in the end stages of cancer. Because of this she and I had been having a lot of conversations about family, including something that I didn’t know when I was a kid; her father had killed himself too. She had held his head after he’d shot himself just like I had cradled my mother’s head after she overdosed. Her father killed himself just before her birthday, just like my mother had done before mine. It was amazing that we had lived under the same roof and never talked about this. So, as Judith was entering hospice and going through her last year of life we were also filming this movie with family as they visited. It was an incredibly bonding experience. Judith was very involved with the whole process and always asked about its progress and was even able to see the first full rough cut three days before she died. The conversations we had both on camera and off were some of the most rewarding and meaningful conversations I have ever been a part of and I think she felt the same way. I will say it’s amazing that it took a camera to help all of us in the family to talk to each other in ways we never had before.
MB: How did the comedy piece of the character making the video for his family before he killed himself, come about?
MS: There’s a comedic monologue called “Daddy’s Last Video” in the movie that I wrote several years ago for a brilliant actor named Ron Riegler. He’s quite simply the funniest and most subtle actor I’ve ever worked with and I knew he could pull this off. It came from my experience as a child where people would come up and say various versions of “this wasn’t your fault.” This is of course a very kind and reasonable and I’m sure in many cases very helpful thing to say. But then again what is the alternative? What if someone, in this case the daddy who killed himself, said in those same low and comforting tones, ‘well actually this is your fault. You really were a lousy little kid. Thanks for killing me. Love Daddy.’ Now, out of context I’m sure this reads as horrifying but you have to see it to understand that I’m simply pointing out the ridiculousness of almost anything you say to a kid after a parent has killed him or herself. The situation is so bad it becomes absurd. I guess I just hate low, hushed-toned speaking. As a kid I thought, “Really, this isn’t my fault? No kidding? I just found my mom on the bed and that’s the best you can do? Thanks.” But, I was a weird kid.
MB: Were you concerned that this piece or any of the other humor would be found offensive by some people?
MS: I’m sure right now someone reading the previous answer is thinking ‘seriously you want me to see a movie where children are blamed for their parent’s suicide?’ I promise, it’s funny in context. So yes, I’m sure it’s possible that some reasonable people could be offended by this or other parts of the movie. But what I’ve found so far is that most of the people who have seen it who have experienced suicide up close and personal have laughed right along with it. I’ve met with more resistance from those outside that world who worry that we may offend. Gallows humor is what I do. I’ve done plays and sketches about all sorts of issues related to mental illness. I promise you they aren’t done to mock these very serious issues. I was raised on Monty Python and Woody Allen. I blame them.
MB: What kind of responses have you had from people who have seen the film ?
MS: We’ve gotten very positive responses so far, especially from folks in the psychiatric community. I was somewhat worried that because the film is a little more “colorful” with its language in some places and does use humor to deal with very heavy issues that some folks might not be willing to take the trip with us. But so far I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. It’s also been great to see a broad range of people get something out of this. A friend of mine pointed out that even though he hadn’t experienced suicide in his immediate family the way he felt after his parents’ divorce was very similar to how I felt after my mom’s death. In some ways you could say that the movie isn’t primarily about suicide. It’s about communication. Everyone has had a time in their life when they felt misunderstood or unable to communicate their feelings. That’s what we’re talking about.
MB: Do people “change the subject” when you discuss the content of the film?
MS: When I say I did a movie about suicide people usually drop their eyes and mutter something under their breath while trying desperately to inch their way away from me. But when I say I did a weird dance comedy performance art movie with kids performing to autopsy reports and comics flipping out on rooftops and dark little animation sequences then the eyes sort of come back. In the end many of the loveliest parts of the movie are actually the quiet, sometimes sad, sometimes funny little moments where survivors are relating their stories in this heartbreaking but incredibly inspiring way. But since a lot of folks can’t quite wrap their brains around that we give them some other fun things to look at in between the stories.