by Reuben Stojanovic-Rowe

In the small town of Albury, New South Wales, a crowd gathers on June 21 every year to commemorate those who have died from suicide. Formed by locals Annette and Stuart Baker who lost their daughter Mary to suicide in 2011, the Winter Solstice event unites the community in supporting those affected by suicide. For local filmmaker Helen Newman, it was critical to share this story with the world.

“How do you speak to someone who has just lost their child to suicide? The trouble is, people are so worried about saying the wrong thing that they don’t say anything at all. For the person who lost their loved one, it’s so isolating to know no one wants to talk to you.”

Her documentary Solstice aims to make this confronting topic easier to approach.

“People have found a real powerful message of hope in this film and are finding the voices very validating. It’s empowering audiences and encouraging people to seek the change for dealing with mental health.”

Starting out as a commemoration of the loss of life in her local town of Albury, the power of two local parents’ loss ignited a spark for change. Annette and Stuart Baker began the not-for-profit organisation Survivors of Suicide & Friends (SOS&F), which aims to keep the conversation about mental health and the destigimisation of suicide alive. A vital component to the organisation was keeping the spirit of their beautiful daughter Mary alive through their work, which Helen felt was important for her documentary.

“I wanted Mary’s voice to be the lead motif through the film. I had footage of her and her writings, but I wanted a really powerful image to represent her.”

Mary loved poetry and had a strong connection to the work of Australian artist Shaun Tan, particularly the picture book of The Red Tree, the story of a girl struggling to find her place in the world. The graceful image of the red leaf on the front cover of the book was adopted into the SOS&F logo and inspired Helen to use Tan’s imagery in the film.

“Shaun Tan’s images became Mary. Hence, why I had to get his support to use his artwork within the film.”

The film is interspersed with stunning animations that Helen feels represents Mary’s voice. “I worked closely with the animation teams, and I really told them to strip the artwork back to its simplest form, to retain that beauty of Tan’s visuals. I really wanted something that was both whimsical and gentle to honour Mary.”

Taking on this topic was never going to be easy. “We knew it would be a long journey to make this film as an independent documentary filmmaker. But also, getting people to get their voice out and be vulnerable.”

The film would take four years to make, which included two major events in Australia that would bring mental health into a huge national concern.

“When I started in 2018, no way could I have predicated the fires and the pandemic. When we first started the documentary, we were obviously talking about mental health, but once these happened, mental health really became a global conversation. It was literally me ‘vérité-ing’ with life as it was happening.

“I was able to get more support for the film because more people saw the importance and impotence of what was behind the issue.” Most importantly, huge support came from her close community of Albury.

“The local newspaper reported on it and championed it as it was developing. The local cinema gave us the time to show a Work-In-Progress to raise more money for it. Local businesses helped fund it. The people of Albury really saw something with this story and were glad that this unique tale that had swept our town was being told.”

It all came full-circle when the premiere was announced and was held at the local cinema in Albury, where the general reaction was more than validating.

“As a community, there is an awareness and bravery in being this vulnerable. I mean, we have the Winter Solstice in our town square every year to have this difficult conversation. There is a lot of pride here and I’m really proud to represent that in this film.”

The positive responses would extend further into general acclaim from Australian media sources.

“The ABC acquired a 27-minute version of the film that certainly made it a lot more accessible.”

Some may see the cutting of her feature length film a little evident of the overall problem with how Australians view and accept mental health, but Helen is very proud of the film’s embrace by educational institutions.

“We took it to the Australian Teacher’s of Media [ATOM] and they now have it available as an educational tool across secondary schools. What they’ve done with it has made it really accessible to teenage audiences. And hopefully that takes away the stigma and silence from suicide.”

The praise doesn’t stop there.

“We had a screening in NSW Parliament near the end of last year which was fantastic. The policy-makers are being shown this and will hopefully impact this change and engage more with people who are losing their mental health.”

Helen is no health expert, but as a documentarian, she has heard the experiences of hundreds of survivors. She feels it is vital to have the voices of these people heard to influence true change. “Policy-making has to be underpinned by the knowledge of lived experience. That understanding of what works and doesn’t. They need to be in the same room when these policies are being made.”

According to Helen, there is a huge difference between the way physical health and mental health is treated. “You wouldn’t send someone home with a ruptured spleen, would you? I mean, there are people who are let go from emergency wards that can’t get any help.

“We had one person here in Albury who took their life in the car park of the hospital after being let go. And this is not an unusual story.

“The determination of Annette and Stuart and the other people in this documentary, it takes that level of leadership and blind faith to influence change.” Helen sees her work as an extension of that.

“Documentaries give voice to those who previously wouldn’t have a voice. And for me, that underpins the work that I do. I want to tell the stories that people wouldn’t have the opportunity to be heard. It’s such an honour to listen to a person telling their story, sharing themselves to you and taking that and honouring them.”

The full version of Solstice is showing at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival on July 29 at Cinema Nova

If you or someone you are with is in immediate danger, please call 000 or go to your nearest hospital emergency department.

Lifeline

131 114

24-hour crisis support telephone service, Lifeline provides 24/7 support and suicide prevention services.

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