New Zealand has the highest suicide rate among teenagers aged between 15 and 19 in the OECD – and Thornton, the co-founder of non-profit organisation Voices of Hope, could’ve very nearly been another statistic.
Thornton says the first time she tried to take her own life, she was 12-years-old. She tried many more times after that through her teenage years, before she enrolled at South Seas film school to break the silence around mental illness and create content that she would’ve needed in her darkest moments.
“I lost a good friend to suicide, and Genevieve Mora [Voices of Hope co-founder] messaged me following that saying ‘We need to do something about this’ and from that one conversation, Voices of Hope was born,” she says. “We wanted to create something that we needed when we were going through that time.”
The first video they created, Dear Suicidal Me, clocked up 80 million views. Now, she has released a web series called Jessica’s Tree in partnership with creative agency Augusto and produced by Alex Reed, which retraces the steps of the last 24 hours of the life of Jessica, Thornton’s friend that committed suicide. It shows a rare perspective on what suicide looks like from the inside, from someone looking back out at the people who want to help them.
The series is 45 minutes in length and carefully balances tragedy and hope by engaging in raw, honest storytelling in an often swept-under-the-carpet topic, while helping the viewers to understand how they may be able to save a life in the future.
Thornton says the idea for Jessica's Tree came about from seeing comments on a news story of a young girl trying to jump off a bridge that said ‘attention seeker’ and ‘if that was my daughter, I would shoot her down’.
“I was horrified and knew that anyone who was suicidal that was reading those comments would never want to ask for help now,” Thornton says. “I began to think, ‘I wonder if they knew the story behind the girl standing there if they would still have the same mindset about suicide?’ That's when I decided to pitch Jessica's Tree.”
Thornton pitched the idea to Augusto executive producer Cass Avery in 2017 and says despite the sensitive subject matter, the agency was keen to get on board.
“Augusto were incredible and really took a risk on me, both as a director still in film school, and also in telling this story. They worked so incredibly hard to get this story off the ground and then went above and beyond through the whole process – this really is a story they cared about,” Thornton says.
Avery says right from the beginning, she knew it was an important project to get behind.
“Social advocacy is one way we can connect with audiences to provoke thought, emotions and change. Our intention with Jessica’s Tree was to change people’s perceptions of suicide, change the views of people who are suicidal, and change the dialogue about suicide,” she says.
Producer Alex Reed says the team wanted to equip viewers with better tools to help those who are suicidal.
"It's important that by telling it [Jess' story], that we balanced tragedy with hope – that's been our touchstone throughout.”
Augusto's Cass Avery
Thornton says there were a lot of hard moments in the production process in terms of what to include and leave out of the series, due to fears of triggers, backlash or putting people at risk. These hard decisions are being documented in The Girl on The Bridge, a documentary due out in late 2019. It’s being funded by the New Zealand Film Commission and co-produced by Reed and Avery, and documents Jazz’s experience of directing Jessica’s Tree.
As for how Jessica’s Tree series has been received, the web series launched on the NZ Herald and YouTube in March, and has since been viewed by more than 200,000 people. The comments section on YouTube is filled with people sharing similar experiences of losing loved ones to suicide.
“This is just really sad. It really impacted me, because I have attempted suicide 4 times and hearing it from the parents perspective really just opened my eyes to the reality of parents dealing with the loss of their child. And I always think "That could've been my parents if one of my attempts worked..." This is just such an amazing film,” one of the comments reads.
Augusto counts Tourism New Zealand, Adidas and Tesla among its commercial clients, and also helped write, direct, produce and edit Chasing Great, the film about famed ex-All Black captain Richie McCaw's life. Avery says as an agency, Augusto is proud to help influence social change and make films that tell real stories alongside its commercial work and content creation.
“We are really proud that this is the first New Zealand film that tries to explains suicide through the lens of a generation who can’t escape the hard truth – that suicide effects many teens, either because they are suicidal themselves or because they know someone their age who is suicidal or has committed suicide. The other truth is that teens are struggling to talk to their parents about this issue, because stigmas still exist and there is often a lack of genuine understanding.
“While it may be confronting for some, we need to create a place where people who are suicidal can come and ask for help. It’s our duty to give them the right to speak up. And it’s working. We have already received emotional and gut-wrenching feedback from teens and parents, including some who have said Jessica’s Tree saved their child’s life, and others who have said it saved their own life.”
Thornton agrees and says feedback on the series has been absolutely incredible.
“We were so afraid that people would come against it like 13 Reasons Why [a controversial Netflix show where a young woman who takes her own life] but we took so many precautions to ensure we did everything as right as we could. We have shown big groups of professionals [the Ministry of Health, Lifeline and the Mental Health Foundation], including those who came against 13 Reasons Why, and all of them have loved it.”
She says filmmakers and the wider creative industries hold one of the most powerful positions in the world – the ability to tell a story – and therefore, the power to affect real change.
“They create everything we see, they choose how the world is perceived and what people fill themselves with. You just have to look at the power of films like the R Kelly documentary, Embrace or even songs like Fight Song – these things have changed how we see and respond to real-life issues, and others have offered help to millions struggling. Film has the ability and opportunity to change people’s minds, and therefore, their actions.”
Since Jessica’s Tree was released, Thornton has had a call up from Kensington Palace in London to discuss how to create change with mental health issues with officials. The series has also won a Storytelling Award at the socially conscious A Show for a Change film festival in the US this month.
She says her generation will be the change makers who can solve some of the big, complex problems the world is grappling with.
“The Millennials and Centennials are going to change the world. All you have to do is take a step back and see what they are doing: getting gun laws reformed, talking to politicians about climate change. They are leading so much change. We are a generation who refuses to use their inside voices and won't take ‘You are too young’ as something that stops us, but simply motivates us,” Thornton says.
Check out the Jessica’s Tree web series here.
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