The New Zealand Herald
Sharing a message of hope
New film tracks one woman tackling the issue of suicide
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 tomorrow night.
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 NZTV Awards and a gold award at the International New York Film Festival just last week.
“I’ve never seen anyone connect with people the way Jazz does,” Pooley says. “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 producer 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 describes making The Girl on the Bridge as “challenging,” before revealing how she 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 there was money in the budget for a therapist. She says 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. ”
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. ”