Winner of the Anti-Stigma Award at SMHAF 2019, Evelyn is poetic and deeply personal film from Oscar-winning director Orlando von Einsiedel, exploring the fabric of grief, the stories we tell ourselves and the enduring impact of love. We spoke to the director ahead of the film’s screening at SMHAF 2019.
How long had you been thinking about making this film?
It all began when Joanna Natasegara (the film’s producer) and I were launching our last film, The White Helmets at the Telluride Film Festival. For the last several years, we have been making films about people who have been going through real difficulty and traumatic events in their lives, often in conflict zones. Joanna had noticed that while making these films and witnessing traumatic events, I wouldn’t get emotional. In her words, she could see something was blocking me. She’s incredibly perceptive like that.
So while we were talking at this film festival about what we should do next and I was telling Joanna about some ideas I had for films that very much followed that same trajectory as our previous work, she suddenly said, “would you ever consider making a film about your family”. I was completely thrown off guard. We’d known each other for seven years, but we’d never had a conversation, in all that time, about my brother, Evelyn.
My initial reaction was anger and I thought, “I’ve never even told you about my brother, why would I consider make a film about it?” But as the conversation carried on, I started to reflect on my reaction and the hypocrisy of having spent years making films about other people’s emotional difficulties, and yet flat out refusing to talk about my own. Also, completely unbeknown to Jo, this conversation was happening on the 2nd of September, which is the anniversary of my brother’s death. It was so strange. It almost felt that it was a sign. I struggled to say my brother’s name for 13 years, I wish we’d had this conversation earlier.
Something that’s been commented on a lot is the number of strangers you run into along the way who spontaneously shared their own stories about suicide. How often did that happen and what did you make of it?
Meeting people along the way was one of the most moving and rewarding parts of the walk across the country – which makes up the backbone of the film. We were actually coming across people everyday who would see the camera and ask what we were doing and when we explained that we were doing a walk in memory of my brother who had taken his own life they would respond by sharing their own stories. There’s this amazing contagiousness to being emotionally open and vulnerable. When you approach people in this way, it immediately creates this safe space for them to be vulnerable and emotionally honest too.
Of course the one sad thing to take away from meeting so many people that have experienced mental health problems and suicide is just how pervasive these issues are in the UK.
How has making Evelyn changed your relationship with your family?
Yes, hugely. It has brought all of us closer together, especially Gwennie, Robin and I. But it has also addressed and had us talking about the one thing that has hung over us all for so long, Evelyn and what happened to him.
But additionally, it’s also changed my life. I went from not having a relationship with my Evelyn to having one again. Before the walk I could only remember the bad and upsetting times we had spent together. I think this is because of how the mind works in that the most traumatic memories are the ones that stick. But spending five weeks walking and talking about all of our happy memories from when Evelyn was alive completely transformed that.
I also learned about myself. I definitely went into this thinking I was a modern man with modern ideas about emotions but I was surprised to see how unable I was to find the vocabulary to talk about them and how when pushed, I actually harboured all sorts of ideas about showing emotion as being a sign of weakness. This seems crazy now.
There are moments of family conflict along the way that are quite uncomfortable to watch. Were there difficult decisions about what to keep in and what to leave out?
I thought, naively, that the walk would be the most difficult part of the process because we’d be talking about all of these things we’d never discussed before but I was wrong. The edit was, for me, way harder. There was a point, about three weeks in when we had assembled the most impactful three hours of footage from the 70 hours or so we had shot. Joanna, our editor, Masahiro Hirakubo, and I sat and watched it, and it completely floored me. Reliving all of these hugely difficult moments in one short sitting was very hard for me.
The issues we deal with in our films are always tough and there always tends to be some physical manifestation of the stress of these projects that I exhibit. When we were making The White Helmets, I plucked my beard out without realising. During the edit on this film, I came out in all of these red lumps. At first I thought they were mosquito bites, but it was December in London and they were obviously stress-related.
In terms of what to keep and what to lose, we worked alongside a number of mental health organisations that helped guide us in terms of how to speak about mental illness and suicide in ways that were appropriate and not triggering. We learned a huge amount from their counsel.
What’s been the most memorable or surprising response to the film?
The film has been screening across the UK in cinemas for the past few months and we’ve been deeply moved by the response. We make cinematic films that are impact focused and it appears that this film is doing more than we could have hoped.
Anecdotally many people have told our film team that;
– the film has saved their lives because after seeing the lasting effects of a suicide on a family, they felt they could never go through with it themselves.
– we’ve had people telling us that the film has really helped them to understand members of their family or friends who are suffering from a mental health issue
– and many people have said that watching the film has helped to create a space for them to talk about things that they were too embarrassed or found too difficult to discuss with their own friends and family.
We believe that the film is working in this impactful way because from the start we worked with the right partners to craft the film’s messages and release it into the world correctly. It was really important to all of us to do this right so that the film was eventually meaningful to others. Violet Films, one of the UK’s leading impact organisations, has led the outreach work and partnerships with big charities like the Samaritans, CALM and the Ramblers through to small grassroots ones like Shout and Andys Man Club.
Evelyn is a very different kind of film for you. Is this a one-off or do you think the experience will impact on the kinds of projects you want to do next?
I found making this film incredibly difficult emotionally and I found being on camera very challenging, because it’s so exposing. I have a whole newfound respect for anyone who ever goes in front of the camera. It’s incredibly tough. There is no way this film could have been done without the team that I’m lucky enough to work with. This is the third big film that we’ve made all together, and there’s a level of trust between us that allowed this to take place. I hope it will make not just me, but all of us, better filmmakers. The crew went through an emotional experience making this — the audience watches this film in 90 minutes in the cinema; the crew watched it over five weeks, and they saw the journey, too. But, I don’t think I’ll ever go in front of the camera again myself.