Talking Heads reporter Emily Walker reviews Evelyn, which screened at Glasgow Film Theatre as part of the Official Selection film programme at SMHAF 2019. 

Winner of the Anti-Stigma Award at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, Evelyn was a film that I was eager to see. It documents a five-week walk across the UK, using routes that remain sentimental for Evelyn’s family. Evelyn was a 22-year-old man who, living with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, took his own life. GQ has asked if this is the most powerful film about male suicide ever made, hinting at the impact it will have. After watching it, I believe the answer is yes.

It’s clear from the outset that the difficulties the family have when discussing Evelyn will be emotional to watch and powerful to learn from. Orlando von Einsiedel, the director, begins to cry after just uttering Evelyn’s name within the first few moments. Despite the heavy topic of the film, the normality of the family’s relationships is clear. Arguments, bickering and teasing all play a role within the film to show you that this is their everyday life. Although this is humbling and heartwarming, it is also deeply heartbreaking, testifying to the fact that suicide can affect anyone and everyone.

The prevalence of suicide in our society is usually shown in statistics, but here we are shown the faces of those who have lost someone. Grief is never easy but with so many questions, misunderstandings and stigma surrounding mental health and suicide, this kind of loss seems to bring with it complex difficulties for the people connected to it. 

During the walk, everyone wore mics. This allowed the filmmakers to cut in and out from conversations, while the camera was focusing on someone different. During one conversation we see Leon, a friend of Evelyn’s, discuss happy memories he has, while Jack, another friend, walks away in a bid to escape the pain and sadness brought by these memories. Jack’s mumbles are only caught on mic. The sadness and anger you can hear in his voice combined with Leon’s affirmational words show the audience the difficulties they face when remembering a loved one. The juxtaposition of Leon’s memories and Jack’s pain illustrates how painful yet necessary it was for those connected to Evelyn to remember him and the time they shared. 

The film crew must have had equipment either strapped to them – or walked backwards at times – to capture the conversations, giving the audience an intimate view of the discussions taking place. The unstable shots and the frequent refocusing allows you to really feel as though you are there as they reveal the family’s most personal moments. These shots are punctuated by wide ranging drone footage, allowing the beautiful landscape to balance out the intensity of the conversations. This provides a visual breath of fresh air and much-needed time to deal with what we have just experienced. I wonder if, in doing so, the director was trying to celebrate the beauty in life, while dealing with the complexities and tragedies of human existence?

In dealing with a young man’s suicide, the film inevitably brought to mind the issues and conversations around male mental health in the UK. Surprisingly, one of the most powerful scenes was one which turned the camera back on Orlando. Leon pushes him to realise that he is using the filming as a shield, asking others about their feelings instead of discussing his own. It’s a pivotal scene, making it clear that Orlando is concerned with opening up and being vulnerable, especially around his siblings.

This scene shows the turmoil men can face when discussing their emotions. Orlando seems concerned about how others may perceive him, his own fear stifling any real chance to talk. Until this moment he never discussed with his family his own feelings regarding the death of his brother. But when Leon finally does coax him over the edge of the wall he had built up, Orlando’s physical reaction emphasises the pent-up emotion within him. His tears are those that build up inside a person for years, that when finally broken down are too intense to attribute to emotion.

I could talk at length about how the stories of Evelyn’s death shared by everyone in the film are ones that people desperately need to hear. Those of a mother, a father, a sibling, a friend. It’s clear that we need to be able to openly discuss these stories and experiences. It could be the most important film on male suicide ever made, but only if we as a society allow it to make its full impact and carry on what it begins: a conversation about the stigma around suicide.

The objective of the film was for the family to discuss the loss of their brother in a bid to aid their own mental health and allow them to grieve together. But the final outcome is a film that takes on the stigma around suicide, breaking down the shame and delving into complex feelings, feelings of failure and the fear of forgetting the person now gone.

Throughout the film, the family are keen to share their memories of Evelyn, to preserve his life in their collective memory, long after he lost the ability to see the value in it. I hope that it will be a help to families and friends going through similar experiences, that seeing versions of their pain and grief on screen may give people comfort and support instead of feelings of isolation. I hope that it helps people realise that they are allowed to feel upset no matter how much time has passed, and that it is possible to speak about those they have lost with their loved ones. I hope that one day it will be possible to do this without fear of pity, shame or judgement. And for anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts and feelings, Evelyn also might show the beauty in life, in human connection, and in the solace that talking about our feelings can bring. Ultimately, I hope that Evelyn will support those fighting through difficult times and that it will save lives.

by Emily Walker

If you’re worried about your mental health, seeking help early is the best way to get back on track. See your GP, or start by talking to a friend or calling a helpline. Samaritans volunteers are there to listen. The phone line is free to call and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 116 123. 

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