18 Jul 2020

Suicide and survival: doco director Leanne Pooley

From Saturday Morning, 10:05 am on 18 July 2020

In the new documentary The Girl on The Bridge, suicide survivor Jazz Thornton confronts New Zealand's youth mental health crisis head-on.

The film documents not only Jazz's extraordinary activism but also how she reckons with being the public face of youth suicide prevention, director Leanne Pooley tells Kim Hill.

The Girl on The Bridge follows Jazz through the making of a web series about her friend Jessica who took her own life at 16.

Leanne was originally asked to help out on the project - which became the award-winning Jessica's Tree - but after meeting Jazz decided to make a film about her instead.

"Within 30 seconds of meeting Jazz, I thought wow, this is an extraordinary young woman and I think the journey she's going to go on to make this web series is going to be revelatory in itself."

Leanne filmed Jazz over two years for The Girl on The Bridge. During filming, she saw young people contacting Jazz constantly to tell her they wanted to or had made an attempt at their own life.

She and the producers were concerned but during the course of filming Jazz came to the difficult realisation that she couldn't personally save every young person in the country, Leanne says.

Jazz's own turning point, after multiple suicide attempts, was a conversation with a mentor who told her that if she wanted to survive she had to fight for her own life.

To spread that message to other young people, she and fellow mental health activist Genevieve Mora set up the non-profit Voices of Hope in 2017.

Via short videos made with Voices of Hope, Jazz now reaches a massive international audience, Leanne says.

"That message of fighting just seems to be one that young people want to hear. They identify with her, they identify with what she's been through and she's able to give them a reason to fight, I think.

"Jazz has so much to offer you look at her and think thank god she's still here. 'Cause she might not have been."

The Girl on The Bridge takes its name from a news story about a girl on an Auckland motorway overpass who was threatening to jump and holding up traffic.

The hideous comments made about the girl on Twitter prompted Jazz to take action towards getting people to rethink how they look at others who are suffering in this way, Leanne says.

Jazz Thornton

Jazz Thornton Photo: NZ Film Commision

Although she once viewed suicidal behaviour as attention-seeking herself, Leanne tells Kim she now knows how misguided that is.

As a documentary maker, you're always nervous you might get it wrong, she says, but getting it right was especially critical with The Girl on The Bridge.

"How do we have this conversation without doing harm? How do we have this conversation without making things worse?'"

Suicide has long been a subject shrouded in fear and silence, Leanne says, but Jazz's remarkable communication skills help her cut through that.

"I don't think I've seen anyone connect the way Jazz does … and she does bring hope into the room when she talks about a really tough subject. She really, really inspires me.

"She has a very very high profile with young people already but what I hope the film does is speak to a different generation who have that 'pull up your socks' attitude."

As well as online screenings as part of Whānau Marama: New Zealand International Film Festival, The Girl On The Bridge will also show at cinemas around the country - details here. Some sessions will include a Q & A.

Where to get help: