“On June 19th, 2014, Ryan Candice walked into a hospital to seek help for his severe anxiety and suicidal thoughts. He was denied admittance, and took his life shortly thereafter.”

From the first moments of Wake Up: Stories From the Frontlines of Suicide Prevention, the message is very clear: there is a serious issue with the way suicide is treated in the United States. Ryan’s death inspired his dear friend, director Nate Townsend, to investigate the factors that have led to the rising number of suicides across America. Townsend wanted to better understand how someone he believed to be so full of life, someone so thoroughly loved by his friends and family, has succumbed to death.

Wake Up: Stories From the Frontlines of Suicide Prevention Starts a Vital Conversation
source: We Are One Film Festival

Through a mixture of hard data, testimonials and re-enactments, Wake Up paints a stark reality. But the beauty of the documentary lies behind the numbers. It is when Townsend allows survivors themselves to reflect on their experience that the film finds its streak. As said by one of the interviewees, one of the main difficulties faced when analyzing suicide and its range of motives is the fact there’s no one to study, no one to ask questions to. For centuries, suicide letters have been the only bridge between victims and researchers. However, with the conversation reaching a broader audience, survivors have started feeling more comfortable sharing their traumatizing and enlightening stories.

The People Behind the Numbers

Throughout the documentary, Townsend highlights how suicide affects specific groups such as LGBT people and veterans. The statistics displayed onscreen are staggering: “LGBT youth are five times as likely to attempt suicide as heterosexual youth,” “50% of transgender people have attempted suicide” and “every day, 20 US veterans die by suicide.” When reflecting on these numbers, the director does not shy away from controversial topics such as extreme prejudice, underfunded support programs, and gun ownership, endemic problems that directly affect the aforementioned demographics.

Wake Up: Stories From the Frontlines of Suicide Prevention Starts a Vital Conversation
source: Project Wake Up

Despite shining a light on a harrowing phenomenon, Wake Up provides a heartening insight when it chooses to tell the stories of friends and families who have turned their devastating pain into a catalyst for change. Knowing the aftermath of suicide far too well, people like Michael and Gayle Zibilich – who lost their son Keller – travel around the US with the intent of alerting others to the silent clues too often related to suicide. When reflecting on one of his many public talks, Michael Zibilich states: “You can feel it in the room, the moment life is starting to win. It’s intoxicating.”

Here, the feeling Townsend wants to convey is one of hope (which is too simplistic in its idea of salvation), one that fails to encompass the plethora of complex roads that lead to suicide.

Conclusion: Wake Up: Stories From the Frontlines of Suicide Prevention

When it comes to its narrative structure, Wake Up: Stories From the Frontlines of Suicide Prevention feels disjointed at times, as if looking for a thread that insists on escaping. The rhythm is lost after the first act, and it only fully finds itself again towards the conclusion. Nonetheless, this is a highly informative piece of filmmaking, a valuable educational tool on a topic that has remained on the shadowy corners of societal taboo for far too long. It is way past the time to start the conversation, and listening to these stories is beyond vital.

What are some of your favorite documentaries? Tell us in the comments!

Wake Up: Stories From the Frontlines of Suicide Prevention had its world premiere at the We Are One Film Festival 2020 on June 4th.

Watch Wake Up: Stories From the Frontlines of Suicide Prevention

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