“Community Film Project to Focus on Teen Suicide”

By AMANDA BREITBACH RAGSDALE, Star Staff Writer (reprinted with permission from the Miles City Star newspaper)
“This is really a pit that you need help climbing out of,” said Heather Schmidt, associate producer of a community-based film project aimed at preventing teen suicide and treating depression.

Filmmaker and social activist Lise Swenson presented the idea Tuesday night to a group of health professionals, people who have been touched personally by teen suicide and depression and others interested in working on the project. The idea to create a community film project addressing suicide was born from a presentation Swenson did in Miles City back in March, she explained. Invited by the Global Health Equity Foundation to film the Eastern Montana Rural Health Care Conference, held in Miles City on March 4, she was asked to do a presentation on her work in community-based media. Attendees immediately saw the potential to use the use that kind of approach in addressing teen suicide, which has been a persistent and serious problem in Miles City. “I’ve never had such an overwhelming response from a community to an idea,” she said.

The project will be a community effort, Swenson said. Locals will be sought to contribute their personal experiences and stories, as well as filmmaking, sound, editing and acting skills. Swenson will serve as lead media expert, with locals Molly Wendland as lead community expert and Schmidt as associate producer. Anyone with an interest in being involved or a story or skill to contribute is invited to become involved as the project takes shape. Confidentiality and personal comfort will be respected in all interviews.

Although the filmmakers will be working from real stories and experiences, the resulting film will not be a documentary or a reenactment, Swenson emphasized. Those stories will be compiled and recorded as inspiration, and from them a fictional script will be written.

There are several reasons for using fiction to tell the story. First, it will appeal to a broader audience – especially affected teens. “Kids don’t generally want to watch a documentary,” said Swenson. Also, creating a fictional story gives people more freedom to tell their stories. “Fiction can often get closer to the truth,” she said.

Swenson shared some examples of her previous work in community-based film projects, including work she did with Latino youth and students at “continuation” high schools – alternative schools for at-risk students – in California. She also shared ways the project could become more than a film – through interactive art displays, use of the Internet and educational distribution.

Members of the audience suggested areas and populations the film could focus on, emphasizing the need to include the American Indian community and students at the high school and middle school.

The project is being spearheaded by the Global Health Equity Foundation, a nonprofit organization aimed at improving global health equity through research, advocacy and capacity building. Other partners have expressed interest in becoming involved, Swenson said, and more partners will be sought as the effort gets under way.

To become involved in the project or to share a story or experience, contact Ronny Al-Hafez at ronny.alhafez@ghef.org.