In 2020, more films about suicide and depression were submitted to the Blackbird Film Festival than all other seasons combined... What does this say about the effects of COVID19 on filmmakers and how concerned should we be about this?
At the start of 2020, the Blackbird Film Festival opened submissions for its 2021 festival season with very high expectations. The previous submission cycle had been a tremendous year with nearly 2,100 films submitted and all indicators predicted steady submission growth...
And then in March of 2020, COVID19 froze the global economy and Blackbird saw a sharp drop in submission numbers that has carried into 2021. However, despite having nearly 500 less films submitted in 2020, festival programmers noted an unusually high number of films about suicide, depression and anxiety compared to previous seasons with larger submission pools. During the final programming stage of the judging process, films that are highly rated by first and second stage judges are coded and organized into thematic screening blocks. Once all the finalists have been thematically organized into "proposed" screening blocks (usually around 30), the programmers will choose the most compelling blocks (approximately 12-14) to screen at the festival. Typically, selected blocks have the strongest thematic structure with at least five films focused around a specific subject matter.
As far as final-stage programming goes at Blackbird, it's very uncommon for a "proposed block" to have more than 10 thematic matches included as most screening blocks only feature 6 to 8 films in total. That being said, the proposed "Suicide / Depression" block included 24 finalists... Normally, this would be a programmer's dream come true as there would be many ways to dial in the perfect thematic block! However, as the list of thematic "fits" for this category grew and grew, programmers became less excited and more concerned...
The rise of suicide and mental health issues during the COVID19 pandemic has been widely covered over this past year with the US Center of Disease Control (CDC) stating that "symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased considerably in the United States during April–June of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019." However, it's a very different thing to see these statistics not as numbers on paper, but as films... While many of these films were incredibly powerful and artfully made, programmers noted that nearly all of these thematic-finalists were similar in the way they ended - abruptly with suicide.
While the idea of a film about suicide ending in suicide may seem obvious, it's actually quite uncommon as, we find, these types of films usually end with a message of recovery and hope. Typically, a film about depression/suicide starts with a protagonist experiencing suicidal thoughts but, through the narrative, they are "pulled back" from the edge and "saved". I'm reminded of a 2020 Official Selection titled Portraitist by Cyrus Neshvad which opens with the film's protagonist, André, a self-proclaimed "failed-artist" precariously leaning over the guard-rails of a dam, slowly loosening his grip, when he receives a call from his son at the exact moment he is about to let go and throw himself over. After this moment, André's finds his purpose again by helping his granddaughter recover from an unknown illness. Portraitist is an absolutely beautiful film with an ending that will leave you speechless. However, unlike with Portraitist, the vast majority of the "suicide / depression" films submitted during the 2020 submission cycle did not end in recovery. Instead, in most cases, the protagonist "successfully" ends it all as the film abruptly cuts to black.
As the deadline to announce our 2021 Official Selections approached, we were faced with a dilemma... One the one hand, we had one of the strongest thematic blocks in our programming history featuring films of tremendous quality. On the other hand, this block (tentatively titled "Cry For Help") was dangerously depressing and offered little hope for recovery. I can still remember watching the final lineup of films in "Cry For Help" and feeling an overwhelming sense of unease as character after character jumped from the bridge, overdosed on pills, steered their car off the cliff or hung themselves in the kitchen... After 70 minutes of this, it was obvious this thematic block was problematic.
Ultimately, we decided to pull out several films from "Cry For Help" that did offer something back to the audience with an implied path to recovery. For example, Julian Stamboulieh's powerful short film, The Forest tells the story of a man, widowed by suicide, who walks a "suicide forest" everyday searching for lost bodies when, to his surprise, he finds a young man still alive, struggling with his own demons. While The Forest doesn't necessarily paint a picture of recovery or provide a conclusive ending, it does offer a glimmer of hope in a way that many other contenders in this category did not. For that reason, we were happy to find a place for The Forest in a 2021 block focused on the kindness of strangers.
As the distance grows between us and 2020, the lasting impact of such a difficult year on our mental health remains unknown. Artists, filmmakers and creatives were hit especially hard during the global pandemic as many found themselves out of work with no end in sight. Based on submission data from Blackbird, it seems that many filmmakers refocused their creative energy on telling stories of depression and suicide. Our only hope is that these films serve as outlets for artistic expression and recovery for their makers and not a cry for help.
With that said, if you, or anyone you know, is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call 1-800-273-8255 or visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ and know that you are not alone.