Leanne Pooley on The Girl On The Bridge

Posted Wednesday 16 Sep 2020

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Director Leanne Pooley's latest documentary, The Girl On The Bridge, is about the making of a web series on the suicide of a young girl called Jessica. Called Jessica's Tree, the web series is made by Jazz Thornton, who recounts the last 24 hours of her friend's life, speaking to those close to her to try to understand what her death can teach others about suicide. Then-film student Jazz, who has survived 14 suicide attempts, had pitched the idea at a DOC Edge Pitch Forum where it was taken up by producers Cass Avery and Alex Reed of Augusto. (Margot Francis, another WIFT member, edited the documentary.) Leanne herself has been touched by suicide's devastating impact, and dedicates TGOTB to a family member who took their own life during the making of the documentary.

The Girl on the Bridge is in cinemas nationwide now, ahead of an online release on 21 September (in time for Mental Health Awareness Week).

Audiences will be able to rent the film from the website thegirlonthebridgefilm.com which has a number of mental health resources right there to help anyone who may need it.

WIFTNZ spoke to Leanne Pooley about the making of her documentary.

WIFTNZ: How did you come to make the documentary? Where did the idea come from?

LP: Augusto asked me if I'd help out, but just ten seconds into meeting Jazz, and hearing about the series, I knew I wanted to do more than just help. I wanted to make a documentary on the journey Jazz would go through making the series. I knew it would be a complex, difficult and emotional journey for her, but it seemed like a way to have a conversation about having The [suicide] Conversation".

WIFTNZ: You've said it was 'a film inside a film' - can you explain that?

LP: We pulled down the fourth wall - we acknowledge I'm there, and you see me a couple times and hear me. I felt it was more honest to do that, it meant we were part of the journey not just a fly on the wall. We acknowledge that this is happening while it's happening.

In a test screening you hear me but don't see me and people afterward said they wanted to see who Jazz is talking to.

Also, Jazz and Jessica's stories weave in and out of each other; I like to say Jessica's Tree is the story of the girl who is no longer here, The Girl On The Bridge is the story of the girl (Jazz) who is here.

WIFTNZ: What were some of the challenges in making the film?

LP: The trickiest thing was the fact that you're talking about this topic where you could actually do more harm than good. We chose to leave some things out because people could use them negatively.

Keeping Jazz safe was a priority, we had to make sure nothing triggered her. And there were tough shoots. The night we shot Jazz interviewing Jessica's dad James, was super-emotionally charged. It was tough because his grief was so tangible. I don't drink but I went home and opened a bottle of wine after that.

Also, there was budget for everyone involved to see a therapist, counsellor. That indicates how things have changed - that would never have happened 10 years ago. It signifies a kind of change in our psyche, that we're more willing to acknowledge and deal with this topic.

There was more hugging on this production than any I've ever been involved in!

WIFT NZ: Did anything change in the three years you made the documentary?

LP: When we first started the film we called it The Silent Film, referring to breaking the silence about suicide. But over the three years we felt that the silence was already being broken with people like John Kirwan speaking out about mental health. So we didn't feel that title was appropriate anymore.

WIFTNZ: Has your attitude to suicide and mental health changed after making this documentary?

LP: [Having a death in the family] didn't change the way I did anything but it did make things a lot more personal. I threw myself into making the film. It was strange to have that [death] happen while I was making a film about suicide and I was lucky to have Jazz there, learned a lot from her, lessons about how people think when they're suicidal. I learned that you can't put your own view on people or ask them to see the world your way.