One of the most eye-opening and subtle films about grief and suicide, the moving documentary sees the director and his family talk about the suicide of his brother Evelyn for the first time.
Documentary director Orlando von Einsiedel goes in front of the camera for the first time in his latest film, Evelyn. The film documents his family’s decision to try to confront, if not come to terms with his brother Evelyn’s suicide thirteen years ago.
As family and friends go on a long hiking trip to visit Evelyn’s favourite places, they open up about their own complicated emotions and their relationship to their sibling, son, or friend. It is, of course, a very difficult film to watch, but also an extremely cathartic one, showing people making considerable efforts to be vulnerable about something which they couldn’t even bring themselves to talk about for so long. The film is one of the most intelligent about suicide and grief, showing that there are no easy answers or solutions to either of those tragedies, but that talking about them helps share the burden of that suffering.
We interviewed director Orlando von Einsiedel about making a film with his close friends and family, creating a safe environment for them all to be open, directing as opposed to being on camera, and editing a film that is so close to his heart.
7R: Did you have the idea to make this film for a long time? How did it come about?
Orlando von Einsiedel (OvE): I wish we’d made this earlier. But I struggled to say my brother’s name for 13 years, and I just couldn’t think about him. It was too painful to talk about in my family.
Joanna [Natasegara, the producer] and I were launching our last film, The White Helmets and for the last ten years, we’d been basically making films about other people who were going through real difficulty and traumatic things. We were talking at this film festival about what we should do next; I was telling Joanna about some ideas I had for films that very much followed that same trajectory. We’d known each other for eight years, but we’d never had a conversation, in all that time, about my brother, and I think Jo could see something… That there was something blocked in me. And she just came out and said: “Would you ever consider making a film about your own family?”
I was really angry that she’d asked, because I thought, “I’ve never told you about this, why would I make a film about it?” But as the conversation carried on, I started to think, “Why have I got so angry that she just asked me? That’s a problem.” There’s no way she could have known, but it was the 2nd of September, which is the anniversary of my brother’s death. It was so strange. It kind of just almost felt, well, maybe it is the right moment to do this. Maybe that’s a sign.
The weird thing is, I always thought that ultimately, my family would never agree to this. Even if, in my head, I could go to this idea that maybe there was a film to be made there, my family would never agree, so actually, I’ll never have to go through it myself.
7R: But then, they did agree to do it.
OvE: The moment I said to them, “How about we do this walk: we go to places where we spent time with Evelyn when he was alive, and we talk about this thing?,” they all said yes. I think they’d all been waiting to have this conversation, and this was a way to do it.
7R: Was the walk always going to be filmed? Was it ever going to just be a walk?
OvE: The walk was always going to be filmed. In the initial conception, it was just me with a video camera. But in conversations with Jo and the rest of the team, I realised that, in some ways, that was a way for me to protect myself. Because I could still hide behind the camera. The more we talked about it, the more I realised that the most honest way of doing this film was for me to be on camera. So eventually, I got forced to be in front of the camera!
7R: How was it to be both the director and one of the subjects? Did you have to rely on the team doing everything themselves, or did you still guide them in some way?
OvE: I found making this film incredibly difficult emotionally. I found being on camera incredibly challenging, because it’s so exposing. I have a whole newfound respect for anyone who ever goes in front of the camera! It’s incredibly tough.
There’s just no way this film could have been done without the team that I’m lucky enough to work with. This is the third big film that we’ve made all together, and there’s a level of trust between us that allowed this to take place.
Effectively, we put in place this framework, with the camera just rolling, and every day, the crew would make decisions that I normally would be part of making, but I couldn’t be. In the first few days, I couldn’t separate myself. I was still very much trying to be the director in control of everything, and it wasn’t working.
Joanna and I had a talk about it, because it wasn’t making me present, in the moment, with my family — which is what needed to happen for this to work. I managed to pull back and trust the crew to do the daily work of making those decisions. They all had microphones, so all of them could listen to every single conversation and make choices about what was the most interesting thing to film. What I kept doing, and this was my way of not letting go, is I would hide behind asking questions. Trying to control things in that way was preventing me from opening up myself, as you see in the film.
7R: There’s such a sense of closeness to everyone on screen. Did you all agree that you wouldn’t hide anything from the camera, even when people were at their most vulnerable?
OvE: Yes and no. My family know all the crew, because I’d been working with them all for so long. So in some ways, there was already this level of trust between everyone. Everyone felt comfortable. They knew that the footage, no matter what it was, was in the hands of people they felt comfortable with. That set the stage for people feeling that they could be vulnerable.
The rig that Frank built in order to film this — all we could see, as a family, was a lens pointing out of a backpack, and then he’d walk in front of us. Even me, someone familiar with the artifice of filmmaking, I would forget that there was a camera there. My family forgot that there was a camera there after about half-an-hour. It just meant that the conversation was entirely natural. We’re talking about these really deep, emotional issues that none of us have spoken about, that of course brings out all of the difficult conversations, and the vulnerability and the emotional openness.
7R: You talk about how you had to really trust your team — I was wondering how this worked at the editing process? I know the entire walk was filmed, but obviously the film is shorter than that.
OvE: I thought, naively, that the walk would be the most difficult part of the process, because we’d be talking about all this stuff. I was wrong! The edit was, for me, way harder. There was a point, about three weeks in, we’d shot 60 or 70 hours, and we’d assembled the most impactful three hours. Joanna, our editor. Masahiro Hirakubo, and me sat and watched it, and it completely floored me. Because it was making me feel all this really difficult stuff in one little sitting.
The footage we deal with in our films is always really difficult, and I guess I internalise stress. It’s just the way I work, and there always tends to be some physical manifestation of that. When we were making White Helmets, I plucked my beard out without realising. And then, on this film, I came out with all these big, red, blotty lumps, and I thought they were mosquito bites, but it was December in London: they were stress-related.
Because I’m in the film, and because it’s about my family, my sense of what worked emotionally was sometimes really off. I’d find it emotional, but an audience wouldn’t, because they wouldn’t feel it worked in the same way. So I relied way more heavily than I would normally on our editor, on Joanna, on the wider team when they watched cuts, to see what they responded to that was maybe different from what I was responding to.
7R: The film is so good on the issue of suicide because it doesn’t give easy answers on how to deal with it, or how to ‘get over’ someone’s suicide. You’re doing this very concrete thing around the film with the impact campaign, where the audience can ask questions and even, sometimes, go on walks where they can themselves talk about their own experiences with suicide. What happens during those events? What do you think that talking about this issue does?
OvE: Joanna’s team, they’re a company specialised in running impact campaigns. So they work with films to use them for positive change. In this case, we’re working with some really good partners: the CALMzone, Andys Man Club, the Samaritans and The Ramblers, who are basically a walking organisation. The screenings that we’ve been doing so far, the Q&As and the walks, they’re been extraordinary.
I think the film works on a number of levels. People come into this film, and when it begins, they’re watching my family. And what a lot of people seem to take away is that, a third of the way in, they’re really thinking about their own family and their own relationships. Often, after the film and Q&A, people start to share stories. They start to say, “This happened to me. Someone in my family took their own lives, and my family has never spoken about it, and I want to change that.” And then they organise a walk with their family, and they talk about it!
At a deeper level, we really hope that the film is a catalyst for people to reach out to somebody whom they think might not be well. When it comes to things like suicide and mental illness, I think you can often feel like it’s only doctors who can help somebody. But actually, a phone call at the right moment can completely stop someone who’s on a downward spiral. It won’t solve the problem, but it can stop somebody from taking their life.
Likewise, I hear from people who aren’t well themselves. The film is a way for them to reach out to people. Mental illness is so stigmatised. It’s so hard to talk about it because it’s taboo. It’s considered embarrassing. It’s difficult. And we hope that the film can help destigmatize things. It’s about being open. It’s about talking about these issues, and when people do talk about these issues, the less of a stigma it becomes.
7R: How did you come up with the film’s visual style and the camera set-up?
OvE: It looks like a very simple film. But the most simple films are often very complicated, because it’s hard to make a film seem simple. When thinking about this film, I certainly watched a lot of road-trip documentaries — about walking, cycling, climbing mountains. Almost all of them follow a pattern where you have some beautiful footage of somebody — let’s say they’re cycling through a landscape shot — and then it’s broken up by interviews, effectively talking in the past tense about what happened that day.
We always aspire, with our documentaries, to try and make them feel like movies, effectively! And we realise, in order to do that, it wouldn’t be possible just to film shots of walking and have talking head interviews at the end of every day. We knew we needed to capture things live.
We realised that the reason a lot of those films don’t do that, is because it’s so difficult! How do you capture live walking without a camera-person walking backwards for five weeks? Then you start to think of a steady-cam rig, but it’s impossible because they weigh a ton! Over mountains, it’s just not feasible.
The influences were movies like Jean-Marc Vallee’s Wild, David Lynch’s Straight Story — these classic road-trip films where you’re there with the character during those moments of emotion, as they happen. The only way to do that was for Frank to build a rig that was lightweight, that would fill out the back of a backpack so he could see where he was walking. It was remarkable because it took him three months, and it wasn’t even working a few days before the shoot date, but he managed to do it. We were all in complete awe, and it’s a completely unique thing he did. Someone might have done something similar on an other film, but he designed this rig all by himself. There was no blueprint he could follow.
7R: Shooting the film was such a long process. Did the film change as you were making it? Was there something you held onto to make sure it would remain the same?
OvE: I think I’ll probably answer that in emotional terms, because I probably — and this goes back to your point about grief being messy — I think, naively, I kind of went into this thinking, “We go on this walk; we talk about all of this stuff; we all heal; and they we can put it to bed.” I realised that that’s just not how grief works. I think I also went into this feeling that the moment I opened up emotionally, it would be like a genie out of the bottle, and you could never put it back in. And again, that’s also not true. In fact, you can totally put it back in again after a while. It’s not all out forever.
I really didn’t know if I would go through some sort of cathartic thing. I didn’t realise how powerful an impact it would have on me. This whole thing, it really did change my life. I came out a different person. And I obviously have to keep working at being that person who’s open and tries to talk about these things that are difficult. It’s something that I’ve understood. My relationship with my brother, I only remembered the bad things, the difficult parts of his life, and I now have a relationship with my brother. I remember all the happy times we spent together. Going into it, I didn’t know how transformative it would be, but it was an incredibly transformative experience. For me, certainly.
7R: Do you think this openness is going to change the way you make films, as well? As you said, you’re a documentary filmmaker, and you make films about other people, so there’s a certain degree of empathy involved already.
OvE: Let’s put it this way: I hope so. I hope it will make not just me, but all of us, better filmmakers. The crew went through an emotional experience making this — the audience watches this film in 90 minutes in the cinema; the crew watched it over five weeks, and they saw the journey, too. Of course, you can structure things in the edit, but when we first showed the film to my family, they all said, “Wow, it really captures what happened.” The crew got that same transformative journey.