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NZIFF: Mental health activist Jazz Thornton meditates on the loss of a friend to suicide in The Girl on the Bridge

New Zealand documentary The Girl on the Bridge (2020), directed by Leanne Pooley, follows mental health activist Jazz Thornton as she sets about making a web series based on the life of her friend, Jess, who took her own life following multiple suicide attempts in 2015, at the age of 16.

Mental health activist Jazz Thornton in a still from The Girl on the Bridge. Source: Supplied

In 2014, Jazz and fellow mental health activist Genevieve Mora started what would later become Voices of Hope, a non-profit working to end the stigma around mental illness. One of the people looking to share her story was Jess, who later backed out following a two-week stay in hospital after a suicide attempt.

The documentary film, spanning two years, shows Jazz as she works to better understand who Jess was through videos, photographs, handwritten notes and heartbreakingly honest interviews with her loved ones - including her father, step-mother, older brother and her friends - for 2019 NZME web series Jessica’s Tree. “It’s a helluva thing,” Jess’s dad, James, says between long pauses in an interview for the series. “It made me feel like an absolute failure and that my love wasn’t enough to keep her here.”

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Drawing on her shared experience with depression, childhood sexual abuse and repeated suicide attempts, Jazz is uniquely equipped to tell Jess’s story with compassion and a keen insight. However, her close proximity to Jess and her presence during the low points in her life - including her final, successful suicide attempt - make it difficult to pull away from her story.

Jazz takes a measured approach as she grapples with potentially sensationalising or glamourising suicide and doing justice to her friend's memory. Throughout multiple points in the film, she can be seen debating - both with her collaborators and in her video diary - how best to go about telling Jess's story, to give her a voice beyond New Zealand's shockingly high suicide statistics. The five-episode final product is a raw and poignant story of grief and a hope for change.

Mental health activist Jazz Thornton and Jess's father James embrace in a still from The Girl on the Bridge. Source: Supplied

In documenting Jess’s story, Jazz can be seen coming into her own as a person and as an activist as she learns the importance of establishing boundaries between herself and the scores of people who turn to her for help at their lowest points, and to recognise when to pull back when things become too much.

“I couldn’t have saved Jess, only she can save herself and that’s a really hard realisation for me to come to. I can encourage, but I can’t fight for her,” Jazz says in the film’s final moments. “It’s not our job to save people, our job is to care - to care enough and to care in the right way that people who are struggling can save themselves.”

Compelling and earnest to a fault, Jazz is a well-suited guide for anyone looking to understand the intricacies of mental illness and suicide. There are moments, however, which I believe could have benefited from a talking head over a voiceover which, while bland and potentially disruptive of the flow of the action, makes it easier to differentiate who is speaking.

Rated RP16 - Suicide, sexual abuse and references to self-harm

The Girl on the Bridge is now available in select cinemas and streaming at NZIFF at Home - Online.