Written by Shagun Khare
“Unmasked,” a student-created film made in response to last year’s tragedies, is premiering Sept. 12 with the goal to destigmatize mental health in the Palo Alto community.
The idea for the film began in late May when Palo Alto High School seniors and co-directors Andrew Baer and Christian Leong decided to utilize their interest in film to address an issue they felt was worth sharing. Later, they recruited six more Paly students and three Gunn students to help create the film.
Gunn senior Yui Sasajima, who worked as assistant co-director and spokesman of the group, was a friend of one of the students who died by suicide last year. She decided to work on the film to help normalize discussion of mental health. “I just noticed that not a lot of student projects were being done, so it seemed like the right time to make something like this,” Sasajima said.
Started in June, the project took over three months to complete. The students had to meet almost every day of summer to work on storyboarding, interviewing and editing for the film, according to Leong. However, he said that the all-nighters and long hours of editing were worth it if it meant they could leave an impact. “I hope the film has a positive effect on people, because that’s really why we made the film—for others and to try to give back,” Leong said. “Our goal is that the film can leave a message of hope to the community as the [school] year starts.”
The film was made in the form of interviews and paired with fictional narrative segments, which Sasajima believes makes it unique from traditional documentaries. Multiple perspectives were gathered in the film, including those of students, parents, teachers, community organizations, Palo Alto Unified School District administrators and psychologists.
Kathleen Blanchard, a member of a support group for mothers who have lost their children to suicide and an advocate for the destigmatization of mental health in Palo Alto, helped the students get in touch with some of their sources during the filming process. However, she was intent on making sure the film was solely student-run. “I was trying to ensure that the creativity and the ownership continued to be held by the students because this was their idea and their creation,” Blanchard said. “Us adults, we hear enough of ourselves. This is our chance to hear what the students are saying.”
According to Blanchard, this student-run aspect holds many benefits for a mental health film. “What’s different about it being student-run is that the students were more fearless with the topic,” she said. “[This] generation is much more comfortable about sharing things that my generation wouldn’t even imagine talking about, so that comfort level with things that we used to treat as private is really coming through in the film.”
According to Gunn mental health and wellness coordinator Joanne Michels, media and film can sometimes sensationalize mental illnesses, which can lead to contagion, in which vulnerable individuals might feel triggered to harm themselves. Therefore, the filmmakers allowed a multi-disciplinary team of Gunn staff to look at the first cut of the film and provide feedback, which Michels believes was thoughtful. “We specifically looked at being able to balance their film with journalism practices especially related to suicide and really being sensitive to some of the images that they use,” Michels said. “We also encouraged them to be mindful about how this might affect the community across the entire spectrum in terms of the responses they might receive.”
The students effectively integrated the feedback into their film , according to Michels, so that the film creates positive community conversation. Blanchard also commended the students on having a more human focus in the film rather than a clinical focus that many other mental health films pursue. She believes that it can help make mental health a more open subject in Palo Alto.
The premiere of the film at the Children’s Theater in Lucie Stern Community Center was sold out within three days of its announcement. Michel said this attention signifies a willingness from the Palo Alto community to be more aware of mental health. “To be able to participate as a community and come together in one place shows that people want to join in this movement of going forward and wanting to heal,” Michels said. “And to talk about or be a part of this filmmaking process is a step in the larger realm of destigmatizing mental health and letting the community know that there is support and ways to get support.”
At the premiere, there will also be a dialogue session facilitated in the theater for the audience to discuss its thoughts on mental health. “After the film there is a ‘so what?’ factor,” Sasajima said. “This film addresses a problem, but then it is about what you plan to do about it. So, the dialogue will allow people to propose solutions and have that conversation.”
Due to the high demand for tickets to the premiere, DocX is taking online reservations for a second showing of the film, which will be held on Sept. 19 at the Mitchell Park Community Center in Palo Alto. The film will also be released online within the next few weeks. Ultimately, Sasajima hopes that those who watch the film will open up discussion within their families about topics that were for a long time “considered taboo,” she said.
As the premiere approaches, Gunn senior DocX team member Lydia Sun is aiming for the film to have a lasting effect on the Palo Alto community—one that will bring about positive change and a positive future. “I hope that people will watch the film with an open mind to encourage larger discussions for the community on how to solve the issue here,” Sun said. “We are trying to provide the message to people who are struggling that there is hope and provide hope to the community that there is a solution.”
If you or someone you know are in crisis, reach out to the following sources:
Santa Clara County Suicide & Crisis Hotline: 1-855-278-4204
U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)