Confronting Suicide / Telegraph Magazine
Orlando von Einsiedel’s first full-length documentary, ‘Virunga’, chronicled the battle to save Africa’s oldest national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo from armed rebel militias and a predatory British oil company. It was nominated for an Oscar in 2015.
His second, ‘White Helmets’, featured the Syrian volunteers who rescue civilians trapped in buildings destroyed by the Assad regime’s bombs. It won Britain’s only Oscar at the 2017 Academy Awards.
Aged 37, the soft-spoken, self-effacing South Londoner was suddenly in great demand. Lucrative offers poured in. But he turned them all down. He opted instead to make what he describes as his hardest film yet. He turned his camera on himself.
Having made his name exploring the traumas of others, von Eisiendel forced himself to confront his own. ‘Evelyn’, just released, tackles a subject that he and his stoic, middle-class English family had done their best to suppress for 13 years, a tragedy they never talked about, a wound so painful they could scarcely bear to think of it: the suicide of his 22-year-old brother, Evelyn, in 2004. Making it was “excruciating”, he says.
Filmed over five weeks, ‘Evelyn’ shows von Einsiedel, his sister Gwennie and youngest brother Robin hiking through some of Evelyn’s favourite places – the Cairngorms, the Trossachs, the Lake District, the South Downs in Sussex. At different points they are joined by their mother, Beta, a music therapist; their father, Andreas, a German photographer who had left Beta long before Evelyn’s death; and two of Evelyn’s best friends.
As they walk through gorgeous scenery, some days in sunshine but on others in storms and downpours that reflected their sombre mood, the personable, articulate and intelligent members of this troubled family force themselves to talk about Evelyn.
Beta remembers how her “darling angel” - gentle, gifted and good-looking - developed schizophrenia in his late teens and “all his happiness disappeared” as he turned into a “monster”. Gwennie recalls a previous suicide attempt by Evelyn. They all talk of the day his body was discovered hanging from a tree at the end of their garden in Forest Hill, and how they heard the news. They share their pent-up grief and memories of Evelyn, and the documentary is punctuated by poignant images of him skateboarding, climbing hills and clowning around in happier times.
The film is harrowing to watch, let alone make. There are many tears, lots of hugs, and little in the way of light relief save for a scene where they laugh about Evelyn’s very loud farting. At one point, on the island of Tiree in the Outer Hebrides, Gwennie declares miserably: “I’ve had enough. I don’t feel lighter. I don’t feel like I’m exorcising stuff. I just feel like all it’s doing is bringing lots of painful and traumatic things back that I can’t now make go away, stuff that I’ve spent a long time trying to forget.”
Von Einsiedel himself confides to the camera one evening: “Every day I’m questioning whether this whole thing is a good idea. It’s really tough. It’s so much harder that I thought it would be. I’m struggling to hold it together.” Indeed of all his family this professional questioner of others finds it the hardest to open up, to unlock the 13 years of sorrow, guilt and anger festering inside him.
There is a history of mental illness and suicide in Von Einsiedel’s family. Two of his father’s uncles took their own lives. He himself was named after the title character of ‘Orlando’, a novel by his mother’s great aunt, Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself in 1941. Her death was considered rather shameful and “never really spoken about in the family”, he says.
Educated at Alleyne’s School in Dulwich, he became a semi-professional snowboarder while studying at Manchester and the London School of Economics, and began filming himself and his fellow snowboarders to attract sponsorship. That led to work with the Al-Jazeera television station followed by the breakthrough triumphs of ‘Virunga’ and ‘White Helmets’.
During the latter’s release at the Telluride film festival in Colorado von Eisiendel and his producer, Joanna Natasegara, were kicking around ideas for their next project – the Philippines’ drug war, horses in Wyoming. As von Eisendel remembers it, Joanna then said: “Why don’t you make a film about your family?” It felt, she told him, “like the one war zone you will not go to.”
“He told me to fuck off. He was furious,” Natesegara recalls.
“I was totally floored,” von Eisiendel admits. “I don’t know if I’d ever had a conversation with Jo about what happened. I may have said in passing I had a brother who took his own life, but I’d never told her anything. I shut it down. I remember feeling furious. I said ‘how dare you ask me that. We’ve never ever gone there. Why would I ever consider making a film about it?.” It did not help that it was the anniversary of Evelyn’s death.
But his reaction startled him. “I started thinking maybe I really do need to address the fact that her even mentioning this is so upsetting and such a black hole.” As he says at the start of the film, his brother’s suicide “left a void that’s never healed. I can’t bring myself to talk about my brother and how he died. I can barely say his name.” Or, as Gwennie says: “I just thought Orlando was completely emotionally stunted.”
There was another reason for making such a film. Suicide was a subject that badly needed to be addressed. It is the leading cause of death among British men aged between 20 and 49. In 2017 alone 5,821 suicides were recorded in the UK – a statistic so shocking that the government last month (October) appointed a minister for suicide prevention. Worldwide, we learn at the end of ‘Evelyn’, around 800,000 people take their own lives each year and 20 million families are affected.
Despite those figures, and despite a growing willingness by prominent public figures like Prince Harry and Ruth Davidson to talk about their mental health problems, it remains a taboo subject, an act still tinged with a sense of shame and dishonour.
It would be a film that could help others, Natasegara thought. “I’ve definitely had close personal experience of people with mental health and that’s been very frightening. I’ve had lots of experience with people I thought were at risk of taking their own lives, and that’s been very terrifying.”
Von Einsiedel finally came up with the idea of walking and talking about Evelyn, and gingerly put it to his family. “There did need to be some persuasion,” Gwennie, a 33-year-old PhD student, says.
“Initially we talked about it as a long walk and talk between Robin, Orlando and I - a sibling venture. Then Orlando said he would obviously want to film it, and in my brain that meant Orlando with a handycam. And then it was ‘actually it will be a crew’. We were reluctant because of how exposing it would be, and these were conversations we’d never had before and suddenly to contemplate having them not only with each other but potentially with lots of people watching was quite difficult. The reason it was something we came round to ultimately was because of the good it could do.”
Robin, a 30-year-old artist, was also dubious. “I think he felt ‘I don’t want to be out in the public talking about this issue. I don’t know what I have to say about it’,” von Einsiedel says. But Von Einsiedel’s long-estranged parents agreed immediately. “My mum wanted to talk about Evelyn but we all shut it down whenever she brought it up,” he says. “Dad said ‘yeah’. He knew none of us had ever spoken about this and said ‘I think it’s a really great thing. I didn’t think this was how you would come to terms with it, but I knew at some point you would have to face it.”
Even then von Einsiedel’s own commitment to the project was equivocal. He worried it would be seen as “incredibly self indulgent middle-class twaddle”. He feared it would prove emotionally overwhelming - “Me and Jo had a deal. If we filmed this walk and it was a bad experience we would kill the film,” he says. Initially he believed he could stay out of sight himself, merely asking questions of the others from behind the camera, but that idea was swiftly scotched.
And so they set off in August last year – the three siblings, their mother and the tiny, trusted film crew of four with whom von Einsiedel had made ‘Virunga’ and ‘White Helmets’.
So he did not have to walk backwards for five weeks, Franklin Dow, the cameraman, had spent three months building a camera that rested on a stabilising mechanism on his back, with a screen in front of him to show what the camera was recording. Dow also used a drone, which conveyed the eerie sense of Evelyn looking down on his family as they hiked across the moors and mountains.
They bared their souls gradually, and in their own time, led by Beta. The exquisite scenery encouraged them to open up. Walking allowed them to take their time, to pause and consider what they really wanted to say. Sub-plots emerged, including a crackling tension between Gwennie and her father.
While hiking the siblings met a remarkable number of people who confessed that they, too, had friends or relatives who had taken their own lives – an ice-cream vendor in the Lake District who had lost his mother, a former soldier on the South Downs who had lost three brothers-in-arms, a woman running a Scottish pub because her brother – the landlord – had killed himself the month before.
When it all became too much, they jumped into freezing lochs or rivers. “I can’t tell you how healing it is. We called it cold water therapy and it entirely transforms your state of mind,” von Einsiedel says.
He alone held back, preferring to pose questions than answer them. “I’ve never gone through such a sustained period of not wanting to be somewhere,” he says. He was a “textbook example” of that “stiff upper lip, don’t talk about your emotions, carry on” mentality. “I just didn’t want to talk about that stuff.”
Orlando “had the longest way to come considering where he started from emotionally, which was bottling things up for years and not emotionally engaging with anything,” Gwennie agrees.
He was finally accosted one day by Evelyn’s best friend, Leon. “You’re taking a liberty,” Leon told him. “You’re going to have to talk. You’re trying to hide behind asking questions and stuff,” he went on. “It’s a touch of that stiff upper lip, man up, puff your chest out and just get on with it. That’s an outdated view of masculinity, and seeing someone like you, as successful as you are, being open and vulnerable might make all the difference to someone watching this, to someone who’s not been able to talk about it for fear of being seen as weak.”
Von Einsiedel resisted. He protested that he did not want to burden others, that it was all too draining. Then suddenly he crumpled, sobbing on Leon’s shoulder. “I’ve got so much agony just built up from so long,” he whispered.
By the end of the film von Eisendel and his siblings were talking freely about Evelyn in a way they never had before. On a beautiful summer’s day they walked across the South Downs and he managed – albeit tearfully – to read them a bitter sweet poem about death that he had been sent by a friend. In the film’s final scene he reads, for the first time, Evelyn’s suicide note. “I’d carried it the whole way along the walk and just put off reading it until that last night,” he says.
The pain of Evelyn’s suicide has certainly not gone away. Reliving the most emotional moments of the walk as he edited them in his studio brought von Eisiendel out in stress-related boils. But making the film has proved enormously cathartic, he says. It has brought Evelyn back into his life again. It has unlocked happy memories of his brother that had been eclipsed by the horror of his death. It has brought him much closer to Gwennie and Robin by removing the proverbial elephant in the room that they could never speak about.
“If you had said to me two years ago I’d be sitting here having a two-hour conversation with a journalist about Evelyn, and feeling OK doing it, I would have said ‘bollocks’, Orlando says. “I could never have imagined doing that.
“I don’t feel scared of my emotions (any more)...It’s enormously liberating. I hope people may take something from this film, go on a walk and talk about this stuff because it feels so much better when it comes out.”
Gwennie concurs. “I don’t think you ever get over losing a loved one, but you learn to live with it,” she says. “You have to process and talk about it – things we’ve been unable to do until now. It’s crazy really that that many years went by, but I can see how it happened.”
Last month von Eisiendel’s partner, Esme, gave birth to their first child – a son. It is a measure of von Eisiendel’s progress that they have given him the middle name of ‘Evelyn’ - a constant, permanent and indelible reminder of the brother that for more than a decade he simply could not and would not talk about.