One of the strongest impressions that remain with me after watching Orlando von Einsiedel’s Evelyn (TW: Suicide) is, contrary to expectation, one of beauty. Academy Award-winner von Einsiedel’s incredibly personal documentary was released on Netflix on World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10) and based on the descriptions I’d read, I was expecting a difficult watch filled with pain and grief. And yet, as I said before, it is the beauty in it that lingers — of the stunning Scottish and English landscapes featured, as well as of people, and life itself.
Evelyn was Orlando’s (it feels strange to use the formal last name after watching this documentary) younger brother who took his own life in 2004, and this film bearing his name documents his family and friends taking his favourite walks across the UK, and try to come to terms with the tragedy, 13 years later.
Orlando is joined by his younger siblings, Gwennie and Robbie, through the entire journey, and they are joined in different places by their mother, their father (who left when Robbie was just a baby) and his wife, and Evelyn’s best friends, Leon and Jack. Their walks (what we would call hikes, really) take them to some of the most gorgeous locations in Scotland and England, and their talks, meanwhile, take them through some very painful memories that they have all buried for a long time.
Right at the outset, Orlando tells us that he and his siblings have not really spoken about what happened. Though he’s comfortable putting himself through extremely risky situations in the course of his work — his documentaries so far have largely been set in conflict zones — and taking on tricky subjects in these films, he has trouble even mentioning Evelyn’s name.
Through the course of this film Orlando also reveals that the tragedy has deeply impacted all of their relationships, and aside from providing some form catharsis, his hope is for the process of making the documentary to help heal their bruised relationships with each other as well. And when we see them interacting on their walks, the tension is palpable and really brings home the burden on the bereaved. This was especially striking for me.
At first, I wasn’t sure I could truly relate to this film as I have never lost anyone to suicide myself. But then I realised I have been on the other side (if the stats provided at the end of the film are any indication, I am far from alone in this), and watching Evelyn — which also features strangers that Orlando and his family meet along the way, who have also suffered a similar loss — really provides much needed perspective.
One man, talking about his mother who took her own life, says, “We [he and his sister] are just as proud of her. She thought nobody liked her.” This same man says, “It leaves you with no answers.” This feeling is echoed by others. Not understanding why, not being able to get any real closure, the what-ifs — I can only imagine how incredibly difficult that must be.
Intertwined with the walks, we also get to see snippets of individual interviews with everyone, where they talk about what they want from this project. Orlando confesses to finding it really difficult and being concerned also for what he’s putting the others through. His fears seem prescient when Gwennie breaks down towards the end because “it’s not getting any easier” and all that she had tried to forget and bury is now back up at the surface. But Orlando tells her, while it may never get less painful talking about certain parts of Evelyn’s life, it may get easier to talk and think about Evelyn now.
This follows one of the film’s most memorable sequences (the other being the reading of a poem) — the one where Leon convinces Orlando that he needs to stop hiding and open up, particularly in front of his siblings, and because they must not forget Evelyn and how they feel about him. Leon also says Orlando opening up will help others who watch this film.
Others who have also found it hard to talk about these things. The stigma around suicide and mental health is still very real in 2019, and it’s about time to wipe that away. These conversations must be had so no one feels — as Orlando confesses in the aforementioned sequence and Jack does in an earlier one — that they are making others uncomfortable by talking about these things. And this film is, hopefully, a step in that direction.
Streaming on: Netflix
Documentary name: Evelyn