“Thirteen years ago my beautiful brother took his own life. He left a void that’s never been healed”

Personal stories of suicide loss can often be compelling in revealing the profound effects of suicide on those left behind, but they usually provide us with only one point of view, that of the narrator.

Directed and produced by Oscar-winning team Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara, the remarkable documentary film Evelyn (2018) turns its unflinching gaze on the experiences of a bereft sibling group, their parents, and their brother’s close friends, as they each struggle to confront the devastating loss of their brother/son/friend some thirteen years previously. Prompted by sister Gwennie, Orlando resolves to use his skills as a documentary maker to resolve the longstanding silence within the family. Evelyn loved hiking, and in his memory the three surviving siblings, Orlando, Gwennie and Robin, would retrace the steps they had taken together on childhood holidays. Along the way they would be joined by their parents and Evelyn’s friends each of whom hold part of the jigsaw that makes up the memories of this lost brother, son and friend.

Masterfully structured and with stunning cinematography, the film brings very high production values to a subject that is often overlooked or neglected, that of the subjective experience of suicide bereavement. Dramatic views of the mountains and valleys of Scotland provide an almost Shakespearean backdrop against which the family’s journey into their shared past plays out. Their battle with this hilly terrain and capricious weather seems to parallel their emotional struggles with their collective and individual grief. Walking alongside each other they are spared the discomfort of making eye contact as they tentatively explore their loss together for the first time.

These outdoor vistas contrast with intimate indoor scenes in which each individual reflects quietly on his or her own personal experience.

Anyone who has lost someone to suicide will recognize the themes that emerge: the traumatic memories and still lingering shock of the day it happened, and of how we heard the news. The inevitable regrets, the thousand alternative scenarios in which the person we loved might have survived. In the words of Evelyn’s best friend: “…the what ifs are killing me, the what ifs”. The hesitation around speaking of our loss, in case we upset or embarrass other people. The reluctance to speak even to those who share our loss, for fear of making things worse, of stirring up feelings that are best, or easiest, left buried. The contradictory plight of the suicide bereaved is epitomised in father Andreas’ exclamation: “The idea that it could have been prevented is just too much to bear”. Another theme that emerges is of how, as the family share their story with strangers along the way, they discover that some of these others have experienced similar losses. The ease with which bereaved strangers identify with the family’s story demonstrates the profound bond that shared experience can create.

Amid the grief that is never far from the surface, we glimpse the normal tensions and emotional undercurrents among family members. There’s laughter too, providing relief at the most unexpected times. When words fail, as they often do, there are many hugs and tears.

The film is bookended by hauntingly poignant home video sequences which give a sense of the lively teenage boy that is now so missed. As we see him interact with the younger selves of the film’s three protagonists, we get a sense of that “always-there-and-always-will-be-there” presumption of the sibling experience. We hear of his smile, his laugh, his twinkling eyes, his intelligence and caring nature, his ambition to become a doctor, yet Evelyn himself remains an enigmatic figure. Almost as tragic as the suicide itself is the mental illness that affected him from the age of fifteen, worsening in the last months of his life, so that as his mother describes “… all his happiness disappeared…”, and “it was so ‘not Evelyn’ to be who he was being”.

As a study of the effects of suicide within a family, Evelyn is a breathtaking achievement. Orlando von Einsiedel has transmuted his family’s suffering into a tragic but ultimately uplifting film and he and his family are to be commended for their bravery and their honesty in inviting us to witness their journey. In living their lives they honour the memory of their lost brother and we should be thankful that they have given the world this invaluable documentary film which will promote understanding of suicide and suicide bereavement for years and decades to come.

Nina Kennedy, 15 June 2019

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