Doco of the month: The Common Thread
27 August 2019 at 8:52 am
Everybody has a story to tell when it comes to mental health, and Byron Bay filmmaker Darius Devas is no exception. He talks to Wendy Williams about his struggle with anxiety and how the suicide of his friend led him to make The Common Thread, as part of a series profiling powerful documentaries in partnership with Documentary Australia Foundation.
“At the end of the day, I can’t lose another friend like Alice. We need to have these conversations.” – Darius Devas
When filmmaker Darius Devas set out to make a documentary series examining the lives of young Australians experiencing mental health conditions he was struck by just how many people were hungry for a safe space to be heard.
Nearly everyone he spoke with had their own story to tell about mental health, and they wanted to share it.
“And without putting too much onus or too much grandiosity on what we were doing, it was clear that it was really meaningful for these people to have an opportunity to be heard in a really safe way,” Devas says.
Almost half of all Australians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Yet it is a topic that many feel unable to talk about.
The Common Thread, which is backed by Screen Australia, hopes to change that, by illuminating the extent of youth mental health issues in Australia and addressing the stigma that surrounds it.
Over the course of six episodes (each lasting five to eight minutes), Devas travels the length and breadth of Australia to meet young people from all walks of life, who open up about their mental health journeys and share the tools and tactics that have supported their recovery.
The Common Thread is also a deeply personal project for Devas, who has struggled with anxiety and whose drive for the series came from a desire to understand the loss of his friend, Indigenous poet Alice Eather, to suicide.
“More specifically, it was her father [Michael Eather] who got up at the funeral and was just very courageous in naming the fact that his daughter had taken her life and not shying away from that. I felt the topic wouldn’t have been broached had he not named it. And so I think I drew a lot of strength from his courage in wanting to consider approaching the family,” Devas says.
“At the same time, I had spent three years prior to Alice taking her life really working to manage my anxiety, but also on a broader level really understand myself better and sort of go through my own process of healing and recovery.
“So these two elements collided and that was really the conception of the project.”
Devas describes the experience of making the series – which involved cold canvassing people on the street to ask them about their mental health stories – as both profoundly humbling, and really terrifying.
“I would say 60 per cent of the 50 odd interviews we did were… just meeting people on the streets and asking them if they would be interested to talk to us. And it never got easier,” he says.
“But I knew it was really important.”
While Devas had organised some participant interviews through project partners, he wanted to get a sense of what life was like for everyday Australians.
He says he was moved by the generosity and trust of all the participants they interviewed.
“Across the board there was just this overwhelming generosity in being honest and vulnerable with where they are at in their lives. And I just had such a clear sense of how powerful that was going to be for others to hear their stories,” he says.
Each episode, released online via Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, is based around a different geographic demographic (the coast, the country, the outback, the city and the Top End).
One of the things that is so striking about the series is the reminder of just how prevalent mental illness is.
“It is just absolutely none discriminating,” Devas says.
“Everywhere we went, it didn’t matter if you were a wealthy farmer or you were living on the street or whatever, it just does not discriminate. And I think that that was really something that stood out for me.”
But the main message is one of hope.
“Up front and centre I just wanted this series to be inspiring,” Devas says.
“And that is definitely something that I worked very hard to do in the edits – to balance that honesty with a real sense of hope, because I think there is a lot to be hopeful for.”
The episodes highlight the importance of self-love, reaching out for help and crucially talking about mental health.
In the second episode in the series, Indigenous artist and professional surfer Otis Carey says: “As soon as you start talking you instantly feel better. Even if it’s embarrassing to talk about it, you’re going to come out of the other side of the conversation feeling better.”
Devas says one of his strengths as a filmmaker is in creating an honest, safe space for people to talk.
“By creating that space, it is opening up a sense in people that it is okay to talk about these things. It’s a really simple yet incredibly profound step in the process of just normalising it,” he says.
“There’s a lot of talk about ‘destigmatising’ and there’s catchphrases and slogans, and there’s a lot of really great work being done… but sometimes there’s a realness that can be missed in a campaign.
“And I just wanted to create something absolutely truthful and honest and in that honesty, inspire others to feel like, ‘oh that person’s like me. I could do that. I could pick up the phone’. I think there’s so much power in that.”
The series, aimed at 16 to 30 year olds, also has a very clear impact campaign built around it with a strong network of partners, including headspace, SANE Australia and the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health.
The aim is to support Australians to have a better understanding of the diversity and extent of mental health experiences in young Australians, as well as understand the importance of destigmatising mental health issues to encourage a culture of open and informed conversation.
As part of the campaign Devas has worked with specialist educational producer Anne Cheshire to produce an education package and target higher education institutions to implement the series into their curriculum.
In conjunction, the team are wanting to build an effective website to showcase the materials, resources and tools in an accessible way.
They are also working towards doing a regional tour to make sure the series is seen outside of the major cities.
But Devas says the most important outcome for him is the sense that at some level it could shift one person from taking their own life.
“And I’ll never know that, you’ll never know that, but that is a real, direct intention for wanting to make it,” he says.
Each month Pro Bono Australia and Documentary Australia Foundation present a Doco of the Month, profiling powerful documentaries with social impact at their heart.
Documentary Australia Foundation is Australia’s only not-for-profit organisation that fosters social change through documentary storytelling.
If you or someone you know is experiencing issues with mental health, please contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or headspace on 1800 650 890.