Hartmann: St. Louis Filmmakers Beat the Odds With Suicide-Prevention Documentary

Hours after being denied admittance at a hospital for his suicidal thoughts, Ryan Candice (played by Ethan Olson) feels he’s exhausted his options.
Hours after being denied admittance at a hospital for his suicidal thoughts, Ryan Candice (played by Ethan Olson) feels he’s exhausted his options. KYLE KRUPINSKI

If someone pitched a movie script about a group of college students getting devastated by friends' suicides and then turning their grief on its head by making an inspiring mental health documentary that ends up at the world's largest virtual film festival ever, the studios would politely say no.

It's a nice plot, they'd say, but too syrupy. Stories like that don't happen in the real world.

Well, it has happened. And not just anywhere, but here in St. Louis, and now globally.

The documentary Wake Up makes its world premiere at 5:45 p.m. Thursday on YouTube as part of We Are One: A Global Film Festival. Coordinated by YouTube, Tribeca Enterprises and twenty of the world's most prestigious film festivals — names like Cannes, Sundance, Venice, Toronto and Berlin get your attention — the extravaganza is an international film industry version of Live Aid to benefit COVID-19 relief efforts. It started May 29 and runs through Sunday.

Wake Up is the dream come true of a group of about twenty impassioned Mizzou students from the St. Louis area who were brought together in 2014 by the tragic loss to suicide of two members of their circle of friends. They were determined to pay tribute and spread the word about the need for suicide prevention and mental-health awareness.

That tribute will take the form of an 88-minute feature film in the headliner spot on June 4 in the largest virtual film festival in history. It's one of just eight documentaries at the festival, and the only film from St. Louis.

Before the pandemic, the film was on its way to respectable success. It had been accepted at three festivals: Manhattan, Richmond International and Newport Beach. But with COVID-19 shuttering festivals, We Are One was born, and Wake Up was accepted less than two weeks ago. With mental health concerns skyrocketing in the pandemic, the timing was as amazing as the story of the film itself.

Its driving force is Alex Lindley, now a local lawyer, but in 2014, a senior at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Back then, Lindley was grieving suicide of his lifelong friend Ryan Candice, a popular De Smet Jesuit High School graduate and fellow Mizzou senior. It was the second such body blow suffered in two years by Lindley and his friends: Another close to them, Carolyn Dolan, had taken her own life in 2012.

Lindley describes Dolan, a Cor Jesu Academy graduate as "a beautiful girl, an absolute spark in so many people's lives." It was the first experience with suicide for those people, Lindley says.

"We were nineteen at the time, me and my group of friends. We really didn't know how to grieve, we didn't know how to face it," Lindley says. "We were like many who stigmatized suicide in the sense that we didn't openly discuss it. It was more like, 'Carolyn died,' and we didn't talk about why." 

Fast forward two years, Lindley says, and the loss of Candice to suicide "lit a fire under my belly." There was the grim realization that losing Carolyn Dolan wasn't enough to save Ryan Candice.

"I was just shocked and angry that even having lost Carolyn together and having grieved together, Ryan still didn't feel comfortable reaching out and that, to me, that was the stigma," Lindley says. "That, and the fact that his access to emergency services wasn't adequate or available: He was denied admission to a hospital and took his life two hours later. I had a fire under my belly to do something about it.

"I got our group of friends together," Lindley says. "We were broken and grieving at the time, but we just wanted to do something ambitious, to turn the tragedy on its head, to try to save lives. We landed on the documentary."

This wasn't a group of filmmakers, but they found a talented one in Nate Townsend, a St. Louis native who is now all of 28. How talented? Too late for a spoiler alert: I believe I've given away the answer.

When the RFT first covered the story of Project Wake Up in 2016, Townsend had been hired to direct and create "a short film that celebrated Ryan's life and gave viewers a small glimpse into what the full production would explore." At the time, this was just a scrappy little group promoting a golf tournament as part of an ambitious fundraising effort. 

A GoFundMe campaign had blown away expectations with the group raising a "shocking" $35,000, versus a goal of $10,000, we reported. That total is now in excess of $500,000 and climbing.

"We had no idea that in six years, we'd be in this position," Lindley says. "We had a very inspired group, and we stuck with it, and people really got behind it. The whole city got behind it, and we haven't looked back since. It has been an incredible journey."

A key part of the group, who joined months after it formed, was Danny Kerth, whose father Al Kerth — a friend of mine — had taken his life in 2002. Al Kerth had battled a bi-polar disease that was invisible to those of us who knew him as the ever-cheerful and highly regarded public relations man who represented, among others, Civic Progress.

Lindley and Kerth have emerged as co-executive producers of the film. Lindley is president of and Kerth vice president of the Project Wake Up not-for-profit group.

"We need to send a huge thank you to the entire St. Louis community. It takes a special kind of people to believe in a bunch of twenty-somethings who think they can change the way that people talk about mental health," Kerth says. "The progression I've seen since my dad passed in 2002 to now is that more people are slowly being OK with talking about this kind of stuff, and that's a huge first step in breaking down those stigmas. The stigmas still exist in a lot of realms, but we're making progress."

Kerth emphasizes there needs to be the family member or friend who reaches out to someone displaying signs they need mental health assistance.

"You need to have the courage to reach out," Kerth says. "You'd much rather be a helicopter friend at the end of the day than somebody who decided to sit back and let something irreversible happen."

That's one of the central messages of the film. Wake Up delves into the grim numbers of suicide and some of the special challenges facing veterans, the LGBTQ community (especially trans people), underserved rural communities and the like. But it stays positive about what people can do to make a difference.

Lindley thinks that helps set the film apart.

"One of the constant reviews that we've gotten is that it doesn't seem like a 90-minute film," Lindley says. "Not only is it not a dark and depressing film that you might expect when you hear a 90-minute suicide documentary, but it has a very hopeful tone, and it's very beautifully shot."

I'm no film reviewer, but having seen it, I'd call that an understatement. And so is this: The tragedy of suicide is the most misunderstood mental health crisis of our time. Wake Up goes a long way in getting that message across powerfully, both to those faced with depression in these difficult times, and others who might be able to help them.

By hitting the world stage, I'd say Project Wake Up has checked off the box as to getting that word out to a sizable audience.

But the story of the film is still too good to be believed.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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