The big, unanswered question is: Why did so many young people – the official count is 79 between 2007 and 2012 – from tiny Bridgend County, South Wales, decide to end their lives?
"Like Sara and the other teens, most of us recognise the need for community – even if that community has an unknown dark side."
This question is the starting point of Jeppe Rønde's first feature fiction Bridgend. Sara moves with her father back to the former mining town they are from after her mother dies. Her father, Dave, is a policeman tasked with solving the spate of mysterious suicides among the town's youth. Mixing life force with a death wish, the teenagers meet in the woods – away from their parents – to drink and swim in the lake and celebrate the dead. As the suicides mount, Sara's fascination with the group grows and, against her father's will, she falls in love with one of the boys, Jamie, a minister's son.
"Like Sara and the other teens, most of us recognise the need for community – even if that community has an unknown dark side. You can't control your love and your longing, especially when you're young. But most of us don't take our own lives for that reason. That's where the crucial difference kicks in. Why did it end in such a tragedy?" Rønde asks.
The Collective Unconscious
The director provides no final answer in Bridgend, just as there is no answer in real life. Some suspect the teens made a suicide pact online, where they got together in a virtual world divorced from reality. Others point to the lack of parental care. All the young suicide victims used the same method: girls and boys alike hanged themselves without leaving a suicide note.
"The modern, rational person wants to find the cause of a problem, so it can be fixed. So we can move on and put it behind us. Getting no answer when we ask ‘why' makes us insecure. It can happen again. And it does. Young people are still committing suicide there, even if it seems to have peaked, fortunately," Rønde says.
"The important thing for me wasn't to provide an answer, because how do you do that? What's the meaning of life and death? Instead, I tried to get close to the teens and understand what drives them and the group dynamics they are part of for good and ill – this incredibly powerful collective unconscious where you do certain things and follow each other without knowing exactly why."
In the film, the divide between reason and irrationality is embodied in Sara and her father. As a cop, Dave follows the path of logic, which only leads to further bewilderment, while Sara, via her natural sensibility and immediate love, is much closer to an actual understanding.
Local Involvement Is Key
Jeppe Rønde first came across the story of the suicides in a newspaper article in January 2008. A few months later, at Easter, he made the first of countless trips to Bridgend. At first, Rønde had to take an almost anthropological approach to access the lives of these teens, but today he thinks of them as friends.
"Several people have tried to make a film about the incidents, but they were all shut down or didn't get real access. It takes a certain amount of patience," he says. "Because I wasn't a journalist – the local youths beat up journalists – and because I didn't take notes, I slowly got closer to them over the years. I have been with them through good times and bad, partied with them and felt on my own body how tough this area can be."
Several young people the director was in contact with later committed suicide, even though they told him they would never dream of doing it. One hanged himself in a tree next to the one his best friend hanged himself in the year before. Others have tried to hang themselves more than once but survived. For a while, this happened several times a week.
Naturally, the many suicides among its young people have shaken the small community. Out of respect for the place and the youth, Rønde and his crew chose to film in the area and find local talent both in front of and behind the camera. The two leads, Sara and Jamie, are played by professional actors Hannah Murray and Josh O'Connor, while the rest of the actors were cast locally over a year and a half.
"These young people want their story told and put out there. Most grownups I have met want that, too, though a few, typically those whose daughters or sons have committed suicide, were more sceptical about the film. For that reason, having the support of the local community was essential to us. We showed up at community centres and other places to describe the project and took the time to talk with the authorities and the families," Rønde says.
"I was certain we'd come up against all sorts of resistance when we shot the film, but we didn't. On the contrary. That's a huge relief and it pleases me no end. They could so easily have called me out for not being from around there and who was I to tell their story? But they didn't."
A Personal Project
Bridgend is Jeppe Rønde's first fiction feature. Originally a maker of documentaries, he is the director of Jerusalem, My Love and The Swenkas, which were both screened at a ton of festivals and both orbit the father-son relationship and the search for meaning.
Faith plays a significant role in Bridgend, as well. While the grownups profess a more conventional religion, in church, other forces are in play among the youth. They celebrate the dead by shouting out their names at the sky and find community with each other and in nature. Many of the characters are composites of stories that Rønde came across in Bridgend. Clearly, the film is as personal to him as his other films.
Director Jeppe Rønde Photo: Sebastian Blenkov
"When I make a film, I'm always interested in examining a simple question: Why do we get up in the morning? What's the meaning of all of this, of life?" For the same reason, it isn't crucial to him whether he's working in documentaries or features.
"There's no clear boundary between fiction and reality. There's no one truth. Or there are as many truths as there are people. It's all about sensibility and how best to tell your story. That's where my language as a director comes in. It's my truth. Whether it's called one thing or another is secondary."
"Why do the young people in Bridgend hang themselves? I try to find answers where there are none by using a cinematic language emphasizing that there's more to life than a linear story and a perfect pan. By mixing images of death and life, nature and modernity, time and place into montages. By showing a dog in an overgrown railway leading into the woods,as if nature had taken over civilization. By letting the silence explode into a cacophony of words and music. In short, by allowing images and sounds embrace us in an evocative, sensuous way. That way we might be able to find some kind of answer after all."
"The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once wrote about directing a pair of binoculars at something you either hope to see, want to see or despair at not seeing. You have to understand that the outer lenses of the binoculars are in fact mirrors. The answer lies, first and foremost, within ourselves," the director says
Bridgend opened at Rotterdam and Göteborg Film Festivals. The film is supported by the Danish Film Institute's talent scheme New Danish Screen and produced by Michel Schønnemann and Malene Blenkov for Blenkov & Schønnemann Pictures.