This year two films on suicide took home Oscars: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 for best Documentary Short Film and The Phone Call for best Live Action Short Film. Both speak with quiet eloquence about the power of love in the face of death.
Veterans Press 1 (Ellen Goosenberg and Dana Perry, 2013) is a short documentary that follows the responders at a crisis hotline in Canandaigua, New York. Text on the screen informs the viewers of a few facts: veterans in the United States commit twenty-two suicides a day; this is the only crisis hotline serving veterans in the United States; and the hotline employs about two hundred and fifty responders, twenty-five percent of whom are veterans themselves.
We watch as four responders—Diane, Barbara, Maureen, and Luis—answer calls from suicidal veterans. During the calls, the responders communicate via instant messages with an emergency rescue coordinator, who is prepared to contact the police and an ambulance. After Diane experiences a particularly painful phone call, a colleague comes into her office to hug her and offer words of encouragement. The responders work to comfort each other almost as often as they work to console the veterans who call for help.
Luis, a responder and a retired Army veteran, says: “No matter how much training I’ve had in suicide. . . . This is another human being on the line. . . . My job is to make sure he doesn’t become a statistic, that we help him, or her.” His goal in answering calls is to save lives, and he is committed to seeing the value in a life when the person at the end of the line no longer sees it.
Maureen, a middle-aged and composed woman, tells us that ultimately, “the decision [to commit suicide] is theirs,” and she sees her job as an effort to provide reasons and tools for veterans to stay alive. Shortly after Maureen makes these comments, she answers a call from a former marine, who has already taken twelve hydrocodone and twelve muscle relaxers. She and the emergency rescue coordinators work to get an ambulance to him, and he’s picked up just as his consciousness starts to fade. Answering these calls requires immense emotional strength, a kind that can only come from a place of love for the suicidal stranger asking for help.
At the end of the film, these words fill the screen: “Since 2001, more US service members have taken their own lives than have died on the battlefield.” The crisis hotline responders do everything in their power to keep those numbers from rising. Their work is tireless.
The Phone Call (Matt Kirby, 2013) follows the conversation a young woman, Heather (Sally Hawkins), has with an elderly man who has called the suicide hotline to report he’s overdosed on antidepressants. Heather, alone in the call room except for one man who is also on the phone, tries to convince the man to give her the information she needs to call an ambulance. He refuses her offer, but tells her to call him Stan and says that it is the second anniversary of his wife’s death. When Heather asks Stan if he’s ever called before, he says no.
Stan doesn’t want to die alone, which is why he called the suicide hotline. Heather faithfully stays on the line with him until his side is quiet, after he reveals that his real name is John and that he has called before. Heather finds his information in a filing cabinet near her desk, but she’s too late to save John’s life. As soft, melodic music plays, we see John’s wife walk in the door, calling out for her husband, who says he’s been waiting for her. The scene changes to two paramedics wheeling a body out on a stretcher. The final scene shows Heather waiting in a dim restaurant for her date, the other man who was working at the suicide hotline. She looks at him gently and leans in to kiss him. The film ends there.
Veterans Press 1 shows what kind of love it takes to prevent a stranger’s suicide; The Phone Call outlines the role love plays before, during, and after a suicide. Both films argue for the preeminence of love over death and so remind us that love is our best weapon against suicide—that love can, indeed, conquer all. Rather than condone suicide or turn away in indifference, we are called to the more demanding response of sacrificial and consuming love.
Lauren Schuhmacher is a writer living in New York.