Dominic Saunders was 14 years old when he died.
The once-charismatic, goofy boy had grown dark and distant. On June 4, 2015, with his father deployed overseas, the Palmer High School student found his father's gun and shot himself. It was just one of a series that year, including the suicides of two 14-year-old West Middle School eighth-graders within two weeks ("The hardest thing," News, May 27, 2015).
Suicide has largely been viewed as an adult issue — too sad, or perhaps too dangerous, to be spoken of around children. But it is not a problem that affects adults exclusively, particularly in El Paso County, which has one of the nation's highest youth suicide rates.
Thus, four local teen filmmakers hope their short documentaries on suicide will open discussion. Dom is about the aftermath of Saunders' death. To Be Heard looks at how adults' refusal to listen to kids can lead to suicidal ideation. Breaking Silence is an autobiographical work by a lesbian who became suicidal due to bullying. Under the Wire is about filmmaker Madison Legg's brother who attempted suicide.
The teens are all students of the Youth Documentary Academy, hosted at the Bemis School of Art and led by documentary filmmaker and Colorado Springs native Tom Shepard, who now lives in San Francisco. Shepard has been making documentary films for the past two decades, including Scout's Honor, the story of a straight 13-year-old boy fighting the Boy Scouts of America's ban on gay participants ("Den of controversy," News, Feb. 13, 2013). The film won the Audience Award for Best Documentary and Freedom of Expression Award at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, Grand Prize at the USA Film Festival, and Best Social Issue Documentary by the Council on Family Relations.
Shepard started YDA in 2013 after seeing similar programs in big West Coast and East Coast cities.
"I think the goal was to try and level the playing field and make this kind of high-end film arts program available to students in the [West]," he says.
About 12 teens are chosen for a free 61/2-week summer course, and seven to 12 are selected for a second, shorter class later in the year. They are introduced to all aspects of film-making; mentored by authors, poets and filmmakers; and gain experience in different roles working in teams of three, helping each other make their films.
The program is funded by grants, including a three-year grant from the Russell Grinnell Memorial Trust. Since that grant is expiring, and each film costs $3,000 to $5,000, Shepard is looking for more funders to keep YDA going. (You can donate at youthdocumentary.org.)
YDA has had about 50 students here and in San Francisco, though Shepard now only teaches in the Springs. Kids are selected because they have an interest in film and would likely not otherwise be able to afford training.
They also must have stories to tell.
"We want the kids to bring the issues that they're passionate about, or that they are struggling with, or that shine some light in either darker corners or areas where there's special curiosity," Shepard says.
This year, as usual, his students delivered. In addition to three films about suicide (a fourth was made last year), one young woman explored the culture, history and judgment surrounding black women's hair, while another explained the insecurities she experienced after shaving her head. A young man directed a film about the loneliness of growing up with an autistic disorder, while a young woman focused on her experiences with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, an excruciating and debilitating disease.
YDA films, which are of professional quality, have been getting noticed. Antreise Lacey, now 18 and attending Hofstra University in New York, directed Shade last year when she was a senior at Widefield High School. The film explores the emergence of "#teamlightskin" and "#teamdarkskin" on the internet, and the "colorism" that has increasingly fractured the black community. It has been featured at the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival, the Scout Film Festival in Vermont, and will soon be shown at the All American High School Film Festival. Lacey was also among a group of four YDA students who traveled to Washington, D.C., in May to meet with senators and representatives and take part in a congressional screening of their films.
"It's an amazing experience and a great opportunity to have," says Lacey, who plans more films in the future.
Locals will get a chance to see all of the 2016 YDA films at their World Premiere at the Fine Arts Center on Wednesday, Oct. 26, at 6 p.m. Shepard is also planning a traveling film festival for the four films about suicide, to include a panel discussion with the student filmmakers.
We spoke with the four young filmmakers who chose to spotlight suicide.
Dom, by Kalia Hunter, 16, Palmer High School
As Kalia Hunter's powerful short documentary begins, you see a young boy in a tie-dye T-shirt, filming himself dancing alone in his messy room. He has lively eyes, an infectious charisma and the intuitive confidence that is the mark of the social media generation. You have to smile with him.
But after his mother's sudden death in July 2014, Dominic Saunders, or "Dom" as he was known to friends, was never the same. In the film, Daniel Saunders, Dominic's father, explains that the mother and son "shared the same soul" and her death "crushed" Dom.
"He became a different person," Daniel says of his son. "He became a stranger."
Hunter says she knew Dom, though not very well. Nevertheless, she says, his death hit her hard. After the difficult interviews with Dom's father and friends, she showed the film to loved ones privately before its premiere.
"The reaction," she says, "was very sad. Obviously, it's a sad, sad story. But some people after our little preliminary shots said they also struggled with thoughts of suicide, and this documentary actually made them see the effects of it."
Asked what she thinks could be done to prevent teen suicides, Hunter says she thinks schools need to teach students about mental health issues.
"Most people don't know how to identify the symptoms of high-functioning depression," she notes.
To Be Heard, by Amethyst Drago, 17, Vista Ridge High School
As a child, Amethyst Drago's mother was constantly moving. An alcoholic, she couldn't provide the stability that Amethyst and her brother craved. Then one day, Drago says, she dropped the kids off at their dad's and didn't return for years. Drago says her dad, a "tough love" kind of guy, didn't want to talk about it.
"All those feelings of not having my mom there, I didn't get to really say much about that," she says. "My dad really isn't good with that sort of thing, so he would just take us out to the movies. ... There was one summer we saw like seven movies in two weeks."
While her mother is now sober and they have mended their relationship, Drago says she suffered from depression and anxiety, and attempted suicide when she was younger. So it was natural to make To Be Heard, a visually beautiful film that explores suicide attempts of young kids who feel they cannot speak to their parents, including a boy who attempted before he reached his teen years.
As one young girl in the film says, "What you say does affect how your kids think about themselves. It's not a free pass just because they're your kids, and it's not a free pass just because you gave them life. And it hurts even worse than what kids at school say."
Breaking Silence, by Dee Contreras, 18, Widefield High School
After coming out as a lesbian in sixth grade, Dee Contreras says she experienced a whirlwind of issues: a stiffness from her mother, the death of her beloved grandmother and constant bullying at school. The bullying, she says, has never stopped.
"They call me names," she says. "They call me a stupid faggot and a dyke. ... I've gotten pushed into lockers and I've gotten notes in my locker that are like death threats."
She adds, "We get bullied because we're gay or bi or transgender and people just don't like it. ... We get pushed so much we get pushed over the line — it's hard to even breathe the next day."
LGBT youths are far more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. Contreras says she decided to make a film about her own suicide attempts so that she could share her "biggest secret" with her family. The film features a tense, heart-wrenching scene as Contreras talks to her mother about her attempts.
Contreras says having those conversations was hard, but she came away feeling more loved and secure.
She hopes the film leaves people with hope, since she's now become a happier young woman.
"I want people to see that no matter how bad things get, there's always going to be something that's going to turn it around and make things better," she says.
Under the Wire, Madison Legg, 17, Cheyenne Mountain High School
Madison's brother, Jacob, attempted suicide on Nov. 2, 2014, the day before their dad's birthday. Police came to the house following up on tips from friends who saw a Facebook post. At first, the family had no idea what was going on.
Jacob had just gone through a messy breakup, but his feelings were deeper than that.
Madison, Jacob and their sister are all adopted. Jacob struggled with not knowing much about his background.
Under the Wire doesn't focus on reasons behind the attempt. Instead, it reaches an emotional climax when Madison and Jacob discuss their love for each other and shared struggles.
"The day you tried to kill yourself, that was the last day I cut myself," Madison tells Jacob.
She adds, "I do know how you felt. And we didn't talk to each other. And we did have a lot more in common than you thought."
Looking back on that conversation, Madison says, "It's really weird thinking about it now, like everything seems different now after a couple years. I've noticed that when people play piano, they get in a completely different world and that's exactly how it felt, like there was no one but the two of us."
Madison's raw, emotional film was included at the Scout Film Festival and in the D.C. screening. Still, unlike the other three filmmakers who explored suicide, Madison says she's not interested in making more documentaries. She has decided she wants to be a writer.
"I realize a lot of what hit people in my film was the words that were in it," she says. "So that's why I wanted to write."
Her brother, meanwhile, is pursuing his own passion, learning about automotive repair. They're both in a better place. Still, Jacob hasn't watched Under the Wire. For him, it's just too much right now. Madison says that's fine with her.
"I'm not going to push him to watch it," she says.