Rene Duignan is passionate about life — so much so that he made an award-winning film about it. Yet Duignan, 42, is not a professional filmmaker; he’s an Irish economist working for the European Union delegation to Japan. The documentary, titled “Saving 10,000 — Winning a War on Suicide in Japan,” is a beautifully choreographed, impassioned plea to those considering suicide to think again.
I met with Duignan, ostensibly to understand why Japan has such a high suicide rate. That, unfortunately, remains an enigma. I did, however, gain a deeper appreciation of the importance of having a purpose in life. For Duignan, that purpose is to save lives. Duignan’s passion is so clearly expressed in the film that it transforms what easily could have been an intensely morbid documentary into something inspirational.
The story behind the film began in 2007, when Duignan’s friend and neighbor was having “problems.” She often brought her troubles to him. At first Duignan lent her a sympathetic ear over tea. But as the visits became more frequent, he became impatient. Eventually, he stopped answering the door. “Frankly,” says Duignan, “I got tired of listening to her.”
Duignan got upset when, a couple months later, his landlord refused to fix a leak that left a horrible smell in the corridor. The smell got worse. Three or four weeks after that, his neighbor’s corpse was discovered. She was only in her thirties at the time.
“Where were her friends? Where was her family? How come they didn’t know she was dead for a month?” he asks rhetorically. One could not help but also ask Duignan, “Where were you?”
“I had chosen to ignore her,” Duignan replies. “Maybe I could have persuaded her to get some help. I don’t know if it was guilt, but there was certainly regret for coldly ignoring her,” he says. “Regret was the driving force behind the project.”
Duignan already had the responsibilities of a full-time job, a Saturday teaching position and a family to care for. Still, he took on the huge challenge of making a documentary that he hoped would help combat suicide. “Suicide is like a virus,” he explains. “It travels down the media channels. So I thought, ‘What if I could use the same channels in a different way?’ ”
At first he approached documentary film-makers, but they weren’t interested in helping. “After all, who was I?” thought Duignan. Finally, he turned to one of his students from Aoyama Gakuin University, where Duignan teaches business and economics every Saturday. Marc-Antoine Astier was a talented DJ and photographer, but the 22-year-old Frenchman had no technical film-making skills. Astier agreed to make the film. “Basically,” says Duignan, “we were starting from zero. We went down to the electronics shop and bought a camera. It was the first time for both of us.”
It took three years of exhaustive efforts to make the film. Duignan worked lunch hours, evenings and weekends. Astier did the filming and wrote the soundtrack. In the first year, Duignan conducted research. The second year, the two filmed. In the third year, they did the editing. In total, 96 interviews were conducted and over 100 hours of footage was filmed. Toward the end, Duignan collapsed from exhaustion. He found himself in the hospital on a drip, where he made final edits to the 52-minute film in his head.
With the documentary now complete, Duignan faced another problem: Nobody would show the film. He was beginning to think the whole effort had been a waste of time and money. Then, Linda Semlitz, clinical director at Tokyo English Lifeline, offered to help. TELL provides volunteer telephone hotline support to those in need of psychological counseling. The film got its first viewing last September before an audience from TELL on Suicide Prevention Day. Sixty people attended the screening.
When the film was finished, there was complete silence. In a defining moment, an old woman approached Duignan and said, “That’s not a movie, that’s a weapon against suicide.”
The film has since been shown at hundreds of times all over Japan. Duignan has personally conducted over 70 movie-related events. At a screening in the National Diet, 140 people attended. Afterwards, someone from the Suicide Prevention Office contacted Duignan, asking, “Can we have a copy of your DVD?” Then they asked, “Can you come in to talk to us?” And finally, “Can we have another copy for the minister?” The film’s message began to move from politicians to bureaucrats, to NGOs and finally on to the public.
Requests for DVDs started pouring in from all over Japan. The Japan Association of Suicide Prevention asked for 600 copies to give to its members. Taking 52 minutes to burn each DVD manually, poor Astier was making movies non-stop. When one day Duignan reached into his pocket to give a spare copy to an old woman who had asked for one, Astier interjected, imploring, “Please, stop giving them away!”
Duignan was getting impatient. To save lives, he needed people to view the film, especially Japanese people. With NHK dragging out its decision on whether to show the documentary on national television, Duignan in March released the film online for anyone to download for free.
Soon the film started gaining acclaim. In April, the documentary was screened at a film festival in Hollywood. Awards were won in Hawaii and Indonesia. The online version started going viral — more than 180,000 people have seen it so far.
Duignan recently spoke about what drove him to make the film at the TEDxTokyo speaking event. “Regret is a powerful emotion,” he said. “It does not go away. It gives you a sense of desperation. It drives you relentlessly. It leaves you aching for a second chance that can never come.”
Towards the end, the film cuts to the cliffs of Tojinbo in Fukui Prefecture, a place where many Japanese have chosen to take their lives. There, we are introduced to a retiree whose former job as a police officer had been to fish the bodies out of the sea.
In retirement, the constable has voluntarily retaken his post, working the cliffs. His self-assigned job: to extend a helping hand to those who, in a moment of desperation, consider taking their own lives. In the film, Duignan, the narrator, says the constable has saved 290 people’s lives on his watch — a number that has since risen to over 400.
Like the constable, one feels that the film-maker too has found purpose in living through taking extraordinary measures to save the lives of others. In Duignan’s case, he has produced a breathtaking film that has already touched thousands. But unlike the ex-policeman, Duignan will never know how many lives he has saved.
Suicide in Japan through the lens of the filmmaker
Rene Duignan spent one year researching suicide in Japan to make his film “Saving 10,000 ? Winning a War on Suicide in Japan.” These are the facts he uncovered:
• The suicide rate is high in Japan, but Japan is not the world leader ? it ranks 10th. South Korea and China have higher suicide rates.
The rate here is almost twice that of the United States, three times that of Spain, six times that of Singapore and 12 times higher than in the Philippines.
• Last year 27,858 people committed suicide in Japan. It was the first time in 15 years that number had dropped below 30,000.
• 70 percent of those who commit suicide are male and 30 percent are women. The suicide rate for Japanese women ranks 6th highest in the world.
• The over-60s group accounts for one-third of all suicides.
There is masked depression among the elderly, but nobody bothers to treat them. Often they are lonely and isolated individuals, unable to leave their homes.
• Mental illness, such as depression, is the leading cause of suicide.
• Pressure is the next leading cause. Overwork and bullying by a demanding boss often are to blame.
Financial pressures may result from having taken on too much debt.
Although the government has taken measures in recent years to prevent aggressive collection techniques in the past, indebted individuals and their families have been bullied and threatened over repayment.
• Japan’s insurance companies are indirectly complicit in incentivizing suicide by paying out in the event.
To prevent further such instances, life insurance companies first shifted to a one-year exemption period, meaning payouts would not be made if a policyholder took their life within 12 months of signing a contract.
The exemption was extended to two years when it was found that the suicide rate jumped on the 13th month.
According to Duignan, knowing that one’s debts will be repaid and that a family can keep their home makes suicide an attractive choice for a depressed person.
“All you have to do is give your life,” says Duignan.
• Many Japanese are desperate to talk but find that there are too few who will listen.
There are instances when a person may need to call 30 times to get through to Inochi no Denwa, the Japanese suicide telephone helpline, because the lines are so busy.
Of those that do get through, 70-80 percent are already on medication. Of the 27,858 that did commit suicide, almost 10,000 were already within the mental health system.
Sixty percent of callers to Tokyo English Life Line (TELL) are now Japanese.
According to Duignan, these measures alone are insufficient to win the war on suicide.
• There is a serious lack of talk therapy in Japan. Mental consultations are short — only three to five minutes.
Therapy is not covered by health insurance and thus is too expensive for many people.
• Japan tends to institutionalize and overmedicate psychiatric patients, according to experts interviewed in the movie.
• Blue lights installed at train stations have reduced suicide by 80 percent at those stations.
How or why this works, nobody knows.