November 3, 2021

Activist Filmmaker Daniel Kennedy Debuts Documentary Suicide Bridge

The SCA Summer Program film opens the Coronado Film Festival on November 10th

By Hugh Hart

When Bertha Loaiza was three years old, her mother jumped from the San Diego-Coronado Bridge while cradling the toddler in her arms. Loaiza, now an adult with two kids of her own, lived to tell the tale in Living Through It–Surviving Suicide, which has its world premiere on November 10 at the Coronado Island Film Festival. Directed by USC Doctorate of Social Work candidate Daniel Kennedy, Living Through It centers on the 240-foot high "suicide magnet," which has attracted more than 400 jumpers since it opened in 1969. Kennedy, who made the documentary while taking Professor Doug Blush's Summer Program non-fiction filmmaking class at School of Cinematic Arts, says "The vision for where I'm going is to become an activist for social justice as well as being a filmmaker. Being able to do both at the same time with support from both schools at USC was really cool."

The idea behind Living Through It had been percolating since 2006, when Kennedy first heard about Bertha Loaiza during his master's in counseling degree program in San Diego. But Kennedy only sprang into action last summer at the start of Blush's online CNTV 410 class. Kennedy recalls, "In week one, Professor Blush said 'You need to have a film ready to present on week six.' I was like, how?! Everything I'd done before took six months to a year."

The SCA Summer Program traditionally imbues aspiring filmmakers with the discipline to produce at least one finished piece of work within a limited amount of time, as Assistant Director Ty Strickler explains. "We have a wide variety of classes—games, writing, business, animation—and our goal, especially with production classes, is to create a take-home product. When our students leave the Summer Program, they will have physically created something they can put on a reel, or send out with an application."

As Strickler sees it, the Summer Program's compressed time frame lends an air of urgency to classwork and often inspires excellence. "Six weeks is long enough that the students gain concrete knowledge, but short enough that they don't have time to get into their own heads. I've found that the constraints within which you have to create often leads to better work."

True to Summer Program form, Kennedy wasted no time. First, he secured film permits and that lead to the opening night slot at the Coronado Island Film Festival. "They asked for a rough cut and I said I don't have frame one. And then they said we need this (film). So the festival committed to the film based on the pitch. For me it was great to see how the community rallied around this film."

Kennedy went on to direct, edit, produce and shoot Living Through It on a $200 budget, filming with his own RED camera and editing on his laptop in various San Diego coffeeshops. Along the way, Professor Blush served as mentor, cheerleader and constructive critic. "One of the great things about having Daniel as a student is that he comes from the School of Social Work," says Blush, who edited Oscar-winning documentary "20 Feet From Stardom" among numerous other credits. "I thought this was a great opportunity for Daniel to increase the presence of the social work he wants to do through documentary." As it happens, Blush and his director wife Lisa Klein share Kennedy's interest in mental illness as a topic for their own documentaries. "One reason Daniel and I bonded so much is that my wife and I have made several films about mental health including The S Word, about people who survived suicide attempts. Like Daniel, we're interested in getting people to discuss these issues instead of treating them as being taboo. Daniel loved The S Word and in fact, Lisa offered him guidance when she saw his rough cut." Kennedy says he took her advice to heart. "Lisa was very surgical and helped me cut the film from 35 minutes down to seventeen minutes, so it flows much better."

The final cut opens with Loaiza's stranger-than-fiction story, then expands its scope to encompass interviews with State Senator Ben Hueso, who championed legislation to build deterrent barricades on the bridge; Steve Bouchard, who survived his own suicide attempt on the bridge and now counsels others suffering from depression; and Michelle Madden, who lost her brother to suicide and now directs the Support and Prevention Programs for Survivors of Suicide Loss (SOSL). From his off-camera vantage point, Kennedy establishes an easy rapport with these subjects in part because he understands firsthand what it means to suffer traumatic loss: His mother died in a plane crash at LAX when he was eleven.

At age nineteen, Kennedy recalls, "I started cutting myself in college, living with existential dread and contemplating how I would take my own life." But then his sister moved in with him and provided unfaltering support. "She started running my life, almost like a mom, and I felt love I hadn't felt for years. That started this transformation from being a person in pain who was always waiting for something bad to happen, to becoming a person with hope."

Living Through It embodies that sense of hope for Kennedy. "It's almost like the documentary's an excuse to open up the topic, and the film festival's just the starting line," he says. "The Suicide Prevention Council wants me to show Living Through It at their meetings so professionals can learn from it. And I'm connecting with churches in San Diego about having Michelle come in and train their leaders. It only takes a couple of hours to get a little bit of knowledge that could save a life."


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