There is a Mexican proverb that says everyone has three deaths: The first is when your heart stops, the second is when you are buried, and the third is when the last person who can tell a story about you is gone from the earth.
Filmmaker Mike Stutz, whose documentary Don’t Change the Subject will be screened by the Park Circle Film Society on Sun. June 24 at 4 p.m., found his mother after she had committed suicide when he was 12. Thirty years later, he realized that although he had used that experience in his work as a director and playwright, he had never been able to sit down and talk with anyone about his mother’s death. He had robbed her of her last life, the life where his stories and memories allowed her to live on.
He wanted to make it up to her, and anyone else who has been neglected after committing suicide. Stutz explains that when people commit suicide, they become taboo, like their whole life was a horrible experience that should never be remembered. “People don’t know how to deal with what happened, so they take their picture down and make them non-people,” he says. “But it’s our responsibility to keep them alive.”
Stutz realized along the way that just because we’re talking about suicide doesn’t mean we have to be crying about suicide — it’s OK to laugh too. (He even made his Twitter name @suicideblows. Yeah, it’s a little inappropriate, a little weird, and a little funny, but it addresses the fact that suicide sucks.) The filmmaker acknowledges that simply talking about the subject won’t resonate with everyone, so he’s explored suicide through discussion, dance, comedy, and theater. “Let me put it in a bunch of different languages,” Stutz explains. “Maybe there is an image, a sound, a song, or a dance that will jar a part of your brain.”
Having a background in dance, Stutz looked for a choreographer to be a part of the film, and he ended up at a performance where new choreographers shared their work. Dance after dance was a contemporary or “hip-hoppy” piece until a solo performance took the stage. “It was so gripping, odd, and amazing,” Stutz describes, “and so inappropriate for the venue that I said, ‘I want her.'” He suggested the subject of an autopsy to the choreographer, and Charlie Recksieck, who wrote the music for most of the movie, created a song. The spirited and animated dancers perform in Don’t Change the Subject to honor the loss of vibrancy and the loss of life.
Stutz also brought together a group of comedians to brainstorm jokes about suicide. As Los Angeles comedian Duncan Trussell explains, “The essence of comedy is to transmute the real horror of the universe into something funny.” It isn’t meant as a mockery; it’s a coping mechanism.
So far, the movie has been shown within Stutz’ Los Angeles community via private and pop-up screenings. The film’s official premiere will be in Los Angeles on the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday, this fall. He tells us that the Greater Park Circle Film Society is one of the first film societies in the country that has taken interest in Don’t Change the Subject. “The fact that it didn’t scare them off is a good thing,” he says.
Stutz has received positive feedback from screenings so far, though he’s still nervous. But one of the best compliments he has received is that his movie could have easily been about divorce, loss, or any of life’s hardships because what Don’t Change the Subject is really about is communication. The darkest, saddest interviews in the film culminate in laughter and large steps toward recovery. Parents put their dead children’s pictures back up on their walls, and survivors are able to share their stories for the first time. “If you hate my movie, but it inspires one conversation about suicide or makes you change the way you feel about it, then the movie is a success to me,” Stutz says. “I can’t change your mind, but I can put it on the table.”