A Film by Carlos Hernandez Rivera

Carlos Hernandez Rivera looks into the camera with all the beautiful innocence of a young man who loves science and Boy Scouts. But then his words describe two deaths—and his own determination to prevent such tragedies in the future. “I’m Carlos, and I was affected by suicide,” he says. “Two people that were close to me died within a short span of time.”

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Screenshot from The Damaging and the Uniting

So begins The Damaging and the Uniting, a short film produced, written, and directed by Hernandez Rivera, 14, to be screened at Cinemopolis June 6, about his experience of losing two friends to suicide during the current school year—Elliott Green, 16, a close buddy since Lansing Middle School, and Ryan Sibley, 14, a ninth-grade classmate this year at P-Tech Academy.

“This movie is personal,” Hernandez Rivera said before a private screening last week at P-Tech, a magnet high school/early college program in computer science and advanced manufacturing at TST BOCES. “I wanted to help, I wanted to help as many people as I can. I am motivated to help other people so they don’t go through tough times and so that suicide is not a problem anymore.”

The idea for the film came as Hernandez Rivera was developing a freshman-year capstone project. After Elliott’s death in March, Hernandez consulted with his teacher, Sunshine Miller, and decided to create a video that could raise awareness about mental health and promote suicide prevention. Then in April, as Hernandez Rivera was story boarding the film, came the terrible news that Ryan, his P-Tech science lab partner, had taken his own life.

Hernandez Rivera dedicates the film to Elliott and Ryan. He and Elliott had been pals for years. One of Hernandez’s fondest memories is of the two-day, 100-mile biking trip the duo made with another friend around Cayuga Lake last summer. They shared a passion for Boy Scouts—Elliott’s father is a scoutmaster—but were not above messing around, like the time they tried to sink each other’s canoes in a water-gun fight.

Hernandez Rivera remembers Ryan as an easy-going guy who was fun to hang around with. In the film, Hernandez Rivera includes a still image of a smiling Ryan at school wearing a “Family Guy” T-shirt. Their tight-knit class of 19 students had just taken a field trip to the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University. “He seemed happy on that trip,” Hernandez recalled. Ryan was an accomplished wrestler, who had recently become a Seaman recruit in the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps.

Hernandez Rivera interviews two women to further show the human face of suicide and loss—Beth Dryer, who lost a younger brother, Brian, 25; and Melissa Addy, whose son Max died by suicide at 22. “It refocused my priorities in life, time was short,” recalled Dryer, adding, after an emotional pause, “This is tough, so clearly it still has a major impact on my life.” When Hernandez Rivera asked Addy about “the one thing” she misses about her son, she touchingly replied, “I miss everything.”

Hernandez Rivera described the blow he felt after his mother told him that Elliott had passed away. “I was in a good rhythm, and then Elliott dies,” he said. “I started falling back in school, I wasn’t doing as well. Sometimes I would get lost. I would walk into a room and say, ‘Whoa, how did I get here?’ I would blank out sometimes.”

“Then I’d be like, ‘I’m here. I’m here. I got this,’” he added. “Self-motivation has got me through it. I changed when Elliot passed away. I felt like I had to do more things, I had to talk to people. To communicate with people, it is a good skill to have.”

Hernandez Rivera explained that making the film has helped in his own struggle with grief. “It has given me faith in myself, that even though there are obstacles that are huge, that we will face traumatic things in our lives, we can get back up, and keep pushing on,” he said.

Suicide is an extremely delicate and even taboo topic for schools, but Miller threw her full support behind the project. “Carlos has given me courage,” she explained. “It would have been easy to just say, ‘No, we’re not doing this.’ Adults make all the decisions, which are good in lot of ways, but we’re too quick to say, ‘Lets not talk about this.’ This has changed me. I hope Carlos’s courage can light the way for real change in our schools surrounding how we deal with suicide.”

“This is why I went into education,” said Barry Derfel, TST BOCES assistant superintendent, speaking to Hernandez Rivera at the private screening at P-Tech last week. “I am really proud of the work that you have done. This is what school should be. At P-Tech, we collaborate with families, business, and community, to create fully accessible, meaningful, and relevant curricula. I don’t think here is anything more meaningful and relevant than this, that’s culturally responsive and sustaining.”

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Carlos Hernandez Rivera

Hernandez Rivera consulted Lee-Ellen Marvin of Ithaca’s Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service about conducting the interviews used in the film. He also had the help of Ithaca filmmaker Redouane Elghazi in the filming and editing. He won the support of the P-Tech administration not only to tackle suicide in a class project—and one involving the school itself—but to go forward with a public screening at Cinemopolis, Ithaca’s first-run movie theater specializing in independent, foreign, and locally produced films.

Hernandez Rivera’s dreams “are all over the place”— he thinks about becoming a global-warming scientist, working for NASA, or Space X, and even Tesla. For now, though, he is hoping that his film will help spread awareness about mental health.

“My goal is so that this doesn’t become an issue anymore, that suicide is a thing of the past,” he said. “We should realize that not everyone is as happy as they seem. Some people do need talking to, even if they look happy. If we’re having a bad day and we are mean to other people, just be nice.”

—By Scott MacLeod

Scott MacLeod is a co-founder of The Sophie Fund

The Damaging and the Uniting will be screened for the public June 6 from 5-6 p.m. and 6-7 p.m. @Cinempolis, 120 East Green Street, Ithaca, NY. 14850. Admission is free of charge.

The Damaging and The Uniting