New Brunswick

Memories of grief: Filmmaker explores 1990s suicide waves at Dieppe high school

Unlike some of the other students, Samara Chadwick never kept a diary during the waves of suicides that swept through Dieppe's École Mathieu-Martin in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Samara Chadwick remembers having to get out of New Brunswick after suicides at École Mathieu-Martin

Filmmaker Samara Chadwick says her documentary 1999 about suicides at her high school in Dieppe reflects the different stories she and others told themselves about what happened. (Samara Chadwick/ Parabola Films)

Unlike some of the other students, Samara Chadwick never kept a diary during the waves of suicides that swept through Dieppe's École Mathieu-Martin in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Instead, after the second wave of deaths in 1999, the then 16-year-old sought refuge from her grief by leaving the Moncton area entirely. She found a school she could attend outside New Brunswick.

I started asking people what they remembered and everyone had very different numbers in mind, and accounts and timelines, and that was the initial interest in the film.- Samara Chadwick , documentary filmmaker

Now, almost 18 years later, the Montreal-based Chadwick is finishing the editing on her documentary film about that time.

The film, titled 1999, is almost more about the living than the dead, she said in an interview.

"There's a truth in it that is maybe greater than the objective fact about how many children died and when exactly it happened," she said. "And it remains more about how people carried those stories on in their lives — all of us who survived the deaths."

Chadwick remembers the suicides taking place in the winter of 1995, early 1999 and possibly late 2001 — each wave separated by about three years, with a total of 12 to 15 deaths.

Different accounts

The idea for the documentary, her first film, came to her after she talked to an old friend and realized how different their memories were of that time.

She said there's little in people's minds about those years "that remains an objective fact." There's also not a lot of information available online, she said.

​"I started asking people what they remembered and everyone had very different numbers in mind, and accounts and timelines, and that was the initial interest in the film," she said.

Chadwick never tried to pin down the real numbers, and that's not what the film is about, she said.

"It never even goes into any objective fact. It remains in the space of what people kept from that time, in their boxes and diaries and what they remember.

"And so it formed kind of a collage."

A language for grief

What Chadwick does remember is how people kicked into survival mode, many of them leaving the school as a way of getting through that time.

For the most part, the deaths were dealt with in silence, she said.

Chadwick says the idea for the documentary came to her after talking to an old friend and realizing how different their accounts were of that time. (Samara Chadwick / Parabola Films)

Chadwick said the documentary, filmed as a series of dinner meetings with former students, a teacher, parents and counsellors, was the first time many people confronted their grief and were given a language to express it.

"Because the silence was enforced and because we were so young, everything that happened was beyond their ability to express it," she said.

"A lot of what the film is was just allowing that base for language to percolate up and to share the complicated feelings that arose at the time."

Most of the film's conversations are in Acadian Chiac, the local dialect, mixed in with some English and "more correct French," Chadwick said.

It feels very intimate and kind of like we're teenagers again, hanging out in our bedrooms.- Samara  Chadwick , filmmaker

Speaking in the language of their youth, "gave people the feeling that they could express themselves in whichever way felt right to them.

"It was just very relaxed and it's also lovely because people express things in a way that are kind of counterintuitive but very poetic, very funny and very endearing.

"It feels very intimate and kind of like we're teenagers again hanging out in our bedrooms."

Screening in Europe

Production for 1999 started in October 2014 and Chadwick said she will complete the project this fall, hoping to screen it first in Moncton.

The film is also the first Canadian production to ever receive financing through the Eurimages cultural fund, the Council of Europe's cinema fund, which Canada joined last March.

The council aims to support the co-production of films between member countries. Chadwick said 1999 will be shown in Canada and Switzerland.

It's a film that allows things to happen and doesn't try to predict in advance what the film will be.- Samara  Chadwick 

She said she is proud her documentary was chosen from among 60 other submissions, because "it's a weird film," with no specific story line that's followed from beginning to end, and production depending largely on what her interviewees were willing to give.

But it also ended up being an exercise in humanity and tenderness, she said, a kind of film European audiences may be more familiar with, she said.

"It's hard to make a film like this and it takes a lot of courage … from the production and the funders' point of view because it's a film that allows things to happen and doesn't try to predict in advance what the film will be," she said.

"For those who actually decided to come join me on this process it was incredibly freeing."