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Documentary highlights ordinary people doing extraordinary work

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

In March, Film & Media Studies associate professor Robert Hurst debuted his most recent film “The Listeners,” which explores the fascinating lives and stories of the volunteers working at Headquarters, a Lawrence-based suicide prevention and mental health hotline. The School of the Arts chatted with Professor Hurst about the film and the importance of showcasing these behind-the-scenes champions of mental health.

SOTA: Where did the idea for “The Listeners” come from?
BH: In 2012 I was working on another project about military service members who suffer from PTSD. A friend mentioned that he volunteered at a ‘suicide hotline,’ and I was intrigued by the idea.

SOTA: What inspired you to make this film?
BH: I’m interested in work that highlights the things ordinary people do to help others. The sheer number of problems from a personal to societal level can seem overwhelming, but there are people who do a little every day to make others’ lives better.

SOTA: Why do you think this film is important?
BH: The rate of suicide in the U.S. has increased every year for the last 10 years, while globally suicide rates have fallen. This is a public health problem of epidemic proportions, and yet little is being done to treat it.

SOTA: What did you like best about working on this project?
BH: Getting to know the people who volunteer on the phones - they are an inspiration.

SOTA: What did you learn from the people you documented in this film?
BH: How to be more empathetic; how (once again) not to judge someone based on initial impressions; how important it is to give something of yourself to others.

SOTA: What was it like being able to premiere this film here in Lawrence with people from Headquarters there?
BH: That was pretty cool. These people don’t expect any kind of reward for what they do, so it was great to see that they felt recognized. I heard from a lot of the volunteers that their friends/parents/partners told them after seeing the film, “I never really got what you did!”

SOTA: How many films is this for you?
BH: This is the first feature-length film I’ve directed. I have collaborated as producer, sound supervisor, camera person and other roles on 14 feature films. I’ve also directed and produced a dozen short fiction, documentary and experimental films.

SOTA: Did any students or alumni work on this film with you?
BH: Two KU undergraduate students assisted on social media and a couple of shoots – Margoth Mackey and Savannah Rodgers.

SOTA: What’s up next for you? Currently working on any new films or projects?
BH: I’m working on a short fiction film that I’ll shoot later this summer; I’m also starting on a new feature documentary about people who software-hack medical devices to help save their kids’ lives.