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Documentary highlights ordinary people doing extraordinary work

Friday, July 15, 2016

In March, Film & Media Studies associate professor Robert Hurst’s 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 (SOTA) 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 US. 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.  “l 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.  | 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: 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.

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