Poignant film highlights mental health challenges in rural sector

A young New Zealand filmmaker has shared his personal connection to a mini-documentary which aims to highlight the issue of the mental health of farmers.

The COVID-19 lockdown saw 20-year-old Hunter Williams return to New Zealand from Los Angeles where he had been working as a videographer for well-known US magician David Blaine.

The trip home has allowed him to finish work on his short film The Monkeys On Our Backs.

He told Newshub it was an issue he could relate to.

"Mental health is something I had challenges with growing up so it's always been something close to my heart and has always been important to me on a personal level," said Williams.

He said the idea for the film came after a conversation with a farmer at a family wedding.

"A farmer came up to me and said 'the way you were speaking just then, I can tell you have monkeys on your back, I've got monkeys on my back too.

"I didn't really know what he meant by that, but as the conversation unfolded it became clear, and that was one of the first times that farmer had opened up about his struggles with mental health."

While people in urban centres had friend and families nearby, farmers worked insolation, said Williams

"If he's having a bad day he can't just go and see one of his mates, because they are miles away.

"That got me thinking and I started looking into the issue further."

In the documentary, farmers share personal stories of mental health challenges.

Among them is Williams' uncle, Porangahau farmer Leyton King.

"In farming we are often on our own, and you become quite institutionalized within the farm. It's all you do, it's all you know and when it gets to that, you are entering dangerous territory," said King.

Filmmaker Hunter Williams said mental health was an issue close to his heart.
Filmmaker Hunter Williams said mental health was an issue close to his heart. Photo credit: Supplied

Young agricultural contractor Lisa Kendall also opened up about her mental health struggles.

"Agriculture in general is quite bad for work-life balance, so it's not a job you can leave easily," said Kendall.

She shared feelings of being inadequate.

"It kicked off for me with a feeling that you are not doing enough, or not making enough money. 

"I pushed everyone away, I just wanted to work."

Williams said it was important the film was able to capture and convey the isolation many farmers work in.

"That was definitely a conscious effort and a big part of that was collaborating with my director of photography, Devan Narsai, who did a brilliant job."

While there are many resources for farmers available for farmers to get help for mental health challenges, Williams hopes the documentary will help start what can be difficult conversations.

"The whole reason behind the film is having farmers being able to see these people open up on camera and I hope it gives some people the courage to open up to their friends and family and start having these important conversations and think about their own mental health.

"Even if one person is willing to open up, it's been worth it."

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