Arts & Culture

Film grapples with mental health, mass media

Documentary screening tells story of Sunil Tripathi, Brown student who went missing in 2013

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 15, 2016

“While it breaks our hearts, it also broke us open as a community,” said University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson Monday as she introduced the story of Sunil Tripathi, a student whose disappearance is chronicled in Neal Broffman’s award-winning documentary “Help us find Sunil Tripathi.”

Sunil went missing March 17, 2013 after taking several semesters off to focus on his health. His disappearance led his family — his mother, Judy, father, Akhil, sister, Sangeeta ’04 and brother, Ravi ’09­ — to turn first to local Providence authorities and then to social media in their search for him. After nearly a month, Redditors in a Sub-reddit linked Sunil’s name to Suspect 2 in the Boston Marathon bomber search. The image of Suspect 2 was revealed to the public by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  The linkage created by these Redditors quickly spurred mass media reactions, as major news networks reached out to the Tripathi family for answers.

Meanwhile, the family continued to search for their own answers about Sunil’s disappearance. Sunil’s body was found April 23, 2013, the victim of suicide. Approximately five days prior, the implicated Boston Marathon bombers had been apprehended.

“Help us find Sunil Tripathi” follows the events of Sunil’s disappearance and his family’s dedication to their search for him. The documentary connects narratives about the value of familial love and dedication with the gravity and seriousness of mental health. It also presents a cautionary tale about the benefits and dangers of social media by tracing how quickly the social media reaction to Sunil’s disappearance changed from support to distrust and accusation.

Ravi and Sangeeta said the idea of creating a documentary surrounding the events of their brother’s disappearance came from their relationship to Broffman, the director of the film. Broffman is a friend of the family who originally assisted in the search by helping the Tripathis create a one-minute video to post to the search effort’s Facebook page. The video is embedded into the finished documentary, Sangeeta said.

“The whole time we were searching for Sunny we ran into other people who were also struggling, and everybody had a story,” Sangeeta said. “It became so clear that the story was so much bigger than our family, and it was very clear to all of us — all four of us — that we really wanted to be part of engaging people in the bigger story and really try to help other young people who are struggling.”

The film was screened in Salomon Center at 6 p.m. Monday, a time of year Ravi noted was significant, as it marked nearly three years since Sunil’s disappearance. The film was introduced by both Cooper Nelson and President Christina Paxson P’19. Sunil’s disappearance occurred in the first year of Paxson’s presidency, and Ravi and Sangeeta praised her  reaction to Sunil’s disappearance. Paxson met personally with the family and helped offer ideas and ways of leveraging the University’s resources and connections to the wider Providence community in the search for Sunil, Ravi and Sangeeta said.

Paxson told the audience that the community’s reaction to his disappearance taught her that the “university family she had come to had a big heart,” thanking the audience for their attendance and willingness to “affirm a shared experience that we had as a community.”

Following the film’s screening, Cooper Nelson turned the microphone over to audience members, who shared stories about their relationships with and respect for the Tripathi family. Judy also shared comments from Broffman, who was unable to attend. Broffman communicated sadness in his absence and also his gratitude to the Brown community’s openness while he was making the documentary.

“We agreed to make the film because the hope was that if any person who’s either struggling themselves with depression or any person (who) knows someone (who is struggling) … saw this film or talked to someone who watched it, they’ll just be able to start talking and start the conversation,” Ravi said. “This is us continuing the conversation at Brown.”

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