When death haunts a high school in a small town in the late 1990s, everyone is forever transformed. In this gentle, prismatic film, Samara returns to the town she fled as a teen to re-immerse herself in the memories still lurking there, in its spaces and within the dusty boxes of diaries, photos and VHS tapes. 1999 is not a ghost story, but the ghosts are palpable at every turn. The snow-covered streets, the school’s hallways and lockers are preserved as in a dream. The absences left by the relentless teenage suicides still shimmer with questions, trauma and regret. Samara encounters people who are as breathtaking as they are heartbroken, and, finally, almost 20 years later, the community strengthens itself by sharing the long-silenced memories. Ultimately the film weaves together multiple voices in a collective essay on how grief is internalized—and how, as children, we so painfully learn to articulate our desire to stay alive.
Raw, glitchy home video footage shot at a high school in a small East Coast city on the edge of the millennium. Three students on stage sing their hearts out, the moment super-charged with longing, grief and revolt – they are singing for friends who have taken their lives. The song: “Wish You Were Here,” by Pink Floyd. It’s against the rules of this francophone school to sing in English, but suddenly the entire auditorium stands and joins in, breaking the rules. The song is an act of both rebellion and tribute, of pleading and remembrance.
“What’s the point of remembering?” asks one of the characters early in 1999. The film offers no direct answer to this question, but near the end, a former schoolmate reveals that the act of remembering—the process of being a part of this documentary—has helped her come to terms with the girl she was in 1999. That girl was a student at École Mathieu-Martin, the only francophone high school in New Brunswick where, over the course of the 1998–1999 school year, a record-breaking wave of suicides took the lives of multiple students, including her best friend.
Each new tragedy seemed to perpetuate another, until the police and the school board imposed a total media blackout. Silence took over, rumours and imaginations ran wild:
Mathieu-Martin would now be known as “Suicide High.”
What happened? Why?
1999 doesn’t answer these questions. To untangle what happened can only lead to an illusory understanding of the past. The tangle is what happened, the only way to understand Mathieu-Martin in 1999, and the distance since travelled by those who lived it is to dive into their reality. The answers lie not in news reports or in the adults’ accounts, but in the teenage relics from that time: diaries, photographs and handwritten letters. It is the reality of kids who decided to live.
Impassioned, impressionistic, poetic and deeply intimate, 1999 follows filmmaker Samara Grace Chadwick—a former student of Mathieu-Martin—as she revisits Moncton and the traumatic events of those months, when kids as young as 13 were taking their own lives, often theatrically, sometimes even on school grounds. Samara left the high school and the town in 1999, and this film marks her return home, now twice the age she was then. Samara assembles a group of her peers and friends to help her bear witness to a time when every instant of their adolescent lives felt overwhelming, when their entire community teetered on the brink of adulthood while also trying to cope with profound loss and grief. They speak Chiac, a melodic hybrid of French and English. As one former student says, Chiac is a language of peace—a healing bridge between two cultures that were once at odds.
1999 is not a history lesson, it’s a deep immersion in the emotional lives of people who grope backward a decade and a half into a past filled with ghosts and unfinished thoughts that burn just beneath the surface. Imagery and soundscapes assembled from VHS footage, notebooks, photos, video games, new covers of old songs, and interviews over dinners, in bedrooms, in forests, in cars—all collected into a glittering, colour-saturated, pixelated film that opens itself to viewers, inviting us to plunge in and take part. Rather than forcing the past into a narrative replete with conclusions and explanations, the film is a gateway to an ongoing, necessary conversation. If there is a message contained in 1999, it’s that silence and isolation lead to despair, and that ghosts persist until they are faced head-on. If the film proposes a remedy, it is to open up, to share, to digress, to be naïve or cynical, to weep and laugh, to express.
I was fortunate to grow up bilingual, among the Acadians in Moncton, New Brunswick. I attended École Mathieu-Martin, the only francophone high school at the time, from 1996 to 1999. I left Acadie in 1999, when I was 16, and it wasn’t until I returned to start filming in the winter of 2014–2015 that I realized how much I missed home. That many of my questions were still unanswered. That I was still haunted by their ghosts.
In the film 1999, I return to that time when I lived in Moncton, when I was a teenager. Everyone who participated in the film travelled back in time with me to the late 1990s. All of the film’s protagonists are graduates of Mathieu-Martin, and all of them were in school with me during those years.
This film deals only with their stories, among the thousands of stories of people who were affected by the suicides there. There is no way to cast an objective eye on what happened, so I stuck to my own experience—it was the only story I felt comfortable telling, the only one that I could tell. By remaining within the scope of what I knew, I resisted any temptation to analyze or investigate what happened. The film doesn’t try to explain anything. It was made with a lot of affection and a lot of consideration for the experience, the sorrow and the privacy of the families concerned. I don’t mention any names—the film describes only the experience of those who survived.
Ultimately, 1999 takes no stance, makes no judgement, reaches no conclusions. It is a prism-like film that touches the heart. Acadian musicians cover hits from the ’90s, and dozens of people come together to read their high school diary entries in front of a green screen. Homemade video games are interspersed with sequences of shaky archival footage, in moments that are touching, tender, but also very funny. The film, after all, is a 1990s high school film: it embodies the resilience of teenage rebellion and summons the depth of lifelong friendships.
1999 is also the result of life-changing collaborations with massively talented young Canadians: Terra Jean Long as a tender, magical editor; Pablo Alvarez as a calm and intuitive cinematographer; and my formidable producers at Parabola Films, Beauvoir Films and the NFB, who broke many rules to pour their hearts into this film. From start to finish, 1999 has been an act of love by every contributor, and this love is palpable throughout.
Written & Directed by
Samara Grace Chadwick
Terra Jean Long
Samara Grace Chadwick
Sound Recordist & Grip
1999 Archival Camera
Samara Grace Chadwick
Sarah Spring (Parabola Films)
Selin Murat (Parabola Films)
Aline Schmid (Beauvoir Films)
Kat Baulu (NFB)
Annette Clarke (NFB)
Dominic Desjardins (NFB)
A Parabola Films production in coproduction with Beauvoir Films and The National Film Board of Canada