Several weeks before the Boston Bombings in April 2013, Brown student Sunil Tripathi walked away from his Providence apartment and didn’t come back. It only took a few days for his family—led by his parents and his two older siblings—to set up headquarters on campus and launch a massive campaign to find their loved one. They used all the resources at their disposal in the search—enlisting students to comb the riverbank and abandoned houses, and building a social media campaign that garnered national attention. This attention backfired, however, when an old classmate of Sunil’s suggested that he bore a resemblance to one of the Boston Bombers. The story flew from social media to the press, and with few voices of reason to be found, Sunil soon became the object of a modern day witch hunt.
Even with the Tsarnaev brothers identified, the Tripathi family found no relief—their loved one was still missing.
And he stayed missing, until his body was found in the river and his death attributed to suicide.
For the first two years after Sunil’s death, a search of his name on Google would have turned up information on the bombings first, and the true story second. Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi was made to set the story straight. Directed by Neal Broffman and produced by Elisa Gambino and Heather O’Neill, this film, as Broffman said, “does a course correction for Sunil’s identity.” Looking to retell the story of Sunil’s life and death, Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi combines archival footage, telephone messages, and interviews with Sunil’s family to craft a powerful portrayal of the devastating effects of mental illness and irresponsible journalism.
Broffman’s experience as a journalist—he worked for CNN for over a decade—is evident in the film, and in the philosophy behind it. He is especially critical of professional media members who contributed to Sunil’s misidentification. “As journalists, the leap that took place from social media chatter to mainstream reporting was cause for great concern,” he said. “Many of the ethical guidelines that exist to maintain integrity and objectivity were thrown aside for what appeared to be the desire to be first in reporting developments in the search for the bombers.” Although his outrage at the media’s missteps was, as he said, “the initial impetus to make the film,” he knew there was a person behind the press reports: “Lost in all of the reporting and accusations and rush to judgment was Sunil Tripathi.”
Unlike most of the press, Broffman knew the Tripathis personally—he met Sangeeta, Sunil’s sister, two weeks before Sunil went missing—and he was aware of the responsibility he was taking on in making this film. He was careful to utilize his journalistic integrity to tell the story right: “We are journalists, first and foremost, and have been for a long time,” he said of his production team; “The story is being assembled by us but our film does not pass judgment on anybody in it. It is not a position piece. There is no narrator. What happened is being told by those it happened to and those who lived the story.”
The presence of the family in the film is palpable, beginning from the very first scenes of home movies from Sunil’s childhood. The narrative is driven by interviews with Sunil’s loved ones, with supplemental information provided by people like the officer in charge of the search. “Trust is the key,” he said. “The family made a great leap of faith [when they] trusted us to tell this story.”
Broffman believes his film is vitally important, for many reasons: “The film should be seen by anybody who has ever participated in social media. The film should be seen by anybody who may not understand the dangers of depression. The film should be seen by anybody who cares about the integrity of journalism and the sources of information that they take in every single day.”
And this story is important. Not just in the way that all documentaries are important, as vehicles of information, of worldly truth. It is important because there are thousands of people who use the internet as a vehicle for hate; it is important because there are even more thousands just like Sunil, who live with depression and cannot find a livable way out.
Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi is many things. It is a film made to celebrate a life; made to rewrite narratives; made to make political points about social media and mental illness. It does all of these things, but especially the first, with the utmost respect for Sunil and his family—and the thousands of others living with the depression that ultimately claimed Sunil’s life.
“Perhaps the ultimate message that comes across is that we should look around us and take the time to reach out to people we know who may be suffering in silence from mental illness,” Broffman said. “The film is a story of our society; how we treat each other.”
One thing is certain: Thanks to this film, the takeaway of Sunil’s life will not be his misidentification as a murderer; it will be that of a young man who is loved and missed. Sunil Tripathi’s story, once more, belongs to him.