Film Reviews

REVIEW: Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi

Hot Docs 2015

USA, 75 min.
Directed by Neal Broffman
International Premiere

A vaccine can cure a virus, but there’s no cure for something that goes viral. Social media is a powerful web of endless possibilities. It’s also a powder keg when something triggers trend-hungry users just right.

Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi offers an eye-opening case study in the reach of social media as director Neal Broffman chronicles the tragic search for university student Sunil Tripathi when he went missing in early 2013. His family and friends turned to social media to find their beloved Sunil, but social media then turned on them in one of the cruellest twists that any family has had to endure. Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi shows the uplifting power that social media harnesses and the unsettling horror as well.

Sunil’s family describes the youngest member of the Tripathi family as an upbeat child who experienced a jarring and dramatic turn when he went away to university and struggled with depression during his freshman year. Sunil skipped town just as the family was seriously debating how to get him to confront his own illness. The family, unsure if Sunil’s disappearance foreshadows the worst or displays a cry for help, tells in a mix of inspiring and heart wrenching interviews how much they worried for Sunil’s safety. The urgency with which the Tripathis and their friends throw themselves into the search for Sunil shows a family bound by indefatigable love.

Their campaign with the Facebook page “Help us Find Sunil Tripathi” is a social media success story as users around the globe connect in the search. They share Sunil’s image and liking posts to create awareness and boost encouragement for the young man who might stumble upon the page in search of solace. Each video post and viral message contains an unabashed declaration of support and love, and Broffman’s portrait of the family’s effort shows how the power of global interconnectivity can be a godsend when everyone creates a search party and joins in a much-needed group hug.

The story of Sunil takes an awful turn, however, following the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon. Sunil’s picture circulates once again, but this time, it’s as a side-by-side created by an overeager Reddit user keen to identify a missing terrorist. A grainy photo of a bomber with a hat becomes the twin of smiling Sunil, and a missing man becomes a wanted criminal with an upvote, a share, and a retweet. Good Reddiquette this is not.

The viral hailstorm of social media fires through Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi like bullets as the social media impressions escalate in frequency and intensity. The sheer volume of hate is astonishing as Sunil becomes guilty in the court of public opinion, and Broffman conveys the overwhelming onslaught the family faces as images of angry Reddit posts and hate-filled Tweets flood the screen. (A few Tweeters and insensitive social media rock-star-ninjas are bound to find themselves at the receiving end of some well-earned flack following screenings of this film.) Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi creates an overwhelming visual mob mentality as the family and friends share one of the most telling cautionary tales in social media history.

The film smartly takes back Sunil’s story, though, as his family insists that the allegations against him will not define him despite whatever Google algorithms and social media metrics consider the top hit. Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi puts a human face on a trending topic as Sunil’s family members share their love and grief over a family member who was a victim to both an illness and herd mentality. The words shared by his mother, Judy, are especially devastating as they convey a range of grief almost too fresh and deep to bear.

Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi is exceptionally moving as it pieces together a sensitive study of the victims of depression and mental illness. The essay on social media’s gale force becomes doubly powerful as one sees the family grief compounded by the inevitable online bullying that comes when people value instant gratification and immediate fame over facts. Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi demands audiences to separate what is trending from what is true, and this compelling doc is an urgent reminder to see the human face behind the hashtag. You’ll want to hug your loved ones after seeing it.

Hot Docs 2015 Screenings
Wed, Apr 29 7:00 PM
ROM Theatre

Thu, Apr 30 11:00 AM
Isabel Bader Theatre

Sat, May 2 9:00 PM
Scotiabank Theatre

Click here for more of POV’s coverage of the 2015 Hot Docs Festival!