Every spring, filmmakers and film lovers from around the world convene in historic downtown Durham for the much-anticipated Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. It is a cinematic wonderland of nonfiction theater, created by established directors as well as directors making their debut. Showing almost 100 films in 4 days, many of the films investigate current, hot topic issues, provoking charged dialogue during the post-film Q&A and for weeks to come. Although I was only able to see one film this year, I will remember it forever.
I went with my best friend, (an avid full framer), to see Audrie & Daisy, a film that is as difficult to watch, as it is important to see. Co-directed by Bonnie Cohen and Jon Shenk and premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, Audrie & Daisy is the documentary of two high-profile sexual assault cases involving two underage high school students. Although their stories are separate and occurred in different parts of the country, they have many disturbing parallels. In each case, the teenage boys responsible were easily and quickly identified, yet with the exception of one who confessed, all eluded sexual assault charges despite clear evidence against them. Both girls also endured relentless bullying and shaming through social media sites following their assault leading each of them down a path of self-destruction.
The film begins with the tragic story of Audrie Pott, a teenage girl from Saratoga, California. In 2012, after getting drunk and passing out at a party, Audrie was sexually assaulted by three of her male friends. In addition to being demeaning and extremely graphic, the three teenage boys photographed the assault and broadcasted it across social media sites. The next morning, with no memory of the night before, Audrie became the target of cruel cyber gossip, bullying, and social alienation. She was shamed and humiliated by her friends and classmates through an onslaught of texts, online posts and messages. She was shunned at school for the next week. The film has unique graphic elements, recounting chats, and Facebook messages between the victims and the kids bullying them in a way that illustrates the perpetual and viscous nature of cyberbullying. Eight days after the assault, Audrie committed suicide. She hung herself with a belt from her bathroom showerhead. She was 15 years old. The cyberbullying contributed as much to her suicide as the assault did. It publicized the traumatic event she had just endured, making her feel ashamed and humiliated. “I now have a reputation that I can never get rid of,” Audrie writes to a friend, “My life is over…I ruined my life and don’t even remember how.”
In January that same year in Maryville, Missouri, 14 year-old Daisy and her 13 year- old friend, Paige, accepted an invitation to an older high school athlete’s house. There were five teenage boys present and they pressured the girls to consume large quantities of liquor until they were completely inebriated. They were then physically separated and each sexually assaulted. Just before dawn the next morning, Daisy’s mom found her daughter half-dressed, face down in the yard with her hair frozen to the ground, and nearly dead from hypothermia. She had been left outside on a winter night in Missouri. Although Daisy survived, she was, like Audrie, subjected to months of cyberbullying leaving her depressed and suicidal. She began to abuse drugs and was taken to the emergency department numerous times, each time barely escaping overdose.
This film is a powerful portrayal of the devastating consequences of teenage sexual assault, the factors that contribute to it, the failings of the justice system to prosecute those responsible, and the destruction yielded by cyberbullying to the lives of teenagers and to their families. There is no shortage of social injustice recounted in this film, but as a mother to a young girl and the godmother to twin boys, I found the misconceptions, crude assumptions, and misplaced fault surrounding the definition of consensual sex hitting home the hardest. The teenagers in this film demonstrate an appalling lack of awareness surrounding what consent actually means. The boys responsible for the assault, the ‘friends’ and classmates who posted cruel things about Daisy and Audrie, and even Daisy and Audrie themselves, all somehow express misplaced fault. It is so disheartening to hear these young men and women attribute fault, in any way, to Daisy and Audrie; they are victims. Period.
I cried a lot watching this film. To think that there is even the smallest chance of that happening to my daughter is incomprehensible and terrifying. Even more terrifying is the fact that this happens All The Time. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), sexual assault happens every 107 seconds, and 44% of victims are under the age of 18. Those numbers only reflect what is reported, when the majority of cases aren’t. Those that are prosecuted are often juveniles and the legal consequences are underwhelming, to say the least. Conversely, when the boys are interviewed in the film it is apparent that at the time of the assault they had absolutely no comprehension of the concept of consent, or that it should have even been considered. They claimed they were pulling a ‘prank,’ and that they would score popularity points by having the best story of the night. This ‘prank’ will haunt these boys forever. It will shape who they become. This ‘prank’ cost one girl her life. We have to start a conversation with our children about consent. We have to start a conversation about social media and what is both acceptable and humane to share. We have to start a conversation about the destruction that cyberbullying can yield. We need to keep talking until there is a paradigm shift. And even then, we need to keep talking.
We were lucky enough to meet Daisy, her mom, and brother following the film for a Q&A. Daisy has trudged a difficult road and her continued struggle is palpable. But her strength is too. She joined a support group with other teenagers who have experienced sexual assault and she works with PAVE, a national nonprofit that works to “shatter the silence and prevent sexual violence”. She talked about a program called Coaching Boys into Men that gives coaches resources to promote respectful, non-violent relationships in their players. I think this message may be better received from a mentor, rather than a parent. When I told two of my dearest friends who have young boys about the program, each of them immediately wrote it down. Because we are responsible. For our children who are the future. And for all the Audries and the Daisys in the world whose stories are never told or end much too soon.
I highly recommend that everyone, especially with children, see this film, which will be available on Netflix later this year. What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments.