Film: Sundance Film Festival
Audrie & Daisy breaks down the door of teen secrecy to expose flaws in a legal system that allows for social media bullying in the wake of sexual assault
By Katherine Monk
PARK CITY, UT — The movie is called Audrie & Daisy, but it could just as easily have been called Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons because the stories are so similar: A young woman is sexually exploited, then shamed and harassed on social media to the point where she feels she has no option but to take her own life.
It’s become a tragic fact of modern puberty, and as Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s (The Island President) new documentary makes abundantly clear, there are no easy answers to a problem that requires wholesale change to both the legal system and the secret social world of teens.
“You think you’re having the conversation with your kids, but there’s so much more to say… which is why I am so grateful for this film,” said Cohen after the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
A highly emotional journey shot over two years, Audrie and Daisy focuses on the stories of Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman. Pott was a 15-year-old high school student who went to a party and was sexually assaulted by three boys, then bullied on social media after photographs of the assault were shared among her peers. Eight days later, Pott hanged herself in the bathroom.
Daisy Coleman was 14 when she and a friend went to visit older boys from the football team. Hours later, she was found hypothermic and close to comatose from alcohol poisoning in front of her family home. A physical exam revealed Daisy showed signs of sexual assault, but when her mother pushed for rape charges against boys with political connections, the entire small town of Maryville, Missouri turned against the entire Coleman family.
When the rape charges were dropped, the story went viral as cries of outrage and corruption were splattered across media outlets worldwide.
Daisy Coleman has attempted suicide on multiple occasions, but at 18, she is a survivor and eager to help others escape a similar fate.
“Daisy and [the mother of Audrie] met for the first time here at Sundance,” said Cohen. “And Daisy was able to tell her that what saved her after she learned about us, and Audrie’s story, was that she would be able to speak for Audrie – who can no longer speak for herself. It was really beautiful.”
That there is any beauty in a story so ugly is a testament to the the strength of these young survivors, as well as Cohen and Shenk’s film, which canvasses accounts from as many sources as possible.
It even includes interviews with the young men who assaulted Pott. In an entirely unprecedented move, the Pott family tried the two minors in a civil case and won. One of the settlement terms included the boys do a 45-minute interview with the filmmakers.
“That may be unprecedented in all of documentary production,” says Cohen. “We were approached by the Pott family who told us we had been granted this interview —and it was not a willing interview — it was a mandated interview, so it gave us some pause. But we thought if there was anything we could get from the boys that would shed some light on that moment in the night when they thought they might be doing something wrong, we knew we needed to hear from them. But it was a terrible day…”
Cohen said it was an intense two-year emotional journey for everyone.
“I co-directed this film with my husband, Jon Shenk, and we have two teenagers of our own. We knew we wanted to do something in the social media space. We found that not only us, but our friends, we were all having a hard time getting out of the paralysis of how to talk to our kids about safe use of social media,” said Cohen.
“So as a parent and as a person in our society that is watching these things happen made it all very intense… But I am grateful for this film. We had conversations with our own kids we never would have had. They screened this film. And that’s the thing. You think you are having the conversations, but there is so much more to say.”
With a recent sale to Netflix, which plans a simultaneous day-and-date release in theatres and across its streaming platforms, Cohen said she is hopeful the conversation will continue.
“We always wanted Netflix as a platform for this because that’s where teens consume their media. And we wanted to reach the widest possible audience.”
Cohen said it’s very hard to get victims to talk about their experience. The world of teenagers is largely closed and secretive, which makes it hard to access. “It’s not common for underage girls, high school girls, to go public with their names unless they’ve been outed by social media, decided to take an activist position on their own or, in Audrie’s case, they are no longer with us.”
There’s a good chance Audrie & Daisy could change that because as disturbing and outrageous as the facts are, the real demon in this film isn’t the sheriff who put the onus of responsibility on the underage girls, or the three football players who took advantage of a near-comatose 14-year-old, or the boys who drew on Audrie Pott’s genitals with indelible marker then shared the photos online. What pushed these women to suicide was shame, socially propelled self-loathing and the feeling of being alone.
“There were many nights when we’d sit back together and think humanity’s the worst. It’s heartbreaking, but having the families band together, and seeing these girls tell their stories, you could see there was strength in sharing, which is why we’re so excited about the educational possibilities.”
Audrie & Daisy will premiere on Netflix later this year.
Photo above: Daisy Coleman
THE EX-PRESS, January 28, 2016