FIVE QUESTIONS WITH . . . Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk
ASSAULT ON INNOCENCE
5 Questions for Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, directors of AUDRIE & DAISY
by Anthony Kaufman, DOC10 Programmer
Audrie and Daisy are two average high-school girls who have never met, but share a horrible experience. They were both sexually assaulted by boys they knew, only to then be savagely attacked on social media. By juxtaposing their stories, filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk (The Island President) illuminate the larger societal epidemic of teenage sexual and online assault. Wrenching to watch, this stunning entry from this year’s Sundance Film Festival goes beyond recent films such as The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground to paint a complex and elegantly conceived picture of both the women survivors and the men who took part in their struggles. Directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk talk about character transformation, storytelling, and the strength of speaking your mind.
Your last film The Island President, about climate change as seen through the struggles of the President of the Maldives, doesn't seem like it has anything to do with Audrie & Daisy. And yet, I think both films succeed in the same way: They talk about "issues" via the conflicts of a compelling central character. Is it correct to say that your approach was kind of similar? And is this strategic?
Issues are in the head. Characters are in the heart. For most viewers (including us), issues, in and of themselves, don’t resonate. We think in terms of human stories, characters, people. The Shakespearean model (that has become THE basis for the vast majority of theater, literature, film) where characters undergo transformation is the foundation always. President Nasheed is a human being, attempting to save his people from destruction. Audrie and Daisy are children who have their innocence violated by misguided peers who have not learned right from wrong. We all identify with these characters because we too would like to save our people from destruction, and we too have been violated either directly or indirectly. We tell stories, not out of strategy, but because we find meaning in telling stories.
How difficult was it to get your subjects to trust you to tell their story? What did you do to convince them?
It’s always a process. Not unlike any new friendship. We introduce ourselves, tell them who we are, and we listen to what they have to say. In the case of the Potts and the Colemans, we were introducing ourselves to families who had been through the wringer. Both families had been abused, in some way, by their communities. So we had to be mindful of that. On the other hand, we have learned that generally people wish to have their stories told. In the case of these families, they needed to be reminded that we were not in it for the short term. It took us two years to make Audrie & Daisy. It’s much easier to convince people to trust you if you keep showing up.
Were you ever concerned that by making this film you could make Daisy an even bigger target? And if so, how did you ameliorate that concern?
It doesn’t take long to learn that when you are working with victims of sexual assault, you need to be mindful of retriggering/post-traumatic stress. Victim-blaming, which Daisy suffered from, was a concern for the Coleman’s and for us. When it came to protecting Daisy from additional abuse, we took our cues from Daisy and Melinda, her mother. That said, Daisy has developed quite a thick skin from the bullying that she has endured. She knew that the film would bring the bullies out, but she also has gained strength by speaking her mind, especially as she witnesses the profound help her story provides to other victims who see the film and hear her story. In the end, we have to acknowledge Daisy’s bravery. One hopes that they would have the wherewithal to maintain sanity in the midst of what she has been through.
One of the things that's most surprising is the admissions and perspectives that come from the Sheriff of the town. Was it easy to get him to speak on camera? And did he realize how much he was hanging himself?
Sherriff White felt that Nodaway County and the city of Maryville got a bad rap in the national press regarding the “Coleman” case. He is a public figure and did not hesitate much in granting an interview to the film. We don’t think he feels as if he is admitting anything wrong or that his perspective is skewed. He genuinely believes that his department conducted themselves professionally throughout the investigation and legal process. To his credit, he is not hiding his perspective. Many others in Maryville declined to be filmed.
Can you talk about the way you chose to structure the film. So many documentaries evenly intermix the stories of different characters throughout, but you chose not to intercut the two stories, but to tell them one after another. Why?
Big question! As we got to know Audrie’s and Daisy’s stories, we began to feel that, in some important ways, they represented a single story. In both, a girl goes to a party, drinks, is assaulted by people she thought were her friends, and is assaulted again online by schoolmates and community members. And, of course, they both attempt suicide.
We decided on an “out-of-the-box” structure for a number of reasons. We felt that by telling Audrie’s story in the first act of the film, Audrie becomes a cautionary tale as we head into the Daisy story. Our hope is that it remains in the back of the mind of the viewer as he/she experiences Daisy’s story. The other thing we discovered in making this film is that both stories contain a great deal of procedural and legal details. Intercutting the stories lead to an almost comical of confusion of facts. The structure of the film solves the issue of confusion and allows the viewer to lose him/herself in the narrative. Ultimately, the two separate dramas come together at the end, by which time the viewer should know who is who and which characters belong to which narrative.