Bullying has unfortunately become a prevalent aspect of high school. Director Amy S Weber's latest film A Girl Like Her addresses the subject head on by giving a first person perspective of a girl named Jessica Burns driven to the edge by bullying and the impact is has on everyone involved, from her friends and family to her bully herself. I had the opportunity to speak with Weber and talking about her film and the impact she hopes it will have on young people everywhere.
Shakefire (SF): You don't hold back at all, especially during the opening scene in which we get a first person perspective of Jessica attempting suicide. How vital to the was it to have the first person perspective throughout the movie?
Amy S Weber (ASW): It was really drawing you in because you don’t really know what’s going on. How is this being filmed? You don’t even know who it is until she goes in front of the mirror. It’s really important that each one of these perspectives in the film - that’s what makes the film, I think, so unique - is that you’re not just seeing the overall big picture of what’s happening. You’re getting to experience personally, as it unfolds, each characters experience within the situation. So you not only have Jessica, our victim, who is wearing a camera, which we later find out why she has a camera on her body. You have the film crew cameras who are kinda the glue to the story as they’re investigating the backstory of what happened leading up to this incident. You have Brian’s camera, who is also a witness to all these moments between Jessica and Avery but is also documenting Jessica’s experience and his experience through his lens. And then of course you have the voice that we rarely get to hear from, and that is Avery’s voice told from her camera’s perspective. So I believe it is very critical for the film to have the impact that it had that you get to see all the perspectives and big picture through the eyes of all these different people experiencing it, and yes, starting with Jessica in that first scene.
SF: Talking about the impact of the film. It really feels like a true documentary. How did you accomplish that?
ASW: When I created the storyline I knew this film had to be unique, and the unique element to it was, and it meant more to me than anything, was that the film had to feel very real and it had to come from a place of perspective. I did not want to create a film that came from what adults feels this issue is about and have it come across to young people as preachy. I wrote the film and produced the film for kids. I wanted it to be as raw and real as what they experience, the ones that are on the front line dealing with this, day in and day out of their lives. So that was the motivation behind wanting to do something very real. I felt the storyline and how it was going to play out that this format was the best way to handle it. It was a gut reaction for me when I was developing the storyline. I wasn’t trying to fool anyone, like “Oh, here’s a documentary. Is it real or not?” It is real. Any kid that watches it is going to tell you. It doesn’t matter if she wrote that story. It is real. It is based on millions of stories that are out there everyday. Right now, as you and I are talking, there is a young girl and a young girl by the handfuls that are going through what Jessica Burns has gone through in this film. It’s happening right this very second. There is a kid right this very second contemplating taking their own life. It’s happening. This is how real it is.
The other way that we approached it was I didn’t write one line of dialogue in the screenplay. The entire film is improvised. I guess the exact reason behind that was that it needs to be as genuine and authentic as possible to be as relatable as possible. The impact is to have young people see their lives on the big screen, watch it unfold, whether their experiences are anywhere near as serious, it’s all serious. It doesn’t matter if it’s just one text that hurts your feelings or makes you feel small. To someone that is very painful and makes them feel unworthy of love, unworthy of someone being kind to them.
SF: What makes this film unique is that you show multiple characters' perspectives. How did that contribute to the overall message of the film?
ASW: That was the whole mission of the film; to expose this other side. These are kids. Let’s say that first and foremost. These are kids in their formative years. We are not born an abuser. We don’t come into the world and as a baby we’re an abusive person. This is learned. We learn how to be unkind. We learn every step of the way from the people who are the most influential in our lives. We gravitate to a certain extent, but the rest of it is learned. To look at a child and to demonize a child for their behavior, without looking at the big picture and the underlying reason why this child is acting out this way, to me that is the problem. It is the reason it is not being solved, because we’re looking in the wrong direction. Hopefully this film gets us back on the right track and we start to look in the right direction. We have a saying around here. The only way to save a victim is to heal a bully.
SF: What was the filming process like since you had no dialogue in the script?
ASW: It was a great deal of organization in the setup of how we would do it. I still wrote a screenplay and within the screenplay it worked just like a traditional screenplay except there is no dialogue. There were paragraphs that I would write up what the overall approach to the scene would be, what the goal of that scene is, what the main message of the scene is, any type of blocking that would go into that scene. It was a very detailed description of every part of that scene.
I did not want to rehearse with the actors because I wanted it to feel as real as it was coming out of them. Every single one of these actors, and in some cases non-actors, who were a part of this film brought their own emotional experiences with this topic with them. We did a lot of work ahead of time in connecting with their characters so deeply that they became them. In every scene, before each scene, I would work with the actors within that scene and we would go through what exactly we wanted to get out of the scene; what I needed to have by the end of it. And we would just roll. I did not rehearse. We would roll. I had this incredible editor and an incredible scriptee who were able to take hours of footage on a scene and bring it together in a way that brought out the most important components of that scene. There was so much material and it was all so powerful. You’d be watching it unfold, even me with my headset on, and knowing full well what’s going to happen in the scene, and because we’re shooting with multiple cameras were able to capture I think some of the most incredible moments on film I’ve personally ever scene as a film lover.
SF: One of the scenes that stood out the most was the scene where Jessica goes into cardiac arrest. Can you talk about filming that moment?
ASW: Very difficult scene. The entire crew during that scene was in tears. That was a very, very difficult scene to shoot and very difficult for the actors to get over. We only shot that scene twice, and we ended up shooting it from a couple of different angles just for coverage. But yeah, just very, very difficult to watch.
SF: Were you ever worried about going too far at any point and it becoming too real for the actors?
ASW: I wasn’t because that was what I was aiming for. When you tell a story like this, there is such a social responsibility when you take on a topic like this. Everyday as a crew when we would come together each morning, everyone knew why they were there. They knew this was not just a movie we were making. This was a responsibility. There was a great responsibility that came with it. The story had to be real. It had to be authentic as possible. Kids are brilliant. They see right through an adult trying to teach them something, and they roll their eyes, especially when it comes to this topic. This topic they hear day in and day out; “Don’t bully, be kind.” They’re desensitized to it. They’re absolutely numb to it because they’ve heard it for so long yet they know nothing is changing. Nothing is getting better. In a lot of ways we’ve failed them. And this film was made for them. It was made for them to come back and say, “This is what we go through. This is what it’s like to be a young person today.” Because they’re still dealing with people who are telling them that everybody deals with bullies and they need to get a little thick skin. Especially boys.
For boys, there’s that whole dynamic of “boys will be boys” and when you’re a young person trying to discover who you are that’s a very difficult thing to get over and to say, “Wait a minute, I”m supposed to not feel anything and then you want me to be a compassionate and kind person in life?” There are so many mixed messages that are happening in our lives today and then coupled with the internet and all the negativity on it. We have to shift this perspective.
SF: You’re partnering with the Peacekeeper Movement with the film. Talk about that.
ASW: The Peacekeeper Movement is actually a seven step process to bring social change to a community. The difference between this and most programs that are put into place is that it was not written for schools. It was not written for adults. It was written for youth to lead, what I’m calling an evolution. It’s the rebirth of unlearning everything that’s been passed down from generation to generation and I ask kids, “Do these traditions really work for you? Does this way of life really work for you? Do you feel safe to be yourself?” And they all look at me and laugh and go, “Yeah, right.” Isn’t that the saddest thing you can ever discover about how you’re living? Think about that. When you were in preschool and kindergarten that’s how you felt every day of your life. You were free. And then you got older and realized that you’re not free to be who you are. I better be just like these people or some sort of form or I could become a target.
So what the Peacekeeper Kit is is a youth evolution to bring social change to their world, one community at a time. It’s going to take a great deal of commitment. It’s going to take support from their parents and the community to come together. But it’s kind of an idea of living by a code and they commit to the code of peace. They become Peacekeepers. There’s a huge responsibility when you’re a Peacekeeper because everybody is on the same page. I call them Warriors for Peace. They stand for peace in every way, shape, and form. They know that conflict will happen, but they’re given a step-by-step process of how to deal with it. As Peacekeepers they become responsible for what’s going on in their community and what’s going on in their schools. It’s lead by peer mediation versus punishment so now instead of going to detention you go to peer mediation. If you have an issue with someone at school you now go in front of this board of your peers who is elected by your peers and you talk it out. It’s healing over punishment so you have to talk about the issues you’re facing.
There are two big components to the Peacekeeper Movement. That is social change within the community lead by youth, and that means we need to bring youth to the conversation equal to adults. The vision for that is that two seats on every school board and two seats on every city council are open for young people under the age of 18 to serve, the constituency of course being youth in the community. We bring young people together equal to adults talking about the issues that matter. When young people have a voice - which we have ignored young people for so long - they have such great ideas. They’re fresh ideas; they’re very smart. They look at things without the bias that adults have had and bringing those biases into decisions. They come with a new perspective, and they can help us solve this issue.
A Girl Like Her releases in select theaters this Friday, March 27th. For more information and to find out how you can help to combat bully you can visit the film's official website.