Asked by Kevin Stringer in Ask Me AnythingCelebritiesDocumentary FilmsFilmmaking
Answers with Amy S. Weber?
September 13, 2019 5:03PM
What's next for you in 2015?
Hopefully sharing the film and speaking to communities across the country about The PeaceKeeper Movement. I am also very excited to begin development on my next passion project, a film focused on a transgendered story, as well as prepping to direct a Detroit-based fantasy film that pits two teenagers against an ancient force that is terrorizing their city (Nain Rouge).
What was the dynamic like on set between you, Hunter, Lexi and Jimmy?
Lots and lots of hugs! With a storyline as emotional as the one we were telling, knowing that each and every day, young girls and boys were experiencing in real life what we were filming, it bonded us in a way that is difficult to put into words. I love each one of them and am so grateful for what they brought to their characters and to this film. I could not have imagined any other actors as these characters.
What is the story behind "A Girl Like Her"?
A Girl Like Her is a story about a 16-year-old girl named Jessica Burns who is bullied mercilessly by her former friend and attempts to take her own life. A documentary film crew is actually at her high school filming the school's celebration of being ranked 10th in the country when the incident takes place. The film crew quickly turns their lens toward Jessica's story and unveils a very common, yet unheard voice, Jessica's tormenter, Avery Keller. It is through Avery's eyes that we begin to learn both sides of the story, as we watch all perspectives unfold almost simultaneously. For the first time, we get to learn from the abuser herself with an unprecedented look at the life of a bully.
How do you hope your film will inspire viewers?
One of the realizations of working with generations of youth is the fact that their pain is so often hidden and they don't really have many 'safe spaces' to go to, especially to be themselves. My motivation is that this film inspires hope that change is possible, that from truth and a shift in perspective of how we approach this issue, we can begin the solution and heal together. If the film ignites a spark in our youth to want something better - to understand that in order to solve this epidemic, we need to shake the foundation, stand up and speak out to get to the underlying issues that plague our culture, that is all I could have ever hoped for.
How does "A Girl Like Her" offer a solution to the current bullying crisis in America?
As the film illustrates, from a truth perspective, we can no longer just help the victim and demonize the abuser. We need to shift our perspective to include both sides of the issue and to help both victim and abuser. Without the bully's perspective and seeing the issue through that lens, we can't possibly move on to the next step in the solution, which is healing and social change, hopefully lead by our youth. There is so much fear surrounding this issue but still, there are so many wonderful people dedicating their entire lives to solving it. We need to bring all of those voices together if we ever expect that change is possible. Our youth are the answer. They hold the key to lasting change. A Girl Like Her was created to inspire them to want to lead that change.
What is a "warrior of peace"?
Simply put, someone who passionately stands for peace, speaks out for it, lives by example of it and inspires others to follow the values behind it.
What is the PEACEkeeper movement and how is this movement related to "A Girl Like Her"?
One of my hopes is that young people realize their own power, their own voice, and to create their own dialogue and definitions for activities and experiences that have been passed down to them making new social experiences that are based in unity and respect, as one community. And that's what The PEACEkeeper Kit is all about eradicating the old style principles that have been passed down from generation to generation - the social cliques and divisive social structures - and redefine the youth experience as a whole, giving them the tools they need to make a significant change, not only for themselves but for the generations to follow. One of the most important focus points in the Movement is for youth and parents to inspire their communities to open up two seats on every city council and on every school board to allow youth under the age of 18 to join the conversation, with a voice equal to adults. The kit begins the dialogue and provides a 7-step plan of action to be put in place one community at a time. The film is the introduction to the PEACEKeeper Movement. And I can only hope that young people are inspired enough by what they experience by watching the film, to begin the steps that will bring change to their lives. This film doesn't want to just be another voice in the bullying conversation. The goal was to offer a solution. That was the inspiration... to give kids a tool to make the change.
How do you suggest the peacekeeper method be applied to the American school system?
It only takes one young person to begin, and one family to make the impact. It will take leadership, commitment and community support to bring this change to our schools, no doubt, as the task may be an uphill climb for many families that will face resistance to change. An inspired and motivated individual can move a mountain by igniting a passion in others and leading the way. But I believe it will take communities banding together to bring this change to schools - motivating and inspiring the school system to embrace that these changes will create a safe and empowered learning environment, which will result in a stronger and more successful educational experience for all.
Do you have a favorite moment from your time on the set of "A Girl Like Her"?
Not so much a favorite moment more than a moment that I will never forget. During one of the bullying scenes when Avery is pushing Jessica into a bathroom stall and throwing her down onto the toilet, Lexi (Jessica) stepped away from the group as we were reviewing the playback of the scene. Hunter was standing next to me and leaned in, whispering, "Lexi just went back into the bathroom." I turned and headed into the bathroom to find her sobbing, in the stall, on the propped landing board over the toilet that her character is thrown down onto. She shared with me that this scene in particular hit her hard because she was thinking of Phoebe Prince and all that she endured, one of her inspirations for her character Jessica. (Phoebe was just 15 years old when she ended her life after over 4 months of being bullied and harassed by a group of her peers). We hugged and talked for a while before rejoining the group. It was a moment that I will not soon forget.
What do you do with your time when you're not filmmaking?
Mainly spend time with my family, traveling to our favorite places, like Mackinac Island, Toronto and Chicago, going to the movies, raising money for animals or adopting more of them, playing soccer and basketball, and just being together, doing the things we love. They are my heart and the reason I do pretty much anything.
Did you come across any challenges while filming "A Girl Like Her"?
I am happy to share that no, there were no major challenges. And even with all the different cameras running, there were no technical problems. Even the Michigan weather seemed to cooperate. Unlike normal December weather in the Great Lakes state, not a flake of snow covered our exterior sets - anyone who lives here can tell you - that is unheard of! That was incredibly important because the heart of our story takes place in springtime.
Do you have a personal connection with the bullying story behind "A Girl Like Her"? Are you a girl like Jessica?
Personally, I've been on both sides of this story. When I was just 6 years old, someone I thought was my friend bullied me physically. It started off just like any other friendship, but once I started spending time at his house, things drastically changed. He threatened that he would hurt me if I didn't do what he demanded, locking me in his trundle bed and in closets. I once told his mother how he was treating me and she denied that her son could ever do such things. I was too scared to tell my parents what was happening, so I stayed silent. Less than a year later, my family moved cities and I met another young boy who quickly became my friend. This time though, I was in charge and I liked how that felt. I became a young bully myself, mainly fighting with boys, or anyone who threatened myself or someone I cared about. With this new approach to life, I can say that I felt I didn't have many friends. I would pretend that I didn't care, but I was hurting, which I could only express through anger. It was terribly sad. And so was I. I lost myself in the power struggle and my true identity was no where to be found. Since these challenging years, I've learned so much and have worked a great deal on myself. I know I am a person that projects. I have worked through that my whole life and I still consider myself a work in progress today.
In the film, technology plays an active role in facilitating bullying. How do you think technology has impacted 21st bullies and victims?
To leave technology out of the film would not be telling the whole story. There is a layered reality to the bullying epidemic. First and foremost, today, there is no escape from the bulliers. There is absolutely no escape. Bullies can continue their pursuit well after the school day and can build an army of followers with social media. Secondly, there are many resources out there that do not require any responsibility to a code of ethics and allows accounts to be set up anonymously, making it even easier to attack their victims without consequence. We address this reality in the film by exposing how Avery uses technology to invade Jessica's life, leaving Jessica feeling as if there is no escape, no way out for her. We watch how one text, email or social media post can completely dismantle her emotionally and crumble her spirit. This is happening right now, today, at this very moment, to millions of young people around the globe.
Who is the target audience for "A Girl Like Her"?
Any person, anywhere in the world, who is affected, either personally or through affiliation, by the bullying epidemic, on either side of the issue, past or present day.
In writing and directing the film, how did you go about showing both the bully and the victim's point of view? How does "A Girl Like Her" break the cycle of bullying?
Most bully stories we hear about are from the point of view of the victim... we rarely get a glimpse at the other side, mainly because there is a great deal of denial that comes with being identified as an abuser. Plus, we don't usually create a safe space for those who do identify with this behavior to come forward and discuss it. So how can we possibly understand unless we begin to see the experience through their eyes? Some people don't want to understand, and believe me, I have been there myself in extreme cases. But if we are able to understand that people express pain in different ways, we can begin to view this issue from a different angle - something I believe is critical if we hope to ever end the behavior. If we continue to demonize one side, and victimize the other, that cycle will continue to lead us into the abyss. Seeing the experience through both perspectives is as critical to solving this epidemic as it is to keeping the victim safe from further harm. Therefore, the film HAD to focus on the perspective of the abuser in order to break this cycle and to get to the truth. Avery Keller is that truth. Her story, like a million others out there trying to conceal their pain through emotional projection onto others, is a reflection of the issue at large, right in our face. We cannot come out of this film unaffected. She forces us into her life and into the pain that we absolutely need to understand in order shift that perspective that behind every abuser is a victim herself.
What prompted you to study filmmaking? What is your filmmaking training?
When I was just a teen, I was given an opportunity to intern at a local cable station, where I quickly became obsessed with "anything TV and film". My high school also offered radio and television classes, where I was very involved in that program, but once I entered into University, that is where my passion for storytelling and film became the focus for my life journey. I haven't looked back since and can't imagine doing anything else with my life.
Do you have any personal causes or organizations that are important to you?
Anything that has to do with animals and the well being of children. Especially being able to share those passions with my kids! This summer, we helped organized our daughter's fundraiser for a wonderful animal rescue in Michigan called Providing for Paws. She raised over $2000 and we were happy to match her donation to give these incredible people the means to provide medical care, food and shelter to animals in need. A tortoise named Mama Kohl was rescued by this group, after being abused and left in a dumpster. I shared the story with my daughter, who was so moved by the rescue that she decided to spend her summer raising the money (selling homemade cookies and lemonade). She reached her goal by the end of the summer!
As the writer and director of the film "A Girl Like Her", can you tell us more about your inspiration behind creating the film?
For most of my professional life, I have had the great pleasure of working with young people who have inspired so much in me as a creative mind and as a human being. As a storyteller of social issues for educational films for close to 15 years, I was given the rare opportunity to work with hundreds of young people, many brave enough to share their lives and experiences with me, as both victims and abusers. I have always been conscious that the stories we told came from real kids - using their voices. These are their experiences. Their lives. They reminded me throughout my life that authenticity and truth are key in order to reach them. They relate to the material so much more when they can see their world come to life versus an adult version of what 'we' want them to see.