At the press conference for this year's Frameline Festival, I had the welcome opportunity to meet Fawn Yacker, whose film Ugly Ducklings, a documentary about the harassment of gay and lesbian youth and youth suicide, had come highly recommended to me by Seema Arora who had asked if I couldn't spotlight some of the festival's youth-oriented fare. Fawn was receptive to an interview.
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The Evening Class: Fawn, I wanted to tell you first of all that your documentary Ugly Ducklings was one of the first screeners I reviewed for Frameline and I actually cried when I saw it because it brought up for me a lot of the issues that I went through as a young person but also to realize that these same issues continue to exist even when you mature—that you still deal with the same, basic issues—and how important it would have been to work on them earlier to not have them lingering so long into adulthood. Could you briefly synopsize your documentary?
Fawn Yacker: The documentary follows 13 young women and one adult woman actress through their process of rehearsing for a play also called Ugly Ducklings. The play takes place in a summer camp in Maine and it's mostly about bias-based harassment and youth suicide. But also about finding one's identity, struggling with one's sexual identity, and how difficult that is when you're surrounded by peers that don't accept who you are.
What we did with the documentary, when the film was cast we didn't know who was straight, who was gay, who was otherwise. They just cast for the characters based on these young women's auditions. What I did coming in was also not knowing what people's sexual identities were but wanting to interview these kids early on right before they started the rehearsal process to find out what their ideas about the different issues were that they would be having to explore in creating the characters for the play and then did a second interview with them further on down the line. What I found was a group of astonishingly mature and sophisticated young women who actually were pretty familiar with the issues already and some of who actually were dealing with some of the issues that were mirrored in the play. Some had not yet fully come out to their parents. Some weren't quite sure how they were identifying. Basically, we included those interviews and a lot of the workshops that were done with the kids in order to prepare them for the issues that they were going to be involved with in the play. Some of these kids were 10 years old and we wanted to make sure that everybody was well-prepared for the idea of suicide, the idea of harassment, because some of the kids get harassed in the play and I wanted to make sure they could handle that.
EC: I think the eloquence of these young women certainly comes across. You did a skillful job of documenting that. I was especially impressed with the 10-year-old girl. What was her name again? She seemed to be the one who came in and actually learned so much from the process.
FY: Exactly. One of the youngest kids was named Shae Friou. She came into the process a little bit more sophisticated than an average 10-year-old because she had parents who were very liberal, and I guess all the kids' parents were progressive in some way or otherwise they wouldn't have let their kids be in the play, some kids were actually pulled from the play when the parents got a better idea of what the content was. Shae's father had a transsexual secretary so she knew about that. I couldn't include all of her ideas about things but she was very very clear and straightforward about her experience and that's what makes her interview so powerful.
EC: Not only her interview, but her stage performance as well because she is the young character in the play who's going to attempt suicide towards the end. The play, I understand, is written by a lesbian playwright Carolyn Gage out of Portland, Maine, and the theatrical production was actually staged there?
FY: The production was staged in Waterville, Maine, Carolyn is from Portland, and Waterville houses Colby College and Colby was a co-producer for the play. They used their scenic designer and lighting director for the play and we used their stage.
EC: I'm assuming that the play was well-received?
FY: The play was very well-received. They performed it not only in Waterville but also in another town closeby—I'm forgetting the name of it right now—and all of the audiences were full to capacity. We were prepared for some demonstrations even but nothing actually ever happened. Actually, one of the actresses did have some trouble at school as a result of being in this play. We weren't able to include that story but it was powerful and dramatic but did not allow the flow of the documentary to go and it was a whole different idea that she was harassed and accused of being lesbian when she wasn't. The kids were being very hard on her.
EC: Proof of the necessity for this type of documentation in the first place. It's my understanding that your documentary and the play are part of a national campaign that you have been called in to help out on. Could you speak a little bit about that campaign?
FY: To speak a little bit about the campaign actually Lauren Sterling, the executive producer, and Lyn Mikel Brown could speak better about it. They're working with a nonprofit called Hardy Girls Healthy Women and that nonprofit took on the job of creating the film, along with Lauren Sterling and Lyn Mikel Brown, they are the coproducers, and it was daunting because none of them had ever made a film before but Lauren, the executive producer, is an incredible go-getter and energetic, her learning curve was very high and she stepped up to the plate every time. She was amazing. The campaign originated in Maine because Maine has twice the national average for teen suicide, with LGBT kids being 2 to 5 times more likely to commit suicide.
EC: Were you brought in because you have worked on this issue before? You are obviously sensitive to the issue and eloquent about it, have you done other documentary work about teenage suicide?
FY: I haven't done anything about teenage suicide or youth suicide but the producers found me through Carolyn Gage who knows a good friend of mine, we have a mutual friend in common, and then when they saw what I had done in the past, I was co-director and co-producer of a film called That's A Family, which was made by Women's Educational Media, Deborah Chasnoff directed, and I'd worked on a number of Deborah Chasnoff's films as a Director of Photography as well, and all of those deal with issues of homophobia basically, and I've also worked a great deal with Dee Mosbacher at Woman Vision who also makes films about homophobia. And I've worked with kids a lot. I've done a lot of film making that included children, either as a director or director of photography.
EC: It's been interesting to watch some of the youth-oriented documentaries in this year's Frameline line-up. I just finished watching Follow My Voice, which focuses on the Harvey Milk High School in New York. It's certainly important, as I was stating earlier, for these young kids to learn how to take care of themselves at an early age so that this baggage doesn't carry on later into life. What are your hopes for the film?
FY: Basically my hope for the film is that it will save lives and save pain. That's as much as I can hope for. There's so much pain out there and there's so much harassment going on out there, I can tell you from working in the schools, I've even taught some, it's happening quite frequently and kids do—after a lot of that kind of harassment—feel like taking their lives often. They're just battered down. If kids who are participating in this kind of harassment who watch this film and understand better what their actions are causing and that they're causing their peers pain, then hopefully we'll have a lot less of that going on in the schools and elsewhere.
EC: Is Ugly Ducklings premiering at Frameline?
FY: This screening is the world premiere and it will be shown again in Waterville, Maine, in July. We're in the process now of applying to film festivals because this just got completed about a month and a half ago.
EC: I anticipate you're going to have a good run with this film. It's a powerful piece. Like I said, I was very moved by it when I watched it. I want to thank you for the efforts you've taken into producing and directing it and into promoting education on this theme and for taking the time to talk a little bit with me about it. I certainly wish you luck with the premiere.
FY: Michael, thanks a lot, I really appreciate your comments.
EC: No problem, I really loved the film, and I just want to do my part in getting folks to go out and see it at Frameline. For that matter, I would love to talk to you further as the documentary is traveling around through the festivals. If you ever want to report to me about its life in the festival circuit, that fascinates me.
FY: Me too. I'm very curious to see how it's going to do.
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Taking Fawn's cue, I then phoned Lauren Sterling back East to find out more about the national campaign against youth suicide.
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Lauren Sterling: The documentary is the cornerstone of our national campaign, which is really the distribution of a community action kit with the film and an enhanced dvd that we hope to get into the hands of every single adult—and youth!—in as many sectors and communities and schools and churches as possible. This is really about changing or shifting, I should say, the culture around this issue of harassing, and using language, and using gay and lesbian realities and lives as some kind of insult and some kind of oppressed human being that is still existing in our country.
Evening Class: I'm certainly behind you 100% on this effort. Fawn was saying that she was hoping young people would see Ugly Ducklings, primarily because she was hoping that by their watching this film they might come to some kind of awareness of the harm they're causing their peers. How do you think that could be effected?
LS: Actually, there are two youth populations that we care about. One are those that are doing, or potentially doing—if not already—the harassing or the misuse of GLBT language and references, and to try to shift their thinking a little bit around the harm that they're doing. And then the other population of youth we hope to impact are those who are questioning or are finding that they are in a sexual minority, and understanding that there are resources and there are ways to get support and to be safe. Our goal is to save lives.
EC: I hope lives are saved! If people wanted to find out about the national campaign, how would they find out that information?
LS: To go to the website that's holding—one of the co-producing websites in Maine—and there's two ways: a phone number and a web address in which they can get a lot of information about it, as well as they can download an order form if they want to get a hold of it. That phone number is (207) 861-8131.
EC: That's great. When I was talking to Fawn, she said that this campaign originated in Maine because Maine has twice the amount of teen and youth suicide by comparison to the rest of the nation. Could you talk a little bit about that?
LS: Maine has the highest rate of youth suicide, ages 15-19, in New England and it's 75% in the percentile nationally. So we're way up high in terms of rate of suicide of our youths per capita.
EC: Any thoughts on why that is?
LS: Actually it's a long story about why that is. We're learning more and more and more. There was a community in the central coast of Maine a couple of years ago that was presenting a trend of significant numbers and so the Federal Center for Disease Control came to Maine and did an epidemiological study and, when they reported that data back, we found it was really interesting that there was no mention of this separate population of our kids but they had a lot to say with extreme research—both adults and youths were researched, hundreds and hundreds in this community. What they are finding, and what we are all finding, is that in many cases young people are very uncomfortable going to their parents and other adults with really difficult issues, afraid of how they'll react. And likewise, parents were saying in this research, that they are uncomfortable around certain issues and topics because they don't know how to manage them and they don't know much about them. We found that to be really interesting. And it covers everything, from relationships, orientation, substance abuse issues, sexuality, all of those elements were included in items that were uncomfortable. So we have two generations not talking to each other and not understanding how to help each other and to be proactive in expressing their concerns and their pain.
EC: Hopefully Ugly Ducklings will be the bridge to help mend that generational gap. I want to thank you very much, Lauren, for the additional information as well as thank you personally for this remarkable film. I was very affected when I watched it because it reminded me so much of my own youth and how difficult it was to proceed forward into life past a desire to die. You have created a powerful document.
LS: Thank you. The process of doing this project has taught me what it means to be an ally. Because I didn't know really. I thought I was before but now I really know what it means.
EC: I'm glad you are our ally. Thank you very much.
LS: Thank you. And I hope to see you there!
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Ugly Ducklings will have its world premiere at Frameline on Sunday, June 18, 3:45 p.m. at the Roxie Film Center. Fawn Yacker, and hopefully Lauren Sterling, will be in attendance to answer questions. I highly recommend this documentary for anyone concerned about LGBT youth suicide.