Want To Change Minds? Don’t Make a PSA, Tell A Story

Featured in Creativity
Still from “Disfluency.”
Want To Change Minds? Don’t Make a PSA, Tell A Story

Sundance Ignite Fellow Laura Holliday created a film about sexual assault that focused on a different aspect of the issue than most. In “Disfluency,” the viewer follows a college student as she grapples with the aftermath of sexual assault. The difference, though, is how the film portrays the man who assaulted her — he is barely shown. Watch the film below, and find out why Laura believes generating empathy is best done by reminding viewers that every character is human.

What prompted you to create “Disfluency”? Can you speak to what the conception process was like?

I met my friend Anna Baumgarten a few years ago in a sketch comedy group we were both a part of. We both mostly make comedy, but Anna reached out to me almost two years ago with an earlier draft of the script for “Disfluency” and was like, “Do you direct drama?” and I was like, “Do I? Let me find out!”

“In directing comedy I have always mainly been interested in creating natural, human moments and letting the comedy come from truth.”

Anna, who drew from an experience with sexual assault in college, wrote the script and was the creative producer on the project but wanted someone else to direct it. I am passionate about the subject and as a director, it felt like such an incredible chance to get inside the mind of a complex female character that goes on a difficult internal journey.

In directing comedy I have always mainly been interested in creating natural, human moments and letting the comedy come from truth, and I decided I could approach this the same way, by trying to find truthful interactions. I was less intimidated about it being a new genre when I thought about it that way.

Laura Holliday on the set of “Disfluency.”

In the early stages of the film, Anna and I had a lot of discussions about the subject matter and our own experiences. We added Libe Barer to that conversation, once we casted her as Jane. I watched a lot of documentaries on sexual assault and just tried to see a wide range of accounts of people’s experiences. It became very clear that every survivor’s experience is different, and we just wanted to honestly and specifically tell the story of one girl.

Libe Barer as Jane on the set of “Disfluency.”
So many artists are intimidated at the thought of creating a film with impact —  but you spoke to such an important issue in such an accessible way. What was your storytelling approach on “Disfluency”?

Thank you for saying it is accessible. I definitely learned that the focus has to stay on telling a good story and creating a relatable character that the audience can go on a journey with, as with any film. We put our focus largely on the little details and small changes in Jane’s world after her assault. I don’t think I would have been able to focus on the creative choices if I hadn’t spent additional time learning about the issue we were discussing.

Behind the scenes of “Disfluency.”

My advice is to learn everything you can, but I am also aware of how intimidating it is to make art about sensitive subject matter. There’s the worry that people will call you out and say the piece wasn’t authentic to their experience with that issue.

But I think it’s okay to try. The only rule should be to tell that story in an honest, thoughtful, and respectful way. Your only job is to tell that story.

We need more impact-driven art.

We need more art by and about women and people of color and LGBTQ individuals.

The more of it that is out there, the less outside pressure there is on each piece to represent every single point of view for that group of people. This film isn’t about every sexual assault, it’s about one. But hopefully it will encourage others to speak out and tell their own stories if they want to.

Cast and crew on the set of “Disfluency.”
Can you speak to the importance of creating a relatable and compelling story, and why you believe that connects with more people than a PSA could?

I think that empathy is really powerful and if you can get an audience invested in a character’s journey, with no apparent agenda from the filmmaker, you are much more likely to have them stay with the story and really think about the message.

Using story to shed light on issues allows for audiences to draw their own conclusions, more so than a piece that presents you with information and gives you a specific call to action, and I think before people take action, they first have to empathize and think.

Can you share the reactions to your film? What have you heard from audiences?

We screened the film at my college,m at my graduation screening, and I was honestly shocked by the reactions, particularly from male students who approached me or messaged me on Facebook. Some of them said they’ve “been that guy” and apologized.

Still from “Disfluency.”

I think they felt comfortable saying that because we showed the Mark character as a human whose actions had lasting consequences for another human — he’s not just a villainous plot device and that made him relatable, too. That’s what is most exciting to me, a chance to begin a conversation that can maybe have a lasting effect.

When we were fundraising and making the film, it was before the #MeToo movement had begun, but we had an early introduction to the huge number of people, mostly women, but men too, who are survivors of sexual assault. We got a lot of thank yous and a lot of help because so many people have been through this.

Behind the scenes of “Disfluency.”
What advice would you give to an emerging filmmaker looking to make a difference?

To emerging filmmakers in the world of 2018, I would say, don’t be afraid to be loud and share your voice — because we need your voice. Make art about the challenges you have faced and the dark places you have been and share it, because you will likely discover you are so not alone.

Don’t be afraid of the backlash you might receive from haters on the internet. I got so much great advice from my own mentor, Kristina, and from all the Sundance Ignite mentors, but the thing that is jumping out in my brain right now as we talk about impactful art, was something Malik Vithall told us. He told us to remember that we inform culture. I thought that was so empowering, not to try to fit into the mold of existing culture, but to inform it and shape it ourselves as young filmmakers. That’s what I want to do.

Want to know more about Sundance Ignite? You can watch all of the 2017 winning films on Project1324.com.

Recommended Articles