The lights flicked on but the audience was silent. The classmate sitting next to me wiped at mascara smudges. I gathered the small pile of damp, wadded Kleenex off my lap and stuffed them in my purse, embarrassed at being so emotional. I wondered if the rest of the crowd felt similarly devastated. Glancing around, I found the answer to my question in their faces, all of them bearing an expression that can only be described as stunned.
We had just seen the film Mentor.
This documentary tells the story of two families in Mentor, Ohio, the Mohats and the Vidovics. Both families had a child who had been relentlessly bullied at the town’s high school, and as a result, had committed suicide. The Mohats’s son, Eric, after being ridiculed and shamed, was pushed too far one day. A football player taunted him, saying, “Why don’t you go home and shoot yourself? It’s not like anyone would care.” Eric did just that. The Vidovics immigrated from Croatia to escape the war and moved to Mentor for a better life. One of their daughters, Sladjana, was bullied so intensely that she was sometimes injured, and she made alarmingly frequent visits to the nurse’s office. One day her sister found that Sladjana had hung herself outside her bedroom window. Eric and Sladjana weren’t the only two deaths of teens at the school. Between 2005 and 2010, five or six students (depending on accounts) at Mentor High School took their lives because of bullying.
Through the telling of the two teenage suicides, Mentor exposes the dark underbelly of American culture, one in which the strong are lionized and the victims are punished for appearing weak, or even just different. I was a shy, awkward kid in the ’60s in San Francisco, a time and place that prized individualism, so I never experienced bullying. But I raised my three kids in Indianapolis, and though they didn’t suffer the sustained attacks showcased in the documentary, they did not graduate high school unscathed. We parents make a point of teaching our children the importance of not blindly following the crowd, of being an individual, and of being honest and empathic. We share Facebook memes that denounce bullying. Mentor illuminated, for me, how ineffectual these efforts, however well-intentioned, can be in the face of a culture that has strayed so far from these foundational concepts. Since viewing the film I’ve have had fantasies of standing on rooftops, shouting for everyone to see it. One might say that the truest measure of a film’s success is an audience that feels changed after watching it; in this calibration, Mentor takes the gold.
The woman behind Mentor is Alix Lambert, an award-winning filmmaker, photographer, playwright, writer for TV (including Deadwood), magazines, and four books. Ms. Lambert is spending the 2014-2015 school year teaching screenwriting and nonfiction in Indianapolis, as Butler University’s Booth Tarkington Writer in Residence. She recently arranged a screening for Butler students and professors.
Mentor has received honorable mention in the best documentary category at The Woodstock Film Festival, and was also a selection for the Festival Chagrin, the Newport Beach Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. It is due to be released on video-on-demand and DVD December 16th.
The Rumpus: Mentor begins and ends with beautiful footage that’s strikingly metaphorical. Mrs. Mohat is making a quilt and a map of the town of Mentor superimposes over the stitches running across the screen. Can you talk about how this concept came to you?
Alix Lambert: I was very pleased that you noticed that. I’m always looking for visual ways to illustrate a story—filmmaking is a visual medium after all. I love maps, and we had printed out a giant map of Mentor that was on a grid. When we were at the Mohats’s home and Jan [Mrs. Mohat] was showing us the quilt she had bought in Amish country, it had the same squares and grids and I just started thinking that I wanted to fit the map over the quilt. Quilting continues to be present through out the film and the obvious phrases like “fabric of society” appealed to me—I felt like this would be a good way of bookending the film.
Rumpus: Oh my God, that scene when she showed the memory quilt she made from her son’s old t-shirts? And that part where she shows her Amish quilt and talks about how she bought it because she wanted it to last a lifetime? I feel like the kind of grief these families are going through is so deep and all-encompassing that it defies words, but the quilt metaphor really resonates on so many levels. I wonder, were you ever bullied?
Lambert: Only in ways that I would consider unpleasant, but relatively common. For me third grade through sixth grade were the worst with some teasing, one camping trip that I remember as being bad, but it was name calling and basically being unpopular. While I do not think it is okay for kids to call each other names, one of the things I feel is important for people to understand through this story is how extreme “bullying” has become. We are talking about assault, sexual assault, and hate crimes, things that are illegal.
Rumpus: Right, there have always been bullies, but I wonder how it got this way, that the level of cruelty and violence has notched up?
Lambert: I cannot say that the level of bullying has notched up. I am not an expert, and would defer to Dr. Dorothy Espelage [the national expert on bullying interviewed in Mentor] for that question. I think yes, there has always been bullying, but it seems a few things have changed. Firstly, technology has allowed for bullying to happen 24/7. When I was growing up, once school let out, there was at least a break until the next day. Also, I want to point out that just because something has always existed doesn’t mean that it should. There are all sorts of things that have happened throughout time—rape, murder, war. We don’t throw our hands up and say, “Oh, well, that’s always happened.”
Rumpus: Right. There’s that dismissive mindset where people say it’s no big deal, that we-lived-through-it-so-you-should-too mentality. How did you choose Mentor High School, and do you think this particular school is unique?
Lambert: Most of my films focus on something specific in order to tell a larger, more complex story. In The Mark of Cain, the focus is on tattooing, but the film is a portrait of Russia in a state of change. In Bayou Blue, the film follows the path of a serial killer, but the film is a portrait of a part of Southeast Louisiana and what that region has gone through. And Mentor, for me, is a portrait both of a place and also of grief. What is the ripple effect when a family loses a child to suicide? What does that look like? How does that feel? Who does that touch? Mentor is not the only town like this in America—but when I want to look at a problem, I look for an extreme example, and the culture of conformity in Mentor was/is extreme. There were a number of newspaper articles about the lawsuits brought by the families. As I looked closer, it was clear that the Vidovic case was an extreme example of something that happens across the country. Audiences don’t respond to statistics—you have to make an audience understand what the very real human, emotional cost is.
Rumpus: What was your first contact with the Mohats and the Vidovic families like?
Lambert: Very emotional, as you can imagine. It was just me and my producer, Jennifer Morris, the lawyer for both families, Ken Meyers, and the families. We talked about what we would want to ask, what they felt comfortable with in terms of being on camera. We asked them to think about it before deciding. The last thing I wanted to do was pressure someone to be on camera who had been through what they had been through if they didn’t want to be.
Rumpus: Some people might hear about the lawsuits and think badly about the Mohats and Vidovics, that they sued the school district because they wanted to find a place upon which to assign blame, or that they were looking for compensation when none was due. I know you spent a lot of time with each family. Can you speak to their motivation for the lawsuits?
Lambert: I prefer to allow them to speak to their own motivations in the film, which I think both sets of parents do very well. Mr. Mohat says in the film that if it weren’t for a financial threat to the school district they wouldn’t take notice—from what I was able to observe the lawsuits were filed after other attempts to be heard were ignored.
Rumpus: That’s certainly true—the families were very clear and articulate. And that was such a stark contrast to the complete lack of response from the school. Why do you think that no one from the school system was responsive to you? Do you think it was purely a “cover your ass” maneuver, or do you think other factors might also play in, for instance, that outsiders are seen as suspect?
Lambert: Probably both. I do understand that when there is a lawsuit, many things cannot be spoken about, however—to my understanding—nothing would have prevented them from expressing basic empathy for families who had lost their children. This is something that they could have done without conceding any culpability. I didn’t find anyone who expressed concern for the families.
Rumpus: How about the students who bullied Eric and Sladjana? None of them appeared in Mentor. Did you speak with any of them?
Lambert: We contacted them, but they declined to speak. In the absence of their speaking I felt it was better not to name them as I saw the problem as systemic.
Rumpus: By “systemic” do you mean that you saw the seed of the bullying problem as not those specific kids, but part of a broader issue?
Lambert: Yes. I believe there was a culture of conformity in Mentor.
Rumpus: Has your view of bullies changed since making the film?
Lambert: There were certainly levels to Sladjana’s case that I found shocking and that I had not heard before. For example, that the bullies made a MySpace page after she died about how ugly the dress was that she was buried in was. I grew up before the Internet—so this kind of thing could not have happened when I was her age.
Rumpus: That is a level of callousness I still can’t wrap my head around. It scares me, makes me wonder what kind of adults these teenagers will become. These things must have crossed your mind, too. What are your thoughts?
Lambert: I don’t want to speculate on specific individuals, but broadly I would say that children learn behavior from adults and if proper behavior is not taught and shown through example, we are all in trouble.
Rumpus: Were you shocked that the Mohats reported that they were shunned by residents?
Rumpus: What sort of pushback from the town or school did you experience during and after making the film?
Lambert: We made a trailer about mid-way through filming, because we had run out of money and I was trying to raise some. When that went up—I started to receive hostile tweets, YouTube comments, Vimeo comments, and emails. I responded to all of them in case anyone wanted to speak on camera. No one agreed—the safety of bullying me from behind a computer appeared to be in play. I am still receiving hostile messages [from people living in Mentor].
Rumpus: I’ve always wondered if bullies bully because they’ve been abused or shamed in some way. Did you see or hear any evidence of this, or did it seem to you that the bullies’ behavior was more a function of the town’s culture of conformity?
Lambert: I found, as you say, a culture of conformity. In my films I’m asking a lot of questions, but that doesn’t mean I know what the answers are. I felt, unfortunately, that the problem was so systemic that addressing it would truly involve figuring out a way to get an entire community to think and act differently.
Rumpus: Is there anything you would like audiences to walk away with?
Lambert: I recently received a lovely text from Sladjana’s cousin, Maria Brinjic, and in it she wrote something that speaks to this beautifully. She gave me permission to quote her. “I’ve always said that I’ve come from a bubble of a home town, where the people can be very narrow minded. I’m happy to have gotten out and to find who I really am, but more importantly I’m hoping that this film shows kids in Mentor and towns like Mentor that there is more to the world and that there is hope for them.”