As documentary filmmakers, husband-and-wife duo Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk have seen some of the darkest sides of human nature. Cohen produced and directed Inside Guantanamo, while Shenk produced and directed Lost Boys of Sudan – neither of which are particularly light films. Yet it's their new documentary, Audrie & Daisy, a 2016 Sundance Film Festival selection about two teenage girls who were sexually assaulted, that Shenk calls "the most difficult film we had ever made."
Cohen and Shenk, who met in the 1990s as graduate students at the Stanford University documentary film program, knew they wanted their next project to be about sexual assault and its devastating aftermath, but were having a hard time finding the right story. That's when they came across Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman. "As we started to dive deeper into them, they really seemed to speak to each other," Cohen says. "They’re the same age, their assaults happened eight months apart across the country from each other in totally different kinds of communities. We started to think about the poetic resonance of having these two girls complete one story."
So for over two years, the duo filmed Daisy Coleman and members of her family as they dealt with both the trauma of her assault and the renunciation of their community. The Colemans were newcomers to the small town of Maryville, Missouri, where they moved from Albany, Missouri, after their father's death from a car accident. In January 2012, Daisy, then 14, and her 13-year-old friend Paige Parkhurst snuck out of a sleepover at Daisy's house to go to a party, where they were both sexually assaulted by her brother Charlie Coleman’s older friends.
Daisy was unconscious during her assault by then 17-year-old student athlete Matthew Barnett, which was filmed by one of the perpetrators and reportedly shared among classmates. (The video of the assault has allegedly been deleted and never found by police.) After the assault, the boys returned the girls to Daisy's home; Paige made it inside, but Daisy was left lying unconscious on her front lawn in the cold, where she was discovered by her mother, Melinda Coleman, the next morning.
"We couldn't believe that was going on in our country."
Although the boys were arrested, the documentary describes how the town of Maryville closed rank, lashing out at Daisy and even Charlie with all the typical methods of victim blaming: the girls lied, they were looking for attention, they deserved what happened to them. Daisy in particular was taunted and harassed both in school and over social media, which the filmmakers animate on screen to give viewers the full extent of the viciousness of the harassment. She eventually left school, while Barnett – the grandson of a former state representative – pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of child endangerment. He was sentenced to two years of probation and a four-month suspended jail term. Melinda Coleman lost her job as a veterinarian in town and the family's home was set on fire; eventually, they moved out of Maryville entirely.
Attention from the hacktivist group Anonymous over Barnett's sentencing, and subsequent media coverage, meant the Colemans were initially skittish about participating in the documentary. But the filmmakers hoped that they could amplify the injustice suffered by the family. "The way it read in the aftermath of it, it felt like The Scarlet Letter," says Cohen. "This community just wanted to expel the family from within, torture them to the point where they had to leave town. We couldn't believe that was going on in our country."
Daisy, Melinda and Charlie all appear in the documentary to tell their stories – albeit cautiously. The filmmakers were wary of re-traumatizing Daisy, who has attempted to commit suicide at least three times. "We could see how much [Daisy] had been burned by the onslaught of media around the case," says Cohen. As such, they were committed to letting Daisy control her own narrative – which, as Shenk notes, was a matter of giving time to process what had happened. "We had moments where we showed up in Missouri and [Daisy] wouldn't come out of her bedroom and we'd sit in the production van waiting for her for a day," says Cohen of filming. "It was not always easy to gain her trust and her cooperation. But over time, I think she came to see the process of the filmmaking as part of her recovery."
The night of Daisy's assault is depicted in the film through her own drawings, which she made for the film with the help of a professional animator. "We brought her out to San Francisco and she met with an animator, an artist, who kind of took Daisy under her wing to kind of work with her – first on her sketches and then on the animation," says Cohen. "I think she felt really empowered by that, that her art was going to speak her truth."
Daisy Coleman's story dovetails with that of another young women on the other side of the country – only this one wasn't able to tell her own story in the documentary. In September 2012, 15-year-old Audrie Pott was unconscious at a party when three 16-year-old boys drew lewd messages on her half-naked body, digitally penetrated her and then took photographs, which were shared among classmates.
After the party, Audrie knew only that something bad had happened to her, but details were fuzzy. Feeling humiliated and panicked about her "reputation," she begged classmates to fill her in and to tell her who had the photos of her. Shortly after the incident, still age 15, she committed suicide.
"Over time, I think [Daisy] came to see the process of the filmmaking as part of her recovery."
Three teenage boys reached settlements with the Pott family following a wrongful death lawsuit. But unbeknownst to the filmmakers, the Potts also requested that two of the boys appear in the documentary – with their identities obscured – as part of the settlement.
"One day, we received a call completely out of the blue from the Pott family giving us the news they had settled the case with the perpetrators' families and that one of the stipulations in the settlement agreement was that the boys had agreed to a 45-minute interview for the documentary," explains Shenk. "Our reaction was complete shock." The filmmakers hadn't requested that the family do this and, in fact, they had to consider whether they wanted to take the opportunity presented to them to interview two of the boys. "As you can imagine, from a journalist's point of view, to suddenly have your process involved in the punishment of the crime, it was very odd," Shenk says.
After debating it for some time, the duo decided to include the boys' interviews in the documentary but to explain to the audience how the young men came about to participate.
"We felt like if we were transparent about it, then maybe we could glean something and maybe it would be important for the audience to hear from these guys," says Shenk, noting that "perpetrators are obviously unwilling, usually, to talk." The day that Audrie's assailants were filmed, Cohen says, was "the hardest day on production." She describes the two boys, who were about to head off to college, as "totally broken" by their crimes and by Audrie's suicide. In their interviews, Cohen says, "the hope was to get more of their own emotional process where they were in their lives. It was just very depressing and sad all the way around." That was in part because the filmmakers – who live in the Bay Area near where Audrie Pott lived – are the parents of teenagers themselves. "The combination of wanting to both cry and reach out to strangle them had to be suppressed in order to do the interview with journalistic and ethical consideration," Cohen says. "So, we had to swallow hard." Then, she added, "We just completely fell apart after the interview was over."
Audrie & Daisy is emotionally difficult to watch, yet it's a documentary the filmmakers hope parents will watch with their teenagers. They hope it will start a conversation between parents and their kids about about drinking, cyberbullying and consent. And there is plenty more to be said about truth, strength, and standing up for what is right. As Cohen said, "Daisy says now in Q&As with live audiences that she did this for Audrie. She wants to be able to speak out loud because Audrie can't anymore."