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A Conversation with Mentor Director Alix Lambert

“It’s Better in Mentor.” A shot of that roadside sign offers an early irony in director Alix Lambert’s new documentary, named after the Ohio town — and high school — where five students committed suicide between 2005 and 2010. Focusing on two families who brought lawsuits against Mentor High, alleging that its administration ignored a clear pattern of student bullying that led to the deaths of their children, Mentor is both heartbreaking and soberly resolute in its inquiry into the institutional forces and “culture of conformity” that fail young members of our communities.

As she has done in her previous work, which includes Mark of Cain, a doc on Russian prisoners and the symbolism of their tattoos, and Bayou Blue (directed with David McMahon), a look at the families of the victims of a Louisiana serial killer, Lambert gives voice to individuals whose narratives are in danger of being lost. In Mentor, which premiered this week at the Newport Beach Film Festival, these voices include the Vidovics, Croatian immigrants whose bright and personable daughter Sladjana hung herself after repeated bullying and trips to the school nurse’s office. There are also the Mohats, who moved to Mentor to find a better school for their sensitive son Eric, a boy who, after sustaining repeated taunts, shot himself.

Mentor contains wrenching interviews with the two families as well as commentary from siblings, students, the families’ lawyer, and an expert on school bullying. Especially moving are the words of Sladjana Vidovic, seen and heard as excerpts from her personal diaries. Largely missing, however — an omission Lambert notes with a series of declarative title cards — are the school officials who refused to speak regarding policies concerning bullying and student protection. Indeed, the question of not just culpability, of legal responsibility, but also personal and ethical responsibility is trenchantly posed by the film.

After a trailer for the film went online in 2012, Lambert received hate mail from residents of Mentor, who complained that the documentary’s title and the trailer’s depiction of town culture spread the blame for these students’ death too widely. But by connecting these deaths to the actions and attitudes of a larger community — and by interrogating the language used to discuss bullying itself — Lambert seeks to change the discourse surrounding these incidents and agitate for the policy changes that will protect future victims.

Below, Lambert — who, full disclosure, is an occasional contributor to Filmmaker — and I talk about the origins of the film, the responsibility she feels to its subjects, and all those threatening tweets and emails.

Filmmaker: Which came first, the idea of doing a movie about bullying, or the idea about doing a movie about this specific situation in Mentor?

Alix Lambert: The original idea was to do a movie about bystander culture. I was presented with five different cases and asked, “Do you want to make a film about one of these?”

Filmmaker: Bystander culture?

Lambert: Like, if people watch something happen and don’t do anything about it. There were five different cases, including a rape case in California that all these kids at school filmed. But this case in Mentor was the only one where the families wanted to talk. The original idea of bystander culture, I don’t think that’s now the focus of the film. It’s more [about the] systemic, like it’s not just one bad seed, one bully.

Filmmaker: What made you title the film Mentor, after the town itself?

Lambert: Well, I mean, the town is called Mentor and the school is called Mentor, and it was just ironic because obviously the word has the opposite meaning of bullying. “Mentoring” somebody is supposed to be about nurturing, bringing them along, and here’s a town whose entire foundation seems to be based on the opposite. The “It’s Better in Mentor” sign — don’t they see the irony? So, similar to Bayou Blue, the film ended up being not just about the families but about problems in the community. I did get asked that a lot in angry tweets: “Why are you calling it Mentor?” And I’m like, “Because it’s a fucking gift. Why is your town called Mentor? It’s insane.”

Filmmaker: So you found parallels between the specific situation of school bullying and the culture of the town at large?

Lambert: I found Mentor really creepy, and I work on a lot of creepy things. And I found it kind of creepier because [its problems] were so denied. In Louisiana, [people said], “Oh, that creepy murder you’re working on, let’s take you to the crime scene.” But everything in Mentor was Stepford Wives-creepy. And I don’t think I broke through that. The Mohats talked about being shunned by the people in the town [because of their lawsuit]. You might not agree with the lawsuit, but to not have empathy for a family that’s lost a child is disturbing to me. To be like, “Let’s shun those parents now that they’ve had this horrible tragedy” — I just can’t imagine doing that.

Filmmaker: Does the form of the film now correspond with what you thought it would be when you were began?

Lambert: I don’t know if I knew what I thought it would be when I started. There was five or six suicides that were reported in that span of time at that school. So we looked to find all of those families. At one point, two families decided to bring a lawsuit [against the school], and it made sense to narrow [the focus of the film] down. And originally, I thought maybe the school was trying to address [the situation], but then I increasingly felt the school was negligent and the entire culture of Mentor as a town was problematic, this whole football culture of conformity. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure what it was going to be. It was three years from start to finish, and there’s a lot of stuff that happened in the court cases that affects how the film goes.

Filmmaker: What were the challenges you had in making the film in terms of the content? Was there an issue of access?

Lambert: Well, we had no access to the school. You see again and again and again in the film, this person declined to speak, that person declined to speak.

Filmmaker: In the beginning, did you think that you would have that access to school officials?

Lambert: Yeah, I thought somebody would talk. Even if it was like, “We’re not talking,” I thought there would be some kind of statement., like “Our hearts go out to these families. We can’t speak because there’s a lawsuit.” Something. I got emails signed “Head of the Mentor Teacher’s Association” that were threatening. That surprised me because I would have thought that the adults at least would have been smarter than that. But the families, they were very open to us and willing to talk. And Ken Meyers [the attorney representing the Mohats and Vidovics] was incredibly helpful. Dorothy [Espelage, bullying expert and UIUC professor] was incredibly helpful.

Filmmaker: One of the family’s cases winds up getting thrown out of court. You began the film before that?

Lambert: Yes. We shot it before that. And so, the two families originally had equal weight, and they become friends, and that was interesting to me. But, the Vidovic’s legal case was much stronger. There were years and years of evidence. Eric Mohat’s case didn’t have that, and [his family] never had the same hopes for a legal outcome. The lawyer, Ken Meyers, knew that that was a much more difficult case to argue. But I felt like Eric’s suicide happened first, and was cited by the Vidovics as something they didn’t want to happen to their daughter, who was being bullied. So, it ended up being more of a lead-in to the big case. It’s not any less of a tragedy; there just wasn’t the same evidence.

Filmmaker: In your recent work, and continuing through Mentor, is the idea of reclaiming stories — taking personal narratives that might otherwise be lost and fixing them in a form. Giving voice to people ignored by institutions and the broader media.

Lambert: I grew up reading Studs Terkel, and I like listening to people. I’ve always been interested in the stories nobody else listens to. That’s very much what I’m interested in doing, even in The Mark of Cain, where nobody’s telling [those prisoners’] stories. The stories that are especially interesting to me are the ones that have no other opportunity to be told. In the case of the Vidovics, their daughter was born the day war broke out. Years later they fled to America for a better life. And they got screwed at every turn by every person. I didn’t want to be the last person who disappointed them. I feel a responsibility to the people in the film. Both of those cases got a lot of initial press, and there were other [media] who [didn’t follow up]. I think the families felt like, “Are you going to be a person who talks to us and doesn’t do anything? Someone who expresses interest and then abandons the whole thing?” For the families, there was a risk.

Filmmaker: I guess with independent documentaries there’s always a risk. You never know what’s going to happen with the film.

Lambert: You don’t know what’s going to happen with the film. You might not be able to finish it for reasons that have nothing to do with your efforts, which was close to happening. We took a long time to get the financing together. And yeah, so that’s the reason that I finished the film — for the families.

Filmmaker: You spoke publicly about receiving hate mail and social media from people in Mentor following the release of the film’s trailer, which is ironic given that the subject of your movie is bullying.

Lambert: Yeah, I got hundreds of those [messages]. It was stressful, but, you know, I’m an adult — imagine a teenager going to school every day.

Filmmaker: Talk a little bit about how you visualize the evidence in the film — the various documents and reports that are shown on screen. A more conventional way would have been a montage over interview material, but when the documents are on screen, you choose to only adorn them with a mechanical sound as they scroll by. And there is one document that holds on screen for a particularly long time.

Lambert: I wanted to go even longer! That was the nurse’s log. Part of the [school’s argument] was, “How would we know there was anything wrong with this child?” Well, how many school days are in a school year? If she’s coming into the nurse’s office over 100 times a year, you have a problem. Whether it’s physical, emotional or psychological, you should be noticing that there is an issue. And that’s what Dorothy says in the beginning. The [the nurses log] keeps going after she stops talking, but it could’ve gone even longer.

Filmmaker: At what point in the process did you decide to come up with that device?

Lambert: Well, so much of the film had to be constructed from emails, depositions, police reports, nurse’s logs, and I think that’s hard to do without being boring. And so, Jim Forster and I developed these graphics. I wanted to highlight [specific text] but in a way so that you could also see the actual document [underneath]. And yeah, we tried a couple of different things, and that’s what we came up with. I think it shows up three times. You see the police logs, the nurse’s log and the [report of the] outside psychologist. But, for nurse’s [logs], I was just like, “Make it go on forever.” If you actually track the dates on those nurse’s logs to Sladjana’s suicide — she’s in there constantly, and then her suicide is two days later.

Filmmaker: I know the school officials wouldn’t talk. At the beginning, you said, the original idea was to do something on bystander culture. But would none of the kids talk — other kids at the school or even the bullies?

Lambert: I answered every single tweet. I answered every single email. I said, “We’re coming back. We’d like to film you. Would you like to be on camera? You can say whatever you want.” We showed up at the school, and went through more friendly [channels] too. Nobody would talk to us. There were a couple of emails I got from people who were more on the fence, who were like, “We have pride in our school, but we also see that this is a problem.” The head of the Teacher’s Association oscillated a lot: “I want to be in it, I don’t want to be in it, I have a good job.” And he made weird accusations.

Filmmaker: Like what?

Lambert: He accused me of building a set for the lawyer’s [interview], but it was just his office. Ultimately, he said he didn’t want to speak. I guarantee you that people will say they didn’t get a chance to tell their story, which is why you see in the film that all of these people were given a chance again and again and again.

Filmmaker: Those repeated title cards naming the people who wouldn’t talk to you and their job titles is an interesting device. It addresses the issue of the absence of these other voices, but it also, I felt, had the effect of shaming people.

Lambert: On purpose.

Filmmaker: Do you think it was totally because of legal reasons that people couldn’t speak?

Lambert: No, absolutely not. If I thought it was totally legal, then I wouldn’t feel comfortable calling them on it. There were probably specifics that they couldn’t talk about, but they could express concern for people at their school.

Filmmaker: There has been no statement at all?

Lambert: There was nothing. When the trailer went up [in 2012] I did a [local] news thing about being bullied myself, and then there was a statement. But, I don’t recall any big concern before that. The trailer is two parents saying they lost their kids. From that two-minute trailer people said I’m attacking the school, but there is nothing in there that says that. Those were projections.

Filmmaker: Did those attacks affect the way you finished the film?

Lambert: Yeah, of course, because I did go in with the idea that potentially the school would say, “We’re worried about this.” I would’ve rather found that story, that the school cares and there’s a solution to be found. But, everybody was like, “Oh, why are you picking on us? This happened four years ago. It was a blip.” And then, I got hundreds and hundreds of [messages] threatening my life. And this is still happening. But people have also been writing, “I want to remain anonymous, but this is happening to me right now.” People sent me [footage] from their iPhones of bullying that they didn’t want me to include, and I respected those people’s wishes. There was plenty of stuff to make me think there’s a still problem that hasn’t been addressed. And then, we talked to Dorothy, and that’s what she does. She’s an expert. She’s like, “[The school] doesn’t even follow their own policy.” That’s what you look for in these cases. If you set up a policy, which is maybe pathetic and weak to begin with, and then you don’t even follow that, you’re really not concerned that there have been five students [who have killed themselves]. The other thing they kept saying is, “We have this huge student body.” Well, when I was in high school, there was one kid who killed himself, and the school flipped out and really tried to help the student and the parents.

Filmmaker: There was that recent Florida case where the local district attorney publicly charged the two teen girls who bullied this other girl to suicide. Could you have singled one of the bullies out?

Lambert: I could’ve gone, “This is the kid.”

Filmmaker: But you didn’t. The kids are not in the film.

Lambert: I felt like they’re kids. I’m not defending them, but I think that the problem is bigger than them. They learn it from somewhere. I mean, when you start getting thinly veiled threats from the head of the Teacher’s Association, that’s where the kids are getting it from. When kids passed their classes without the right grades because they’re on the football team, that’s where these kids are learning from.

Filmmaker: What has happened to these cases after the film?

Lambert: Well, there is some change in how the state law is working because of these cases. The school is now looking to settle with the Mohats and that will hopefully have a positive affect on the appeal of the Vidovic case. Even though at the end of my film, both cases have been dismissed, the appeals can still go forward on a state level. Ohio caps how much of a settlement you can get on any kind of case like that; it wouldn’t be a lot of money, but it would be something more positive than the outcome of their initial suits.

Filmmaker: What do you hope for the film?

Lambert: I hope the families feel like they got their stories out there, that they feel like they are being heard. Mr. Mohat says, “The only way to get anyone to pay attention is to bring a financial threat because this is not an institution that cares about anything else.” I’m not an expert in bullying, and I’m not an academic, and so I think the only thing I can contribute is to try and make it a more personal, emotional experience for people who might otherwise just hear this whole language of bullying. I mean, a lot of these things are assault — sexual assault, physical assault. They are illegal, and are based on hate, ethnicity, and gender. When people hear “bullying,” they’re like, “Oh, schoolyard stuff.” That’s not what this is. When you look at all the legal documents, you can see the school is being very, very careful with the wording. They’re very careful not to say, “It’s an assault,” and never to put down that there were ethnic slurs or gender or sexual [harassment]. They do that on purpose because if they do go to court, bullying has fewer laws in place than sexual or other forms of assault. For me, the word bullying is a problem because people just think it’s like, “Oh, kids get called names.” And then, you’re like, “Well, but this girl was eating her lunch in the bathroom stall and being pushed down the stairs and touched inappropriately.” And then the fact that kids came to her funeral parlor and made a MySpace page about how ugly her dress was. I mean, who does that? This is not teasing on the way home from school. It’s a shocking, shocking thing to do.

Filmmaker: Are there specific ways you hope the film will make an impact on the policy level?

Lambert: Dorothy’s been really great. She’s sending it to people to try and use it as a way to care. A lot of the work that lawyers and experts do can be hard for the general public to feel. So, if you can feel like this is a family that lost their kid, then maybe you can make people care about something.

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