By Leah Yananton
The feature film, Surviving Me: The 9 Circles of Sophie, opens with a question from revolutionary feminist Betty Friedan: “What if the terror a girl faces at twenty-one, when she must decide who she will be, is simply the terror of growing up—growing up, as women were not permitted to grow before?”
I wrote Surviving Me as a storytelling vehicle in order to trigger discussions, allowing audiences to engage with issues they are facing in college and in their relationships, and grow more empowered with new wisdom. I seek to bring this movie on a screening tour to college campuses nationwide, because college women and LGBTQ students are my target audience—the film has a track record at previous screenings of speaking directly to them. The way this college tour will happen is through our Kickstarter campaign, which ends the morning of August 11th. We have also partnered with the non-profit More Than Me, which provides healthcare and education for girls in Liberia, in order to amplify our voices in support of women’s education. I hope you, our readers, can help us reach this goal, so that we can bring these discussions to life on a national level.
At such a time as now when violence seems so pervasive in real life—and reflected by the male-dominated entertainment industry—it is vital that we make our voices heard in resistance to the status quo. A New York Times op-ed caught my attention today: “Women ages 18 to 24 are more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other segment of the American population. Many of these potential victims are college students, thousands of whom are attacked each year.”
This is not okay with me! My college experience unfortunately did make me part of this statistic, but now I have the power to speak out, not only with Surviving Me, but also by partnering with women-run organizations on campuses, with whom together we can amplify our voices for change. While my personal story is not explicitly addressed in Surviving Me, it is the background for what compelled me to make the film in hopes of navigating my spirit out of the darkness and empowering others to do the same. Surviving Me is about a college student named Sophie coming into awareness, and the desire to liberate from her false sense of self, consisting of traumatic patterns which compel her to make poor choices and engage in toxic behaviors that keep sending her further in the wrong direction. Her metaphorical journey through Dante’s 9 Circles of Hell is how she confronts her damaged self and ultimately starts a new path to healing.
“Surviving Me: The Nine Circles of Sophie is one of the more realistic cinematic representations of college students’ struggles.” —Next Projection
During our festival run this past year, we screened at USC as part of the Outside-the-Box-Office Film Series. During the Q&A afterwards, a woman in the audience shared that she is a college sociology professor who hears stories from her female students about their “hook-ups,” but that now upon seeing Surviving Me, she understood how confusing it can feel for them, and what the issues they grapple with look like. She thanked me for making the film, and invited me to screen the film in her class. As part of the series, I also conducted a discussion group with students, and afterwards was met by four women who were uplifted by hearing about my approach to getting through the stress of being in college—as I offer my experience now being on the “other side” from my 30s—and they invited me to return to screen the film again for one of their student groups. We are doing this Kickstarter to take Surviving Me on a college tour because we have reached out to over 250 colleges and received enough positive interest. It’s up to us and those who would support us now to follow through and make it happen.
Surviving Me is a female-driven story about confronting and overcoming the deceptive ego, through the relationships of some flawed characters—three college students, a professor, and his wife—while the lead character, Sophie, faces confusing issues that I as a 20-something college student found myself facing. Sophie is a poet who seeks to find herself, but a series of crises happen (for example, she is estranged from her parents and a financial aid debacle ensues) which cause her to spin out of control.
Sophie is at the most vulnerable time in her life and she is left to face it alone with only peer pressure—that is, the highly sexualized, alcohol-fueled campus culture—to guide her behavior, so she seeks safety and security. She looks up to her poetry professor, who takes a special interest in her, and boundaries are crossed—raising the issue of sexual predation. Sophie doesn’t yet know how to live, and she is confronted with the full brunt of having to manage her entire world on her own—and she is terrified. Sophie must navigate her way through her own subconscious experience of Dante’s Inferno before she can stand in her own power again. The story takes place in the mid-2000s, during the height of the “Girls Gone Wild” era—that is to say, an era of mainstream commercial exploitation of female sexuality with impunity.
I wrote the script for Surviving Me: The Nine Circles of Sophie when I was still in college, over 10 years ago, as a labor of love and the beginning of an intense journey. I dreamed that someday I could be stronger than the disempowered state I found myself in, and that women often encounter in general. My college experience was the opposite of empowering.
Since making the film, the world has changed around me and I’ve witnessed the progress that has been made on behalf of college women. Students have begun speaking out more and more about sexual assaults on campus, and because of their personal stories and collective action, there is a better system in place for them to be protected and receive justice. However, despite strides made, women continue to suffer from violence. According to a New York Times article, 1 in 4 female college students experience unwanted sexual contact. Moreover, it seems their rights are often threatened—especially now by current politicians in power.
It wasn’t until 2011 that the dialogue around sexual assaults on campuses and Title IX rights gained national attention, and 2011 was also when the Dear Colleague Letter was published, a Department of Education & Office of Civil Rights document that provides crucial recommendations on how schools should support students after assaults occur. What I find so moving about the Dear Colleague Letter is that it opens by stating, “Education has long been recognized as the great equalizer in America,” and that “The harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ rights to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime.” This progress towards women’s safety and civil rights is now being threatened by the current presidential administration and the hyper-sexist climate it engenders.
My film is dedicated to college women and all that they must endure. Especially now, as our country’s politicians threaten the progress that has been made to protect women, I reflect on this particular audience and why this matters to me. Educational institutions should be safe places where sexual violence is neither encouraged nor tolerated. Women deserve to pursue their educations without the threat of sexual predation. I pledge my voice to this mission.
My goal is to bring Surviving Me to the audiences who need to have a way to better understand their stories and situations. Its story allows audiences to see a reflection of their lives, and empowers them to speak out against sexual manipulation and exploitation. College can be a very confusing time, especially with a blanket of institutionalized inequality laying heavily over women and minorities. In the spirit of Betty Friedan, may we grow like we have not been permitted to grow before! Surviving Me can be an advocate for healthy sexuality, for healthy boundaries, and for safe campuses.
Thank you for your help to spread the word about our Kickstarter, which ends the morning of August 11th. Please help us reach our goal!