In September of 2012, 15-year-old Audrie Pott was sexually assaulted by classmates at a house party in Saratoga, California after passing out from a night of drinking. A few days later, she took her own life after discovering her assailants had circulated photos of their crime on social media. Eight months earlier in Maryville, Missouri, 14-year-old Daisy Coleman was allegedly raped by an older boy after drinking, while another boy filmed it; afterwards, the boys left her nearly-unconscious body on her front lawn in the frigid January air. Her mother found her the next morning with her hair frozen to the ground. When Coleman went to the authorities, she was branded a liar, slut-shamed, and threatened on social media.
Netflix's documentary Audrie & Daisy, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, follows the lives of these two teenage girls, highlighting their shared experiences of sexual assault and cyberbullying. The documentary also features the stories of other survivors—such as Delaney Henderson, who reached out to Coleman after hearing about Pott's suicide. Henderson worked through the trauma of her own assault and public defamation by seeking out and supporting fellow survivors. Through its subjects, the film explores the ubiquity of social media and how it blurs the lines of culpability and consent for an entire generation.
After acquiring Audrie & Daisy following a heralded reception at Sundance, Netflix reached out to legendary singer-songwriter Tori Amos to write an original song for the film, "Flicker." Amos's involvement is fitting: in 1991, she released the single "Me and a Gun," an a cappella account of her own sexual assault, and in 1994 she became the first national spokesperson for the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).
VICE spoke with Cohen, Shenk, and Amos about the documentary, America's epidemic of sexual violence and cyberbullying among teenagers, the grief of losing Audrie Pott, and the optimism of Daisy Coleman's survival.
VICE: The film is bold and literary in its structure. How did you come to this approach?
Bonni Cohen: Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman's cases had gotten a lot of media attention for different reasons, and we started to see poetry in the idea of these two girls working together, in a sense, to finish each other's story. There were enough similarities to place them in the same structure—but the most awful thing possible happened to Audrie, while Daisy was able to crawl out of dark despair to the other side. We love that symmetry, and together their stories speak more broadly to a larger population of teenagers.
Jon Shenk: Though statistics show that one in four teenage girls will be either the victim or intended victim of sexual assault, it's rare that the girl and her family go public—let alone anticipate what might happen in social media as a result of coming forward. You wind up with this rather small group of girls under the age of 18 who actually want to talk. Delaney Henderson was one of those girls, and early on in the process, she became this concrete bridge between Audrie and Daisy. Delaney followed the story of Audrie's suicide on social media and when she heard about Daisy's case, she said, "I have to reach out to her—I have to help her."
One of many unsettling moments in the film is when we learn Audrie had to rely on Facebook chats with friends to find out what happened to her. In Daisy's case, the sheriff flat out refuses to entertain the possibility that her assault was filmed and shared.
Cohen: You're hitting at the nub of the issue: the confirmation that it is happening, paired with the denial of older generations who are in utter disbelief that these things can even be happening. Delaney's family shared with us an upsetting story about how, after going public with her sexual assault, she was being bullied online by members of her very tight-knit Southern California community—by kids and parents. Her parents were in such disbelief that they printed out the 65 abusive social media posts, went door-to-door, and said, "Look at what your son or daughter wrote about Delaney. Can we get an apology?" Of the 65, only one apology came through. That was shocking. You think that if parents knew what their kids were doing, they'd intervene—but the truth is the denial is just too deep, and that's something we have got to tackle.
Shenk: Social media technology is so young, and our world's changed so quickly. Everyone is on their phone at all times and has their head down—both literally and figuratively. For a kid who is 13 or 14 years old, that's just the way the world is. But [my generation is] old enough to remember when the world was not like that, so you have this new technology for which the rules of civilization haven't really been written yet. We don't yet have the language to have these conversations with our kids.
Tori, with "Me and a Gun" you commanded listeners to confront the realities of sexual violence, and the sense of shame that plagues its victims. What compelled you to revisit this subject matter 25 years later?
Tori Amos: After I'd finished watching Audrie & Daisy for the first time, I went completely numb—I literally couldn't move. The conversation around this issue is so focused on what's happening across our college campuses, and this film puts a startling light on the fact that it's also happening in our middle and high schools.
Like Bonni and Jon, I'm the mother of a teenage daughter and I know how difficult and necessary it is to talk about this. I've been walking with "Me and a Gun" for so many years, and while that song continues to teach me, I knew right away that it shouldn't be the song that should close the film. The song had to leave us with Daisy's strength and pull through the threads of Audrie's story—to recognize that she didn't live long enough to step out of the role of the victim and become the survivor.
"The conversation around this issue is so focused on what's happening across our college campuses, and this film puts a startling light on the fact that it's also happening in our middle and high schools."—Tori Amos
In many ways, social media is its own character in the film.
Shenk: Absolutely—and reading Audrie's Facebook messages after her death was such an important archival element for us. Then, when we saw Delaney Henderson's Facebook conversations with Daisy, it created this yin and yang where Delaney was using social media to connect with someone in a positive way—to offer help. It's a powerful reminder that social media are neutral tools—we, as people, decide what we can use them for. Can they be a force of evil? Yes. Can they be a force or good for connection? Of course.
Amos: Twenty years ago, I personally couldn't have dreamed that the internet might be used as a tool to bully and destroy another human being. I always saw the internet as a benevolent force because, frankly, I wouldn't have a career without it—and it helped RAINN reach and connect so many survivors. Now that we're in this time of these daily digital lynchings, it's so easy for people to do and not think twice about it because they don't seeing their fingerprints on it. My mind goes to the end of the film, when the boys who assaulted Audrie are asked what they've learned from the experience and one of them says, "Girls, they gossip… and you know, guys are more laid back and don't really care." It's a chilling response, because these boys don't know themselves.
The interviews with Audrie Pott's assailants are difficult to listen to, but engrossing to watch because of the way they're animated to keep them anonymous. The irony is frustrating, though, that they're given anonymity when Audrie was so publicly and tragically denied her dignity.
Shenk: We knew we had a rare opportunity to speak with Audrie's perpetrators—who'd been convicted in juvenile court—so when we decided to do those interviews, we wanted to retain as much of their humanity as possible. It was a chance to get the boys' perspective, and in the end, this film—and this issue—is as much about boys as it is girls.
We worked with this incredible company, Left Channel, who helped us create animation out of the video we took, as well as the deposition footage from the legal team. We basically morphed their faces to the point where you'd never recognize them, even if you knew them. We hope that people can still see their nervousness, depression, and regret. Just blurring their faces would've criminalized them and made them into an "other," which would've prevented us from obtaining some grain of truth from this horrible situation.
Netflix seems like a dream partner for this film, because it creates 40 million potential opportunities for this conversation to continue.
Absolutely. We have this vision that parents might watch it in their rooms, teenagers might watch it alone in their rooms or with friends, and then maybe there will be some talk about it the next morning at the kitchen table. We're also thrilled that Netflix has helped us create a community screening program with a company called Film Sprout, which will host hundreds of screenings in schools, town halls, and community groups. We're in final draft stages of an excellent curriculum and discussion guide for parents. The film is working for people as a drama, which is great, but we hope it can be a jumping off point for really important conversations about this crazy nexus of sex assault and social media and technology—and maybe can help push the conversation forward in a positive way.
These interviews have been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
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