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'Audrie & Daisy' Explores Social Media Shaming After Sexual Assaults

NPR's Kelly McEvers talks to co-directors and husband and wife duo, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, about their documentary, Audrie & Daisy. The documentary addresses the sexual assault — and ensuing social media shaming — of two high school girls.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

"Audrie And Daisy" is a new documentary film about sexual assault in the time of social media, a time where after someone is assaulted the public shaming that can happen can almost seem worse than the original attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AUDRIE AND DAISY")

DAISY COLEMAN: You already have this wounds just ripped clean open, and you're vulnerable, and you're going through a really hard time. And to have all these people attacking you on top of it, it almost makes the bullying seem more extreme.

MCEVERS: That's Daisy Coleman who survived an infamous assault in Maryville, Miss., when she was 14. Her family eventually left town. The filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Schenk are married and have two teenage children of their own. They say they worry parents just don't know what to do about social media.

The film starts with the story of Audrie Pott of Saratoga, Calif. She was at a party one night, drank and passed out. Boys drew all over her body and violated her. Bonni Cohen takes the story from there.

BONNI COHEN: She woke up the next day and did not know what had happened to her and spent the next few days in her room on her computer on Facebook messenger trying to reach out to friends and other students in her school who might have been at this party to try and kind of investigate her own crime, figure out what had happened to her. She did not speak with her parents about it. In fact her parents had no knowledge of what had happened the night before, you know?

And over the course of that next week at school, she saw people looking at their phones. She felt incredibly self-conscious about what had happened, and she started to get very depressed and turned inward. Eight days after the party, Audrie took her own life.

MCEVERS: And then, you know, you tell this story in large part of course from the perspective of Audrie's family, her parents, but also from the boys. In order to tell their story, you obscured their identity by animating the interviews that you recorded of them and of the videotaped depositions that were done with them. And I'm interested to hear how you made the decision to do that.

COHEN: We really were kind of fighting hard artistically and aesthetically against how some of these anonymity ideas sort of come across in film, and we didn't want like a big, black box over them, and we didn't want to cast them in a shadow which criminalizes their look more than we wanted to do. And we really wanted to keep them as human as possible and let them be in the film anonymous but with human quality.

MCEVERS: I want to move on to the next story in the film. That's the story of Daisy Coleman. She lived in Maryville, Miss. One night she and a friend Paige were drinking. Some of her older brother's friends came to pick them up. They drank more. They say they passed out and were taken into two different rooms and sexually assaulted.

Later that night, maybe in the morning, the boys took the girls back home. And her mother found her the next morning. Can you just describe that a little bit?

COHEN: What ended up happening was Paige went in, and she went to sleep. And Daisy was left in the yard in freezing weather. And at about 4 or 5 in the morning, Melinda was woken up by one of her other children, Tristan (ph), one of Daisy's brothers who heard something outside.

And they went outside, and they found Daisy in the yard just frozen, and they took her in. And it was in that process of getting her into the bathtub that her mother discovered that possibly something else had happened that night.

MCEVERS: The police fairly quickly took the boys into questioning. One admitted to assaulting Paige, but another one said he - all he said was that he had sex with Daisy. And his friend then later also admitted to filming it. And you show these interrogation videos in the film. Did you try to talk to the boys?

JON SHENK: Yeah, of course we reached out to the boys. They were 17 years old in Missouri, so legally they were considered adults in Missouri as far as the crime went, which allowed us to get access to the deposition footage, which allowed their names actually to be used not only in our film but in other reporting that occurred about the case.

MCEVERS: Right.

SHENK: And of course we reached out to them and make it known that we were trying to do a different kind of story, that we were talking to people from all kinds of different perspectives, but we never heard from the families of the perpetrators in Daisy's case.

MCEVERS: The thing that is so interesting about these cases and perhaps kind of disturbing is that it does come down to he-said, she-said. And it's, like, it's portrayed as just this, like, fair fight, you know? It just all depends on who you believe. You're either with the girls, or you're with the boys.

And in this case, I mean the people who side with the boys, you know, insult the girls, go on social media and take great pains to try to denigrate the character of Daisy and her family.

SHENK: This really gets to the heart of, you know, the major theme of the film.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

SHENK: And what that is is kind of a public square of shame, you know, with social media, that everywhere that where chatting can occur, it seems like there's kind of this lowest-common-denominator type of fight that starts to occur where girls get called names and everybody takes side, including police themselves...

MCEVERS: Sure.

SHENK: ...Teachers in the schools, you know, major officials in the towns where this occurs.

COHEN: I mean the girls have all said to us in various different ways that yes, of course the sexual assault was horrible and traumatic, and it's going to take them a long time to heal from it. But the worst part of what happened to them was the social media shaming and bullying that went on online afterwards. The aftermath seemed to completely outdo the sexual assault itself and the psychology of the girls. And I mean that's - we just have to look at that. That is....

MCEVERS: Right.

COHEN: That is quite a statement on where we are with this technology.

SHENK: But there is a silver lining to social media, which is that in the film and in real life, survivors are finding each other through social media.

COHEN: That's true - online. I mean it's this hooking up with other survivors that is so powerful, we found. You know, they meet online, and then they, through an organization - small organization in Washington, D.C., they get together and just make the decision to speak out and tell their stories publicly.

MCEVERS: At one point Daisy says this amazing thing. She says - you know, she's standing up giving a speech. She says something like, the words of our enemies aren't as awful as the silence of our friends.

COHEN: Yeah.

MCEVERS: You know, I wonder - it's this nice arc in the film that she's doing something. She's found people who are like her. She's helping other people. And it feels like a good way to end the story, but of course I have to wonder that she's got to have good days and bad days, no?

COHEN: Oh, yeah, no, definitely. She is still healing. The beautiful thing is she went off to college on a wrestling scholarship, and she's found this way to express herself artistically through tattoo art. She has a mentor who's really been working hard with her over the last year, and - but yeah, she still can go very dark. And luckily now because she's had a lot of therapy and time in rehabilitation, she knows what to do when that happens. So that's a relief.

MCEVERS: Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk - they are co-directors of the documentary "Audrie And Daisy." It is out now on Netflix. Thank you both so much.

COHEN: Thank you.

SHENK: Thank you very much.

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