I can recall watching MTV’s spring break and thinking, “Wow, that looks like the funnest thing ever.” Oh, the naive dreams of an 11-year-old. Cut to 19-year-old me and seeing spring break as a claustrophobic hellscape where I knew, without ever setting foot on a beach, that it wasn’t for me. Benjaming Nolot’s new documentary, Liberated looks at spring break through lens of rape culture, showing the landscape and different experiences that women and men have. Nolot and documentary subjects Shay Douglas and Kimberleigh Andrews sat down with Citizen Dame to discuss the film and their experiences working on it.
Ben, what inspired you to set off and make a documentary about spring break?
Benjamin Nolot: I had made a documentary on the issue of global sex trafficking, so that project took me to four continents, 19 countries, 42 cities, documenting this massive, global injustice. On the heels of making that project I was haunted by some of the images that I saw during the course of the four years making that. The image that haunted me more than anything was the image of men lining up to buy women and children for sex in all of these different places that I’d been in around the world. I realized a couple things: one, that the issue of sex trafficking would not exist if men stopped buying women and children for sex. Another is that these guys didn’t get up one day and decide to fly across the world to go buy a child or women for sex. Something happened in their lives that brought them to this point. I thought if we really want to get to the root of this, then we have to look back at the culture, and I started to ponder this question, “What kind of society is producing so many men willing to buy a woman or child for sex?” That question catapulted me into production on our next documentary [Liberated].
Our idea was we’d do an expose on the sexual culture in America. We looked at the porn industry. We talked to people in the sexually oriented business. We talked to sociologists, psychologists, sexologists. My thought in going to spring break was we’d talk with young adults to capture some of their attitudes about sex. I had grown up watching MTV’s Spring Break, seemingly an innocuous situation. We decided it’d be great to get people being really open about their sexuality. We went down there and on the last day of the first trip, we ran into a situation, to our shock and horror, where girls were being sexually violated. We returned back from that trip wondering is this the normal experience for girls of spring break? Is this something that’s more common than we realize?
So we decided to go back the next year and we found that it was. At that point we decided to pivot and really follow that story about what is going on here at spring break. We filmed there for several years and on our last trip down a girl was gang raped on the beach, and it was at that point we felt we had a smoking gun on our hands. The situation was so much worse than I could have imagined growing up on MTV’s Spring Break. At that point we wanted to know, “okay, these attitudes are on full display at spring break, but what’s underneath that? Where are those coming from?” As you see in the film it’s using spring break as a backdrop [and] we capture some of the attitudes about sex, some of the behaviors that are a result of that, but we also explore in what ways are pop culture fueling and shaping some of those attitudes and behaviors? Liberated became a film about the intersection between pop culture, hookup culture and rape culture.
Shay and Kimmie, how was the film pitched to you?
Kimberleigh Andrews: I actually didn’t meet Benji until after the film had been completed. I met Kim Biddle, who’s featured as an expert and is the founder of Saving Innocence. I met her at a bar and I told her my friend and I were at our first time on spring break and our minor anxieties surrounding that knowing how common sexual assault is at spring break, knowing that the ratio in that particular place – the male to female ratio – was 6:1. We had a little bit of anxiety surrounding that. I had told her that regardless we had a “fuck-it” list, a list of things that we had planned to do on spring break. Kim said that she was working on a documentary about spring break and would like to follow us through our “fuck-it” list, if possible. It wasn’t until we were doing some of the interviews after spring break that I realized it was more about rape culture. But it ended up working out great because I had some very strong opinions about that.
Shay Douglas: It was a really interesting time period [for me] when I look back on it. I was completely absorbed in this mindset and culture where I thought it was actually something to be proud of when I’m engaging in all these sexual encounters. At that stage of my life I was boasting about what I was doing and I was thinking it was something to achieve. I was completely brainwashed to think all of that was normal and it was okay and something to brag about. When Benji approached us…we got along really well, it happened very organically and fluidly. He was really open and honest about what he was doing. We thought we’d give him something to film.
Considering how the film portrays you, Shay, was there an attempt to censor yourself in front of the cameras?
SD: At the time I was completely honest and documented as it was seen. Now, obviously, when I look back at the film it’s very difficult for me to watch because it shows some of the darkest moments of my past. But I feel it’s an important issue to bring up because there are many people out there who have been influenced heavily by external sources, such as the media and pornography; it normalizes this way of life for young people and it was completely normal for me and all of our friends. That was the way of life for us back then. We thought that was normal and fine, and everyone was doing it. We didn’t really see anything wrong with it at the time. Obviously now I see it as completely horrific and I see how much torment I inflicted on myself and other people. At the time you have to understand that was completely normal and it was something to be proud of. It’s quite sad but that’s the truth.
Kimmie, what was it like seeing yourself in the documentary for the first time?
KA: The biggest shock for me wasn’t necessarily watching myself, it was watching Shay’s part because it was a confirmation of all of these fears and anxieties that I had about spring break. We’re all told “boys will be boys” and all these horrible things that happen on spring break. Being myself wasn’t exactly the problem, it was how horrified and almost personally hurt by everything that Shay had said because it felt like a direct attack on women themselves, that was the hardest part. In seeing myself, how I felt about it was I was pretty proud of myself that I was giving a voice to what a lot of women had experienced and felt and might not have been able to articulate themselves.
What was a typical day of filming like? So many of these locations are filled with people and loud music so what were the logistics like?
SD: For us, when Benj asked us to film what we were doing it was very organic; he was almost like a fly-on-the-wall at times as we were going to the clubs and parties. He was documenting exactly what was happening at the time. We would do our normal thing and try to forget about the cameras. There were times, obviously through the questions and when we spoke more in-depth, but generally it was fluid and organic. Nothing was staged and planned. He just went with the flow.
KA: The same applies for me and Sarah. We had our “fuck-it” list we wanted to go through and the plan was to follow us along.
BN: From my vantage point as a filmmaker, there were a number of different things that we were trying to accomplish from a filmmaking standpoint given all the different elements that were going on at spring break. We had this really limited time to do it in because it only happens once a year. It was a “divide and conquer” mentality of going in and designating certain people to be on the beach and trying to capture the dynamics of everything happening on the beach, and also trying to give energy towards following Kimmie and Sarah, or Shay and his group. We actually followed other groups that didn’t make it into the film. It was pretty involved on trying to capture all these different things.
We didn’t know at the time that Shay and his group would become the group that would feature, or Kimmie and Sarah. I remember my co-producer had gone to Cancun and we would talk every morning at what was 7 a.m. her time, 9 a.m my time. She’d be telling me about her day, “At night this happened” and she’d carry me through to four o’clock in the morning and I’d be like, “Wait a minute. When did you sleep?” She’d say, “Oh, I did for two hours.” It explains a lot of the shaky footage, the out-of-focus stuff. Our crews were run ragged.
You’re documenting actions that can easily turn into criminal acts. Ben, as a filmmaker what was the line for you between documentarian and just average citizen on the beach? Did you ever attempt to stop behavior you saw?
BN: That’s a great question and it’s one I’ve been asked a lot. I wanted to lead the charge from a filming standpoint on the situations that were [happening] on the beach because it was such a challenging dynamic to film in. I can say, at the outset, every person who came with me to film on those beaches has since told me, “Don’t ever ask me to come back to spring break again.” There was about 10,000 people on the beach and we were packed in like sardines. Some people were really excited that you had a camera, and other people were enraged if you had a camera. We had small cameras…so we tried to be more of a fly-on-the-wall but, nevertheless, trying to film in that environment was challenging for a number of different reasons. One, it was very difficult to maneuver with the density of the crowd. Another was because of the condensation you’re constantly trying to wipe off your lens, wipe off your viewfinder; you’re having beer spilled on you; some people are coming and trying to pose in front of your camera, which is not something you want. Other people are punching you because you have a camera, or trying to jump you. Every member of our crew was attacked at one point or another filming down on those beaches.
The issue of some of the stuff we were capturing, it was chaotic and unpredictable. It was like being in the midst of a mob that was ready to rape. You could sense that women were viewed in that environment as nothing more than bodies to grope. The fullest extrapolation of a pornified mindset where women in porn are there to be penetrated, that was what it was like at spring break, if a girl got up on a guy’s shoulders she was fair game. Some of the indicators were hard, but anything could be seen as an invitation. If a girl looked at a guy the wrong way that was an invitation. And as soon as one guy would start to grope then the others would join in. The way that this would happen was unpredictable and as soon as we realized what was going on it was over. It was hard to do the math on exactly what was happening. Some of the stuff we didn’t even realize what we were filming until we got back in the edit suite and watched our footage. It wasn’t a situation where you’d be in this prolonged situation where you could go in and intervene. It was chaotic and different measures of groping happening around you at different moments in time.
There was one situation where I was able to intervene, it was because I was more on the outskirts of the crowd where there’s a little bit more room to maneuver. It was more of a prolonged situation where a girl had her clothes ripped off and was in a state of post-traumatic breakdown. She was weeping and sobbing, and seemed to have been previously sexually assaulted to be triggered in that visceral way. I was able to pull her out of the crowd, recruit her friends to come and help her. I’m trying to get her friends to get her out of there and as this is happening in front of me, I look to my left and there’s another group of guys surrounding another girl and they’re chanting, “Show your tits! Show your tits!” Just to the left of them was another group of guys surrounding another girl and they’re chanting, “Suck our dicks! Suck our dicks!” I come back to the girl in front of me and her friend, trying to get her out of this situation, and then the whole crowd of ten plus thousand people start chanting, “USA! USA!” I’m panning the crowd, watching this whole surreal scene take place, and her friend who’s in front of me, who I’m hoping is going to help me get her friend out of there, goes back to the crowd to join the chorus of chanting “USA” and it was a really revealing moment about who we have become as a people in this hookup, rape culture today.
What do you want audiences to take away from Liberated regarding spring break and rape culture in this country?
KA: I think the purpose of the documentary isn’t necessarily to discourage you from going to spring break, but to make you question what you can do to prevent rape culture from spreading. It’s supposed to shed light on the fact that, yes, spring break may be a hyperbolized version of every day life, but that’s the thing about rape culture; it starts at the bottom and goes all the way to the actually being sexually assaulted, so what are the things that are building up this culture? It’s also shedding light on how men and women are a part of the problem.
SD: I would add on to that the film does an amazing job of exposing how these external influences of media have really penetrated into the culture, and it’s not just the spring break issue. That was my lifestyle and it didn’t happen at spring break, it happened everywhere, in clubs, different environments. It’s sad because it’s like our culture has been hijacked by these external influences and it’s robbing us of our true identity; it’s robbing us of our heart and our empathy, and our humanity more than anything. It dehumanizes women and it dehumanizes men through this idea that we have entitlement to their bodies. It’s sad but it’s where we’re at as a culture and it’s the norm at the moment, but it’s not what’s natural to be a human. What’s natural to be a human is to acknowledge we have feelings and emotions. It’s connecting on a more empathetic level. It’s an epidemic in the country at the moment and something that needs to change.
BN: What Kimmie and Shay said. I would agree with the points that they made, and maybe add that the one unique and compelling component of Liberated is that it doesn’t just expose hookup culture or pop culture or rape culture. It shows the connection between them, and to me it’s really important to do that math and to be able to see the connection between pop culture, hookup culture, and rape culture. It begs the question of “What kind of stories are we telling in our society today about what it means to be a man, a woman, a sexual being, a human?” The fact that our most popular pop culture icon, like Rihanna, have songs called “Pour It Up” where she literally says, “It’s all about stripper poles and dollar bills.” These are the songs that are socializing young girls into what it means to be a powerful woman, and that is predisposing them towards a very exploitative and vulnerable existence.
The film, hopefully, will inspire people to move towards a tipping point where we will begin to tell a different story in our culture that is not two-dimensional and humanizing, but that celebrates all aspects of what it means to be human. That we can reclaim our identity and celebrate each other as three-dimensional humans worthy of dignity, worthy of respect, regardless of what one looks like or their ability to do a selfie well. The idea that most girls growing up would know who Rihanna is or Britney Spears, but have no idea who our three female Supreme Court justices are is a huge tragedy.
Liberated is available to stream now on Netflix