Leah Yananton: Empowering College Women

Post production on Surviving Me: The 9 Circles of Sophie

#DirectedbyWomen Catalyst Barbara Ann O’Leary touched based with filmmaker Leah Yananton to discuss her film Surviving Me: The 9 Circles of Sophie—inspired by Dante’s Inferno and her own experiences navigating the complexities and challenges of college life. Leah’s currently running a Kickstarter campaign to mobilize resources to support a campus tour designed to stimulate dialogue and encourage empowerment of college women. Read what she has to share, check out her crowdfunding campaign, and reach out to organizations on college campuses to let them know about her upcoming tour.

TRIGGER WARNING – This interview discusses sexual assault.

DBW: You are preparing a college tour for your film Surviving Me: The 9 Circles of Sophie, which you describe as being about “a college student on a journey of self-discovery through her own experience of Dante’s Inferno.” Can you talk a little bit about the film and what inspired you to make it?

LY: Yes, gladly. SURVIVING ME is a female-driven story about confronting and overcoming 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, and from which I gleaned much wisdom. 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. She doesn’t yet know how to live, yet she is confronted with the full brunt of having to manage her entire world on her own and she is terrified. SURVIVING ME opens with this quote from Betty Friedan as she wrote in The Feminine Mystique: “What if the terror a girl faces when 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?”

Sophie is at the most vulnerable point in her life and she is made 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—so one issue the story raises is sexual predation. SURVIVING ME is about a group of flawed characters who act out from their fears and moral inadequacies, and though they mean well, they weave a tangled web with their deceptions toward each other, represented here through the 9 chapters of Dante’s Circles of Hell—Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, and Treachery. After their paths lead them astray, their deceptions are ultimately revealed and their lives are changed. Sophie proves that she has the courage to face herself, and upon completion of her journey, she is bestowed with self-awareness.

DBW: I believe this idea came to you when you were still in college. Where did you study? Did you draw from your own experience in creating this story?

LY: Yes, I went to Columbia University from 2000-2004. I wrote the script with the dream that someday I could be stronger than the disempowered state in which I found myself, and that women often face in general. My college experience was the opposite of empowering—in fact it was a living hell. However, I did gain wisdom and insight, and the story of SURVIVING ME reflects that as well.

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. For example, it wasn’t until 2011 that the dialogue around sexual assaults on campuses and Title IX rights gained national attention, and 2011 is 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. Whereas, when I was a student, the only time I heard about Title IX rights was in regards to varsity athletics. 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.” Today, this progress towards women’s safety and civil rights is being threatened by the current presidential administration and department of education.

This is not explicitly addressed in SURVIVING ME, but it is the background for what I was going through that 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 Sophie coming into awareness, and the desire to liberate from ego, from her false sense of self consisting of trauma 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. I want my voice of recovery to help prevent sexual violence from happening to other women.

DBW: When did you realize that college audiences were resonating with your film?

LY: During our festival run, we screened at USC as part of the Outside-the-Box 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 students about their social challenges, 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 we are planning to screen the film in her class.

During a separate event at USC, 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 I faced in college, as I offer my experience now being on the “other side” from my 30’s. They invited me to return to screen the film again for one of their student groups. The nationwide college tour we wish to embark upon is not only following our own path for reaching our intended audience, but is also a way of sharing wisdom through the story of the film and engaging with audiences, providing them a platform to share their stories as well. I am also writing a discussion guidebook, per request from several colleges, as a companion to the film. This was a breakthrough moment for me to see that by having made SURVIVING ME, I can bring it to the audiences who need to have a way to better understand their stories and situations too.

DBW: Are you looking to take the film to a wide variety of college environments? Will you travel with the film? What are you hoping to see arise from these events? Share your vision for this college tour.

LY: We are in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign to take SURVIVING ME on a college tour for creative distribution and for social impact around women’s issues. Please help us meet our goal by August 10th!

We had a small working budget to begin with, and have reached out to over 250 colleges. We’ve received positive interest from many, and we want to work with student groups who are interested in screening the film and organizing discussion panels around issues they are facing, issues which the film also raises such as student debt, college dating or hooking up, and how to cultivate healthy boundaries for oneself. I made SURVIVING ME for this very purpose—to trigger conversation and to confront complex issues that students face in college.

A topic for discussion will be, for example, “Are college women safer on campus than they were 10 years ago?” and I will share the story of making the film alongside how I survived NOT having a safe environment in either college or as a film  intern. I will share how I am glad that we have made progress since then, with groups like Safe Bae, Know Your IX, Women in Film etc., and how students can continue to get involved and work to strengthen women’s voices even further in media representation and on campuses. We have also partnered SURVIVING ME with the nonprofit MORE THAN ME, which provides healthcare and education to girls in Liberia. Partnering gives us both an opportunity to amplify our voices to uplift young women. We feel that MORE THAN ME is the perfect living example of what can come out of such a metaphorical journey like the one introduced in SURVIVING ME.

MORE THAN ME founder Katie Meyler has also offered to speak with me for an event on the college tour. Katie Meyler’s story is very inspiring. She is a TIME Person of the Year, recognized for her work on the front lines of the Ebola crisis in Liberia. Katie grew up on government assistance in the USA and thought she was poor. Traveling abroad to a developing country for the first time, she realized she was one of the world’s wealthiest people in comparison. It all started when Katie met an 11 year old girl, and learned that she was selling herself for clean drinking water, when all she really wanted was to go to school. Katie knew she had to do something. MORE THAN ME was founded because no person should have to sell themselves to meet their basic needs.

This Kickstarter for SURVIVING ME’s college tour is about creating a path for our film to connect with audiences and tell important stories, and by using new distribution platforms to discuss how women-powered organizations empower women.

Christine Ryndak and Mira Furlan in Surviving Me: The 9 Circles of Sophie
Christine Ryndak and Mira Furlan in Surviving Me: The 9 Circles of Sophie

DBW: I’d love to hear why you’re drawn to encourage young women to find their power. For you what is women’s empowerment all about? How is it cultivated? And how does your film relate to women’s empowerment?

LY: When I was an undergrad in the early 2000s, the dialogue around sexual assault barely existed. So in my experience, empowerment didn’t come easily. I wish I knew then, when I was in college, what I know now. I wish someone had told me about how a lot of men operate. I wish someone had told me how to recognize sexual predators and how to protect myself from danger. I used to be very innocent and very naïve in that I regarded every male authority as a father figure who I thought cared about my well-being—and I was very mistaken. Once I finally rejected this mistaken belief from my psyche, my life drastically improved.

Writing the script for SURVIVING ME, I dreamed about how I could free myself from the confusing cycle of traumatization—and I promised myself that if I survived, I would bring my story of recovery back to college women.

A lot is going on with SURVIVING ME’s lead character Sophie in the way she deals with her crises. Beyond financial crisis and sexual identity crisis, she also experiences a spiritual and moral crisis, where she separates from herself in an attempt to find herself. She betrays her own boundaries in an attempt to find security. In her own broken female sexuality, she is lost in the confusion of misunderstanding—but she needs to find meaning and she won’t stop until she achieves the self awareness she sets out to find. It is a journey of how she faces her brokenness and comes into her own empowerment, albeit with humility.

College can be a very confusing time. SURVIVING ME can be an advocate for healthy sexuality, for understanding and setting healthy boundaries, and for safe campuses, with its story that allows audiences to see a reflection of their own lives, and empower them to speak out against sexual manipulation and exploitation.

Mira Furlan, Fredric Lehne, and Christine Ryndak in Surviving Me: The 9 Circles of Sophie
Mira Furlan, Fredric Lehne, and Christine Ryndak in Surviving Me: The 9 Circles of Sophie

DBW: I know at the moment your energy is devoted to bringing Surviving Me out to college audiences, but do you have any other creative projects in the works? Perhaps a future film we can look forward to?

LY: Yes! I have a play in development, called The Naked Show, based on my experience junior year at Columbia when I was co-writing a play of the same title and the play was hijacked by a charismatic saboteur. I’m only hinting at the plot, but it is based on a scene in SURVIVING ME where Jimmy (Vincent Piazza), Sophie (Christine Ryndak) and Kiera (me) are watching a reality TV show called The Naked Show, which addresses economic exploitation of female sexuality. This is my “film within a film” nod to what the story is really about, and I’m currently testing it out in workshops as a comedy!

I have also moved into different genres and am currently writing a female-driven science fiction novel.

Ellana Barksdale and Christine Ryndak in Surviving Me: The 9 Circles of Sophie
Ellana Barksdale and Christine Ryndak in Surviving Me: The 9 Circles of Sophie

DBW: The #DirectedbyWomen initiative invites film lovers to discover and fall madly in love with films by women directors. Which films by women directors do you wish more people would learn about and enjoy? Maybe works by directors who aren’t already world famous?

LY: I am madly in love with the early experimental filmmaker Maya Deren. I love her essays on film theory, and her films. My favorite film of hers is At Land (1944). Many of her silent films are available on Youtube. Also, I have to mention Ishtar by Elaine May. Elaine May is a genius, and Ishtar is an amazing film, but male-dominated Hollywood shredded her and ruthlessly attacked her for making it, and she never made another narrative film after that. But it’s a great film, and she is a great filmmaker. It was an injustice how she was treated.

DBW: Anything else you’d like to share?

LY: I think it is imperative now more than ever to get the message of this movie, a cautionary tale, out there so that these themes of empowerment can be brought to the surface through public discourse. Just when we think we are making progress, women’s and LGBTQ rights—and especially their safety—are under attack now more than ever.

DBW: Any final thoughts?

LY: Be happy and keep smiling! Thank you for talking with me, and thank you for hearing my story.

DBW: Oh, before we go, if someone wants to bring your film to their campus, what do they do to make that happen?

LY: Please email us at info [at] survivingmethemovie [dot] com

DBW: Thanks for taking time to converse today. I know you’re very busy with your crowdfunding campaign. Wishing you all the best as you mobilize the resources you need to make your college tour a success. Keep us posted.

LY: Thank you for your help to spread the word about our Kickstarter, which ends the night of August 10th. Please help us reach our goal!

In the meantime, please follow us on social media for updates:
FB: facebook.com/SurvivingMeTheMovie
IG: @survivingme_9circles
Twitter: @Survivingmefilm 

Here’s the trailer if you haven’t checked it out yet!

Thank you for your support,

Filmmaker Leah Yananton
Filmmaker Leah Yananton