I can't say enough good things about this film. It certainly is not everyone's cup of tea, but it is important nonetheless. The film hits on some relevant, and sensitive and raw social issues, without ever laying judgement. We live in a era where things like child murder has become sensationalized on an acceptable level. Major news networks make millions of dollars off these troubling acts, making up their own versions of what happened and why, but never ever really discuss the truths of teen violence. Bullying has become the cause of the day. Teen depression and suicide are trivialized by clever, hip youtube campaigns. People are talking, sure. But, is anyone getting to the truth?
MY NAME IS A BY ANONYMOUS digs into the reality of teens in trouble. By not playing with a deck stacked with teen delinquent troupes and Disney style beauty and fashion sens. Shane Ryan dutifully crafts together performances, from his players, that are raw and sincere, while being sensitive and relatable. The kids in the story aren't glamorous prototypes of envious nerd passion, they are just your average teens. They have troubles and they have fun and they have homework. And they also have secrets.
The story is based on the true life crime story of 15 year-old Alyssa Bustemante, who is serving time for killing her 9 year-old neighbor, Elizabeth Olten. Alyssa had confessed to killing the girl for the thrill of it. The story is sensational at it's most basic, but what really drives someone to do such a thing? Especially someone so young and virtually innocent. This is the question Shane Ryan seeks an answer to. He doesn't find it, of course, because who can? But he explores the story from many angles, using different faces, various lives and personalities and situations, to try and dig down to the root.
This is not Larry Clark's KIDS. Ryan doesn't make the mistake of trying to find the sexy in the story. He's not looking to thrill the audience with sensation. MY NAME IS A BY ANONYMOUS is about kids doing scary bad things, yes. But, the narrative is so far different from KIDS, and so is the point of view. Larry Clark's films are raw and real, but as frightening as the social statements are, so are his intentions with the performers. His camera is very voyeuristic, and many times even lecherous. He clearly is infatuated with the people in his films, and that can overshadow his intentions, and his message. ANONYMOUS, however, is very clear in it's motives -- to try and understand what drives kids who enact such violent behavior. Ryan's camera never lingers and leers, it studies the characters. It's poetic, examining in an unbiased manner. It makes the audience an observer, not a voyeur. There's no wild behavior to emulate. No cool character values to subscribe to. ANONYMOUS is more powerful than that, leaving a heavy emotional weight. I absolutely would not imagine any kid watching ANONYMOUS and wanting to be that person.
Another reviewer had written that they thought ANONYMOUS should be shown at schools. I'd have to agree with that sentiment. Like the Lee Hirsch documentary BULLY, ANONYMOUS is hard to watch, and truly unsettling. AFTER SCHOOL SPECIALS did their good by soft peddling the issues to the teens of the 70s and 80s. But, unfortunately, these are different times. Children today are seemingly more culturally sophisticated. I don't know that that's a good thing, but it is what it is, and we can't deny it. Kids don't really understand the topics they're seeing on a daily basis. They become familiar with them, but that doesn't mean they can comprehend it fully. But, if I reflect back to the past, the one sure fire way of getting a message through to a kid is by scaring the shit outa them. And ANONYMOUS would surely do that. Without sensational violence or blood or titillation, Shane Ryan delivers a hard story filled with truth. The situations may not be a part of the lives of many in the audience, but I'm sure the strong emotions and state of adolescent confusion is familiar. ANONYMOUS could be the film that opens their eyes to their own needs and desires, or to make them more alert to the others around them.
As a life lesson, or as a character study, either way -- MY NAME IS A BY ANONYMOUS is a brilliant and frightening story, filled with hard truths. At times I was so bound by this film, I found myself holding my breathe. I can't imagine anyone not being moved by what they see.
Out NOW on DVD from Wild Eye Releasing, and on VOD (under the title ALYSSA: PORTRAIT OF A TEEN KILLER)
Here is a conversation I had with Shane, some time ago...
What was it about the Alyssa Bustamante story that inspired you?
Initially, I’m not sure. I end up quickly drawn to the right idea the same way I usually tend to shoot, whereas I just grab a camera and jump right into the situation. It’s usually as I’m on the journey that I start realizing things, or seeing things I want to capture. What I guessed caught my interest, though, were several things. One, being psychology (which is what has always inspired me). I want to know -- if this girl really (killed the other girl), what was going on inside her mind? And, if she didn’t do it (as I started thinking later) what is she thinking now, being accused of it?
Another major thing that instantly caught my attention was the self-inflicted scars on her left arm featured in the infamous picture the media used to try and convince us that she’s crazy and definitely did it. I’ve suffered from self abuse, and have the exact same looking scars in the same exact spot on the same arm, so it instantly hit home for me in many ways. One, is people tend to think self abusers are crazy, and are more capable of hurting other people than people who don’t, which is totally untrue. Self abusing is simply one way of relieving emotional pain, which we all suffer from, from time to time, regardless of how happy a life we live.
Some people relieve their pain through drinking, through drugs, through extreme exercising, through road rage, through screaming at people, through physical fighting, through overeating/not eating, etc... If you haven’t done at least one of these things, I’d be shocked. The difference with cutters/self abusers is that we end up with visible wounds. People who don’t do it see it and it scares them. And the problem of self-abuse grows, we become more insecure about it because it’s not accepted the way these others things are -- you’re deemed crazy, instantly. But if you get drunk at a bar and start a fight, it’s more accepted, like “dude, you had a bad night”, or “maybe you shouldn’t drink.” Other than that, something like getting drunk is okay with people. But if you self abuse just once, you might end up with scars for the rest of your life and always be looked at like you’re crazy.
Another problem (with self abuse) is that - it works. It releases endorphins, a natural high, and you do feel better, so it’s tempting to do it again. It’s a major problem, and many self abusers have ended up (inadvertently) killing themselves. The initial reason for [cutting] is no more crazy than getting depressed and thinking a bottle of vodka will rid you of your problems. I instantly felt the isolation Alyssa must have felt, and I guess wanted to understand why and how she could turn her pain onto somebody else. What I found very strange is that a self abuser would kill somebody, especially an innocent child. Usually, they’d just kill themselves if it were that bad. And that’s when I started thinking there was more to the story. She did try to kill herself a couple of years before that, when she was 13, and she also tried to kill herself in her jail cell shortly after being arrested. So, the murder still doesn’t make sense to me. I have a huge problem with authority, have seen them turn on people, and have been very mistreated by cops when I was her age. And I wasn’t buying something about what had happened. I started thinking maybe she had been forced to confess. Then, after we finished the film, we found out her confession was thrown out because it basically was coerced. I almost think she might be the fall person for this murder. I had suspicion that Elizabeth was murdered due to the fact that her dad was a drug dealer (in prison at the time) and that it was a retaliation. He’s believed to have been responsible for this lady who’s been missing (and probably murdered), so I thought maybe that’s why his daughter was murdered and this neighbor girl who’s known to cut herself and attempt suicide was the perfect person to take the fall, explaining why her confession was coerced and why she tried to kill herself right after being blamed for this horrible crime. I mean, the girl tried to kill herself by ripping open her arms with her finger nails, that’s a pretty gnarly way to go, but makes sense given her type of self abuse was cutting her arms.
Finally, what really interested me was the mainstream media’s bullshit take on this. They instantly deemed this girl a crazy sicko within hours of hearing her so-called confession and started attacking this CHILD. Not that I don’t have sympathy for what happened to Elizabeth, I can’t fathom the idea of this happening to a human being, let alone a child, but there wasn’t any time in this whatsoever before the media acted like they had the whole story. It was simply, “hey this is a great story, let’s put this on the air, get ratings, and act like we care.” A perfect example would be this clip of this Nancy Grace bitch who is such a disgusting human being watching this again nearly made be fucking vomit.
(from 1:30-2:35 is what really gets me)
Grace acts like she cares but she cares no more than Robert Downey Jr’s character did in Natural Born Killers. It’s such an act. She’s making fun of a CHILD for trying to kill herself. This girl might not have even done it. And then Nancy Grace goes on to claim Alyssa made a lame suicide attempt because she wanted attention and to get into sick bay to get better food and whatever bullshit, like that’s what the fuck Alyssa was thinking. A known suicidal girl with self-abusive problems who is either “crazy and killed somebody” or “innocent and scared shitless” is really thinking about better food and privacy?! What a nutcase evil bitch (I’m talking about Nancy Grace). It just sickens me. If you look at Alyssa in court she looks frightened and ashamed, either because she didn’t do it, or realizes what she did, but either way she’s doing anything but trying to get attention. She did everything she could to not even be filmed.
And that really came down to a big reason. Originally the film was called “The Columbine Effect” because it reminded me of the media attention Columbine received. I was just months out of high school when Columbine happened, so it really hit home (especially being a kid who suffered extreme abuse at school by fellow students, I felt terrified that I identified with the killers more than the victims, even though I didn’t believe in what they did at all). But what really did it in for me was a special one hour Columbine event I saw a trailer for. It was real footage of the shooting, cinematic slow motion shots mixed in with the music from the movie “Platoon.” What sickened me about it was the fact that they turned this real footage into a stylish looking experience. When you watch “Platoon”, even though stuff like that really happened, you’re still watching actors. But this was real, real children, and it sickened me and frightened me, to see the world profit off of real footage like that. It wasn’t news any more. That day, on that very day, I stopped watching television.
Now, with the internet, we’re bombarded with news even if we don’t watch TV, so I heard about Alyssa. And when I saw the kind of attention it was getting, I instantly was reminded of Columbine. The way the media handled this sickened me. Not to mention, the press I received a few months earlier when I was trying to make a sincere human trafficking film, really did it in for me on how disgusting I feel the mainstream media and the world in general is. Nobody wants to understand anything, I guess is my point, they just want to hear gossip, talk shit, eat some frozen fucking yogurt, and go to sleep and if anybody clearly doesn’t believe in that lifestyle, they’re a goddamn weirdo. But no, fuck that, I need to understand why bad things happen. I need to know what it feels like to lose a child, to cope with rape, to die a violent death, to hurt another human being. I need to know how such evil exists. THAT, I guess, would be the ultimate reason why I was attracted to this story. I need to understand how, and why.
This film has such a poetic visual style to it, in stark contrast to the APSK films (which had a different, but very effective style). Through the cinematography you were able to display the girl's pain and isolation with such grace. How did you conceive the visuals?
Originally I was going to shoot it like the APSK’s, on just a camcorder, like Alyssa is making her own documentary. But Art (the D.P.) said he could shoot it, and he had a nice Panasonic camera with a special film-like lens. We had worked together once shooting the Abducted Girl trailers, though I knew he wasn’t going to really have time on this shoot to set up shots, use a tripod, light, etc., so he had to hold the camera non-stop and work the lens at the same time, which must have sucked, but it gave it the gritty doc-style. If I had time and a budget I probably would have liked to have had that camera be set up shots and less shaky, but in the end I don’t mind handheld, obviously. Adding that camera gave extra volume to the shoot because instead of just having it be their perspective as if it’s a doc, we also get to watch them from the outside as well, though still closely enough that it feels real. And then finally, I had the idea of shooting on a 3rd camera, on DV, the format that is the shrunken image you see throughout. I liked the idea that they were making their own documentary of sorts, and that the DV format was like somebody was following them with a camera doing a separate documentary on them, and the final camera of highest quality was capturing it more like a traditional, but gritty, indie. So, we constantly had multiple angles covered for each take, and that really helped keep the realism of it I think, which is always my biggest concern; if it looks like shit, whatever, as long as it feels like you’re right there in it. Sort of a journalism approach I think, which I’ve always considered. But as stated with my anger towards the news, I think truth is many times best told with fiction, so I basically re-create real situations and do my best to make it feel real, whatever happens, happens, as long as you get the shot. And then I got to the editing room and was like, shit, how the hell do I put this together? I have 3 angles/formats for almost every take! Eventually I figured it out.
The performances from the girls were so powerful -- how did you work with them -- improv, rehearsals?
Katie Marsh did a lot of homework on Alyssa, at least what the media presented to us, which was the point of that character. The other characters were all of the other ways I thought this girl could be. A person isn't just one face (all evil, all smiles, etc.), like the media portrays them. So, I had to set a mood with each actor. “Katie, you're very loud, confrontational, bored and acting out, intimidating, etc. Demi, you're her sidekick, so just play along with her.” Sometimes I'd want her irritated with Katie so I'd just keep the camera going and keep pushing them, "more, more, get louder, really attack her verbally, don't put up with it this time." What happened was Kaite was actually rehearsing with her acting coach, Vicki, and Demi is Vicki's daughter. So, Katie was filming herself acting the part and Demi was in the video with her. So, because of Katie's preparation, I came across Demi Bauman, and immediately wanted to use her. Which was awesome, because that's how we got Vicki, who helped out enormously, and also Kaliya Skye, who was perfect; the sweetest, most innocent and intelligent child, somebody you would never want to see harmed. What it all comes down to is really everything just came together. I saw things, and just had to know when to grab them and what to grab, what to keep, and let everybody do their own thing for the most part, and just throw out ideas here and there to keep them going.
Teona Dolnikova I studied up on, since she had the most amounts of work and fame. I just watched every video I could find on her and got to know her as a singer and as an actress, or I guess as a fan mostly. I became a huge admirer of her work, and that was basically equivalent of if you cast an actor you're a fan of, you already know pretty much what they're going to do, so just let them do it. I don't recall giving much direction during the film. Maybe I did and don't remember it because I was busy, and just having a good time making it, but I remember spending lots of time trying to nail down the people I needed, figuring out how we were going to shoot, spent a ton of time finding the locations I wanted to shoot, and then when it came time to film, I just kind of had it all arranged and the rest in my head, so I just told everyone, “this scene is about this. Go. We’ll just follow you around like it’s really happening, don’t mind us” (aside from once in a while when it was something specific). If anyone needed help along the way I was there. I believe the only person who knew anything about Alyssa was Katie, maybe Demi since they were hanging out. But Alex and Teona didn't need to know anything to prepare, since they were playing parts of Alyssa I believe existed but were not shown in the media. Caring, sweet, abused parts of her.
There is a scene with "Angst" that really shook me, in which she's looking at her reflection, then, suddenly she punches herself in the gut, and then issues several more blows. How did scenes like this develop?
A lot of that was Alex Damiano. I actually freaked out when she did that. I ran up to Alisha and was like "what the fuck is she doing?!" I believe that was the one scene everybody went to film on their own while I was doing something across the street. I came over and saw that and freaked, though couldn't help but partially smile that we were capturing this. Again, when she did the cutting scene I panicked and thought she was really doing it. That, she wasn't, but I think she really hit herself hard, I could hear it. She was just a great find. As mentioned I try to treat things like a documentary, just find the right subject and then let it go and film it. My job is finding the people, what they do is more them. We almost cast the wrong girl, somebody I really wanted to use because we met and had a great re-pour, but with Alex I did as well, so I was really conflicted, but Alex fit the part way more and Alisha pushed for her so I went ahead and chose Alex and it paid off. Her interaction with Domi really freaked me out too. It actually felt like we were filming a documentary, watching a man force himself on his daughter, very unnerving. And I cut them early sometimes because I was the one who wasn't comfortable, and figured if I wasn't, the actors surely might not have been. But they seemed fine, so.
The actual casting search must have been difficult.
We had tons of submissions, actually, and nobody really fit until I saw Katie. But she was only 14 and I wanted somebody 18 to look younger because of the content, nudity, and having to work around a kid’s schedule, etc. But she fit so perfectly I decided to see her and just do without the nudity. But then when she was rehearsing with Demi (who also slightly resembles the same look) I got the idea of using her as well, and having the idea of Alyssa be told through multiple characters. Demi was in, so then I started looking for more girls. That’s actually when it got to be more difficult. I think Teona had applied to be in “Abducted Girl” but since I decided to shoot this first I asked her if she wanted to be in this instead. Her schedule didn’t seem to be working but I insisted on getting her, I just felt I had to have her no matter what, so that became difficult to work out. And then I needed Alex’s character, and we hadn’t met Alex yet. Multiple girls ended up being considered for that role, but some never showed up, some weren’t comfortable with it, and the rest weren’t right for it, or I just didn’t connect with the actress artistically (aside from the one girl I mentioned who I wanted to cast, but ultimately Alex was better suited for it).
See, I don’t audition usually, and I didn’t for this. I just search for the right person. When I find them, I meet them for coffee and talk with them. Then I decide if we can work together. If they’re a great actress/actor, but we have no artistic connection with each other, there’s no way I can direct them. But if even a so-so actress came along and connected with me on a project, I think they’d do great because directing somebody, especially an actress working with a man director (and with the subject matter that I do), is all about comfort ability, trust, and connection. Teona I had seen in action, so I knew what to expect, and after we met and connected that seemed set. Alex I had no idea but she seemed to get it and was psyched about it, so it was an experience along the way. Katie I hadn’t seen in action either, but she fit so well, was so easy to talk to about it and so eager to do it, I just knew it’d work. And then Demi I saw in Katie’s preparation video, so I just took her on knowing what she was like based on Katie’s video and knowing that she wanted to do it. Kaliya I trusted based on Vicki’s recommendation, so I cancelled seeing other girls who had applied for it, and Kaliya couldn’t have been more perfect for it. I guess it all comes down to instinct. If I were doing a Hollywood film, of course it’d probably be nothing like this, at all. Audition after audition until I puke, I bet.
Were there any surprises in the performances?
Well, Alex, of course. And probably Kaliya. She was just a last minute perfect find. I expected a lot from Teona, Katie and Demi based on what I already knew, so that was more I got what I wanted and was totally happy. Kaliya I had to take a risk on and it paid off. Same with Alex.
How has the film been received so far?
Not too many people have seen it, so not really sure. From the few who have - some are really shaken up by it, a few hated it - my usual reactions I guess. Very extreme differences, not so much middle ground. My one friend, a girl my age, couldn’t even talk to me about it, it just had her in tears of how powerful but disturbing she found it, it hit too close to home for her. Though another friend of mine, a lady, my Mom’s age, absolutely hated it, completely chewed me out for an hour straight, and she’s only absolutely loved everything I’ve done, so it was surprising. Maybe because she’s got a young granddaughter now (plus her daughter), I don’t know. She totally loved “Warning!!! Pedophile Released” and “Amateur Porn Star Killer”, so it blew my mind that she despised this so much. You never know how people will react. Each film, each person, creates such different reactions.
Have you heard from anyone involved in the case?
Someone from the major local news up there contacted me for an interview. I agreed but then never heard back. I did an interview for Alyssa’s high school newspaper. But at the time didn’t attach my name to it because I didn’t want all of the bullshit that happened with me trying to make “Abducted Girl” to happen with this. I figured if I at least get the film done first, then I’ll attach my name so if the bullshit media gets a hold of it and starts their circle of complete bullshit fucking bullshit, at least it won’t stop me from making the film, since it will already be finished. The media can go fuck themselves in their own bullshit-filled ass. Aside from that some locals are pissed at me for making it, of course. Saying why didn’t I make a murder about my own town? But that’d be dumb because I WOULD have insider information and might cause serious damage. With this I had no insider information at the time, so it’s just total imaginative story-telling.
There was a murder on my quiet little street, the girl next door to me was killed by a drunk driver, the lady across the street killed herself after her husband died, some lady went missing from our town years ago and just recently her jaw bone was discovered in one of the parks I usually go to, a girl from some of my films stabbed a guy in the throat (supposedly he died), and a friend of mine lived with this girl who stabbed another girl to death in self defense, then the girl ended up hanging herself to death in her jail cell even though she was getting out on that self defense plea (and family of the girl she killed worked at the juvenile hall where she supposedly killed herself, hmmm), then on top of that after she supposedly hung herself her little brother was found hanging to death just weeks later in the play ground (supposedly this was an accident the little boy did to himself even though he didn’t know how to even tie a knot). Hell, the guy who cashed my checks got so mad at one customer (a teenager) he gunned him down at the liquor store I cashed them at while he was working, and a black man was gunned down right by my work simply for being black (this is when I worked at a restaurant where I was the only white guy, so all my fellow employees were paranoid to walk home just down the street and needed rides, so they wouldn’t get fucking shot).
All of this (and I could go on and on) happened in our tiny, tiny little town the past few years. I point this out because crazy and bizarre stupid evil shit happens around me all of the time. But I believe I’m too close to it. NOW THAT, I believe, could hurt people. It wouldn’t be speculation it would be fucking with the truth. I’m too close to it. And as said before, sometimes the best truth is fiction, so it’s better if I just do the good old fashioned “torn from the headlines.”