The Audrie & Daisy documentary filmmakers tell PEOPLE they hope it keeps a conversation going around sexual assault and social media

By Adam Carlson
September 23, 2016 11:55 AM
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After a film festival screening earlier this year of Netflix’s new documentary Audrie & Daisy, its star, Daisy Coleman, learned just how much it resonates with teenagers.

The screening was for an audience of 600 high school students in Toronto, she says. Afterward: There was a line of boys and girls out the door of the theater, wanting to talk about it.

“And it was just so powerful knowing that so many people were affected by this,” Coleman tells PEOPLE, “and so many people actually took this home with them and learned from this.”

That’s the kind of conversation starter that Audrie & Daisy – a film about sexual assault and an Internet culture that amplifies the trauma of victims – has already been, its filmmakers tell PEOPLE. And that’s the kind of conversation they hope to keep going after the documentary debuted Friday.

The film follows several teenage girls, but twines itself around two: Coleman, whose 2012 alleged sexual assault in Maryville, Missouri, made national news when it was not prosecuted; and Audrie Pott, who killed herself after pictures from her 2012 assault were spread online.

“We’re at a tipping point,” says Bonni Cohen, who directed Audrie & Daisy with husband Jon Shenk, spending more than a year with Coleman in 2014 and 2015.

Cohen says there are solutions for the problems highlighted in the documentary – and for the particular behaviors, and perspectives, that feed them.

For example, the documentary takes an exacting look at the way communities are fractured by sexual assault allegations; and how, with the aid of the Internet and social media, those communities can turn on the victims and their families. (Both Pott’s assault and Coleman’s alleged assault were captured on film or in photos and later viewed by others.)

“I’m hoping, we’re both hoping, that the film can be a catalyst for that kind of change and those kinds of conversations,” Cohen says. “We’ve seen it in our own living room when our kids and their friends watch the film and the discussions that ensued were just incredible.”

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“They’re all really kind of desperate for what the parameters are for the use of social media and the way they want to treat each other,” she says. “We’re actually pretty optimistic that change is around the corner.”

Cohen says she and Shenk were drawn to the stories of Coleman and Pott: Even though the two lived across the country from each other, their assault cases had many similarities and occurred within eight months of each other.

Coleman also tried to kill herself after her alleged assault, like Pott, but was unsuccessful. She tells PEOPLE that the chance to be a voice for Pott’s story was a key reason she participated in the documentary. Shenk says Pott’s death “haunts” the story, and the filmmakers spent time with her family and friends to capture who she was.

The film treats its subject matter directly, using police interrogation footage as well as interviews with many of the people involved in each case, but is not graphic, often making thoughtful elisions around the trauma. In one notable example, it uses animation to depict Pott’s sexual assailants, who were required to be anonymously interviewed for the film as part of their settlement with her family in a civil case.

The film also recreates real-time social media and text exchanges, to evoke the perspective of the teenagers at the time.

“We found that even though it’s really difficult viewing, that the kids really appreciate that they recognize their culture in this film and the way that social media’s portrayed,” Cohen says. “The way the conversation’s happening is very frank, it’s very direct, and it’s very emotional. The storytelling for them is very important.”

Shenk says the filmmakers hope they can “help provide a framework” for conversation and education on sexual assault.

To that end, he and Cohen have partnered with multiple organizations including the non-profit Futures Without Violence, which developed discussion guides for the film. Netflix, in conjunction with distributor Film Sprout, is also hosting hundreds of community screenings around the country this fall and winter.

Coleman – when she isn’t taking classes as a college sophomore or working on her tattoo apprenticeship – is also working in advocacy. She says that whatever pain she experienced as a result of social media, it has also helped connect her with other assault survivors.

“It’s almost as if we have this whole little army of people just working together,” she says.

Shenk says he’s seen powerful reactions from the boys and men who view the film as well: “I get a lot of, ‘This is the last film i wanted to see today but now that I’ve seen it, I cannot wait to have everybody I know see it. ‘ “

Audrie & Daisy is out now on Netflix.

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