"We saw an opportunity to interrogate this institution and this institution that we as Americans have believed in for so long and get at the root of what enabled someone like Larry Nassar to be able to be successful," director Bonni Cohen tells PEOPLE

By Lindsay Kimble
June 24, 2020 02:07 PM
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Two years ago, former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing women and girls for decades. And while Nassar's downfall was very public, the fight for justice for the hundreds of survivors took years behind-the-scenes — and is still ongoing.

In Netflix's new documentary Athlete A — out Wednesday — filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk explore the people at the center of the Nassar trials and the culture that allowed the abuse to happen.

"We felt passionate about giving voice to those who had suffered," Cohen tells PEOPLE.

Adds Shenk, "I, and of course, most Americans, did know about Nassar and the victim impact statements that occurred. But we really felt like if we could tell a story about how this came to be, you know, how the reporters first discovered this policy at USA gymnastics that allowed predators to go unpunished. ... It's just such an incredible, dramatic behind-the-scenes story."

Athlete A — which includes interviews with champion gymnasts Maggie Nichols and Rachael Denhollander, among others — began filming in Indianapolis in fall 2017. Filming continued through 2018, capturing the trail that gripped the nation's attention.

With the situation unfolding in real-time, it of course, Shenk says, brought the "challenge of having to go to where things are happening."

"There were a number of occasions where we jumped on airplanes to be in places," he explains.

Part of the film's success was cooperation with the Indianapolis Star, whose reporters first uncovered the allegations made against Nassar.

"You know, these guys are just this incredible crack team of reporters, who really left no stone unturned in the story," says Shenk. "So in a way, our job was kinda made easier by the fact that they had their nose to the grindstone."

More than 150 women and girls have accused Nassar of assault, including gymnasts Aly RaismanSimone BilesMcKayla Maroney and Gabby Douglas. Nassar also pleaded guilty in November 2017 to several counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct.

Shenk and Cohen — who also directed 2016's Audrie & Daisy said they wanted to tell the USA Gymnastics story for a number of reasons, including highlighting the strength of the women at the center of the story.

"I think we were really struck by the images and the feelings that we as Americans have of Olympic sports, particularly USA gymnastics, which is the most-watched Olympic sport in this country," Cohen tells PEOPLE. "It was just shocking to think about what has gone on there and the institutional abuse — psychological and physical, not necessarily sexual — that had gone on for decades. And we saw an opportunity to interrogate this institution and this institution that we as Americans have believed in for so long and get at the root of what enabled someone like Larry Nassar to be able to be successful."

Stream Athlete A on Netflix.