Entertainment » Culture

Filmmaker Michael Anthony :: Homeward bound with ambitious anti-bullying exhibit

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Mar 10, 2011

It would be fair to say that when Los Angeles-based filmmaker and writer Michael Anthony set out to create a campy, cartoon-like YouTube video for the It Gets Better project last fall, featuring "cameos" from Reba McEntire and Ryan Kwanten, he did not expect to receive all that much of a response. After all, thousands of individuals including many of pop culture's most ubiquitous celebrities, have contributed their own videos, so what impact could one more search result truly have on queer youth?

The impact, as it turned out, was profound for at least one boy, named Billy, who sent Anthony a letter. Billy, as it turned out, shared the same suburban Chicago hometown -- Wheeling, Illinois -- as Anthony and attended the same high school.

"Your video made me smile, laugh and then cry at the end," Billy wrote. "I sometimes literally feel like it's hopeless and pointless. But I also have rushes of hope and excitement and confidence. Your video gave me that for a moment. It reminded me that there is a life out there yet to be lived."

"It gave me more than hope," he added. "It gave me proof."

Hit close to home

The letter cut close to the bone for Anthony, who had lost a close gay friend of his own to suicide some 10 years earlier. So much so, in fact, that the letter -- along with the 100 or so other responses he received -- inspired him to embark on an ambitious multimedia project including the filming of a documentary and a special, interactive live event, to be held on Friday, March 18, at the European Crystal Banquet and Conference Center in Arlington Heights, Illinois, a short drive away from Wheeling.

Anthony has solicited letters from community members related to the weighty subjects of bullying and suicide and used that content to inspire the creation of songs, art and performance pieces that will be showcased as part of the March 18 exhibit, which he has titled BE: the exhibit. He is filming the entire process for the accompanying documentary.

The purpose of the project, Anthony recently told EDGE is to take the mission of the It Gets Better Project a step further, out into the open, beyond closed bedroom doors, to shed light on the many issues that contribute to the bullying epidemic.

"I think the It Gets Better campaign is very vital and important but I feel it’s our responsibility to take that message to the next level," Anthony said. "A lot of people have told me they lock themselves in their bedroom and watch the videos when they’re feeling bad, but the goal of this is to create a night where a community comes together, where you can do that side by side with your mother, your best friend and people from your church."

Fair share of challenges

The letters he has received -- and still continues to receive -- have been very moving he said. One letter, received from a mother whose lesbian-identified daughter ended her own life in 2001, expressed that mother’s heartbreak and embarrassment at never connecting more deeply with her daughter.

The project has also come with its fair share of challenges. Anthony said he has been "shocked and surprised" as some supporters of the project have dropped their participation as the exhibit has drawn closer, including his former high school in Wheeling, the event’s original venue and the Roman Catholic church where, as a teenager, Anthony said he was rejected after he came out as gay. He’s received dozens of pieces of "hate mail," too.

Even messages of support that he’s received have, at times, been more tacit in nature. He said a friend of his mother warned him against painting his former hometown as a "hick town," arguing that many residents there support equality for all people.

"I wrote back to her and said ’Great, but you’re only the second women who’s contacted me with a pro-gay message compared to 27 pieces of hate mail that I’ve received from people who are completely against the project," he said. "It’s OK to think and feel positively for us, but unless you really voice that belief and stand up, your silence is almost as bad as a negative feeling because the kids who need it most don’t see your support."

Anthony sees the opposition he has encountered as indicative of the deep root bullying has within society as a whole. The problem, he said, is not confined within middle or high school campuses, as it is sometimes depicted.

"At a community level, the opposition a little bit troubling to me because this documentary’s mission is two-fold," Anthony said. "One is to come back with these letters and give this gift to the community through an event they might not normally have, but the second fold is to actually look at bullying and how it doesn’t start in the schools -- it starts at a much earlier age. It takes a village to create and to stop bullying."

Despite these obstacles, however, Anthony has pushed forward with the project. He arrived this week in the Chicagoland area to begin a month of filming and preparing for the March 18 exhibit.

"This event isn’t about a gay agenda or trying to bring gay marriage to the state, this is just about giving kids a voice and a stage for at least this one night," he added.

BE: the exhibitwill be held Friday, March 18, at the European Crystal Banquet and Conference Center, 519 W. Algonquin Road, in Arlington Heights, IL. Doors are at 6:30 p.m. with the event beginning at 7:30. Visit www.forbillythemovie.com for more information on this exhibit and For Billy, the documentary.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.


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