Tackling a story that personally affects your friends, family, and community can be difficult for anyone. It can definitely be more difficult as a first time director. Yet Paige Goldberg Tolmach jumped in head first on a seven-year project about child abuse in her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. “What Haunts Us” captures the portrait of a city gripped by silence while an unspoken violence occurs. Yet that same silence prevents healing, leaving many battered and broken. As boys who graduated from Porter-Gaud Prep School began committing suicide, it was clear that the sexual abuse that one teacher committed had left a scar on a community decades later.
“What Haunts Us” combines interviews, archival footage, and animation to tell the story of the community. It received strong acclaim early in the year and was awarded an Emmy nomination. As Golberg Tolmach turns to the Oscar season, she discusses how silence can stop true healing, the effects of child abuse, and the city of Charleston in her interview with Awards Circuit.
Alan French/Awards Circuit: At what point did you decide you wanted to make this documentary?
Paige Goldberg Tolmach: When I became a mom was when it really clicked with me. I have children and I would always want to protect them. Then one day, I saw the story of Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State football coach, and it was shocking. I immediately became terrified because I thought about how no one actually talks about these issues, and it scared me. It is why I spent seven years on this project to get it right.
AF: Seven years is a long time! I imagine it was difficult to get people to talk about the experience at Porter-Gaud. How tough was it to get the victims to discuss their experience?
PGT: At first, it was very difficult. A lot of people were not exactly on board to make the film like Gary and Phil. No one wanted to talk about it. However, they knew they could trust me and that I wasn’t trying to do something bad. Many people had approached them in the past wanting to make a film about this.
It took them a while to feel comfortable, and I knew they had to understand I was coming from the right place. When they were on board it was great, but it was hard to get many other people to talk. In fact, you see that in the film. I mean there was a someone, a former teacher with me, and we had this amazing conversation on the phone. But when he arrived, he didn’t want to talk about it. I thought wow, this is even deeper than I thought. I had to tread really carefully to get people to come forward.
AF: How difficult was it to acquire some of the archival footage from this movie?
PGT: Well, it was really really hard to get (laughs). It’s almost like they buried all of it in Charleston. Sarah [Gibson], my producer and I, would literally go to the TV stations and see if there was anything anywhere whenever we would go to Charleston to shoot. One day, we went to the deep dark cellars of one of the news stations and we found some news coverage of this. It was amazing.
We were able to obtain the rest of the archival footage because I was talking on the phone with someone who did not want to talk on camera. They were telling me about what happened, and they said ‘You know, I have a box with a bunch of stuff that I collected over the years. It has some videotapes. Do you want it?’ And I said ‘YES! Yes, I want it!’
So I grabbed the box and literally it took me weeks and weeks to go through everything. I remember putting on the tapes for the first time. I was alone in my house and made sure no one was around me, and I just started sobbing. Once I started, I don’t think I stopped crying for about two weeks. I was like, okay, I’m going to make this movie and these voices are going to help me tell it.
AF: One of the very cool things you did was blend in animation, which I honestly was not expecting. At what point did you choose to go that route instead of something like a reenactment?
PGT: For me, I have a really hard time with a reenactment. It always takes me out of a movie whenever I see them, so I knew it was not for me. Plus the notion of reenacting something like this, I mean how can you do something like that? So I thought these memories are so beautiful and some are horrific. There has to be a way for the audience to digest this story, and I knew that I wanted to make a movie that I could sit through as a mom. We’ve all see movies about subject matter like this, and they’re like horror stories. They can be amazing films but they’re also hard to sit through.
In order to get my message across, in order to help protect children, people have to sit through the movie. These beautiful animations, made by this incredible animator David Navas in Spain, brought the story to life so that people could watch the horror but experience something beautiful. I knew that was a special line we had to walk.
AF: How much did you try to bring Charleston into the film as a character? It sticks out as one in this movie.
PGT: Well it is a character! Charleston is this gorgeous and amazing city with this really ugly story and many other ugly stories. It is a city in the South, and there’s a dichotomy between the current beauty and ugliness in the past. Whenever I say I’m from Charleston most people say that it is the most beautiful city. But I remind them that it has ugliness, just like all cities do on some level. Charleston is a very important character in this film because it sets the flavor of the kind of place where something like this would happen and flourish.
AF: How much do you believe privilege factors into the story and the events as they unfold?
PGT: The interesting thing about privilege is that things like this happen at boarding schools and big schools like this. Predators rely on the fact that no one is going to talk about it because it is so embarrassing. People who survive this feel embarrassed by it. They feel shame and predators really rely on that to keep them going. So I think privilege plays that part. Not to say that this doesn’t happen everywhere, it happens all of the time in every city, in every school, in every state. So in this case, the idea of privilege played a major role, but it does not always factor in these cases.
AF: Did you try to talk to Porter-Gaud as you made the documentary?
PGT: Oh yes. When I decided to make a film, the first person I called was Gary Glover. I said ‘Listen, you might not remember me from high school but I remember you. I think what you did was extremely heroic and what you did was incredible. I’m a mom and I want to make a movie about this because I think all parents deserve to hear this story because they want to protect their children. And I also believe now that I know the story, everyone – all of our classmates and friends – deserve to know the story. I won’t make this movie if you don’t want it to be made because you’ve been through so much already. But if you will hold my hand and walk this line with me, we can do it together.’ And he said ‘Yes, I will do that.’ So that was my first call.
Then I called Porter-Gaud. My idea for the movie was that I would make it with Porter-Gaud and we would make a movie to facilitate the healing for Gary and the other survivors. We would talk to Porter-Gaud and have them say that it would not happen again, not on our watch. So I went in, I met with everyone at the school. The head of the school, all the counselors, you name it, everyone. They came to a meeting with me and I don’t think they knew what we were about to talk about. During the meeting, I started crying, I didn’t even mean to, and I just said ‘You guys, this is what I want to do and I want you to do it with me.’ They were really nice to me and they said they were looking forward to it and it was interesting.
AF: I’m guessing it did not go well?
PGT: Well, I went back to L.A. and I started to make plans for the interview process, bring a film crew, and the next thing I knew I got a call from the attorneys and the head of the board. They basically said we can’t do this. I could come film, but they would need the final cut of the film. They also did not want me to say anything bad about the school. If I give you final cut of my film, I think that would make me a pretty crumby filmmaker. So I said no.
AF: That must have been difficult at this stage.
PGT: It was. When I hung up, I cried because I thought I did not have a movie anymore. What was the movie going to be about now? I walked around for about ten days super sad, and then it kind of hit me. That’s what the movie is about it. It’s about the continued silence and that we still don’t want to talk about it. That’s why people are still in so much pain. That’s why boys that became men were committing suicide. Two more men died by suicide while I was making the film. I knew this was important and I had to get it out without Porter-Gaud. Now it’s a different story.
AF: What was the biggest challenge for you as a first-time filmmaker?
PGT: I think it might have been a blessing when I think about it. I was winging it every single day and making it up as I went along. It was great because it opened so many doors for me. It was also hard because I was making mistakes. What I realized was that we started cutting the film and my voice was not as strong as it could have been. There were so many people in the room, and they had all made many movies. I had not. So I let their point of view take over.
So we ended up with the first cut and everybody’s telling me it’s really good, but it was not the movie that I wanted to make. Everyone had done a great job but it wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. So I said to my editors, my producers, I said to my executive producers, one of whom I’m married to, I said ‘You guys, I’ll call you in five months.”
I walked away and hired a new editor and I sat in a room with him for five months. This was when my desire for the animation came through, and I recut the movie. I called everyone up and told them that this was the movie I wanted to make, and if it was terrible it was all on me. But that’s okay. If it’s good, it is the movie that we all made together because I couldn’t have done it without their foundation. I’m really proud of finding my voice on this movie, and whatever I do in the future it’ll be because of this movie.
AF: One of the more interesting moments in the documentary is when you turn the camera on yourself. You admit that you may have known things and you didn’t put it together or say anything. Tell me about how you wanted to include that moment.
PGT: You know, I honestly did not remember it until I started making the film. It came to me bright and clear as I was going through the box. As I was unpeeling the onion and learning more and more, memories started to flood out. This was really truly one of them. I thought, oh my god, I have to include that. What I learned from making this film is that we are all to blame for these horrible things. I knew that if I could let people understand that, then they could also understand that if we have a hand in the bad, we have a hand in the good as well. We can protect our children and I truly believe we are all in it together. We can make extraordinary progress in this area. But I needed people to understand that.
AF: What did the Emmy nomination mean to you?
PGT: It means so much to me because it means that the conversation about child sexual abuse continues. It is an icky topic and people do not want to talk about it. We went to people to try to raise money, to get sponsors for this and it was difficult. It continues to be hard in so many ways, and people do not want to talk about the issue, which is the problem. To have the nomination and recognition means the conversation still goes on.
It means more people get to stand up for their kids and talk about this. I have had countless messages from people around the globe thanking me for this movie. People tell me they’ve had their first conversations with their child for the first time, or they found their voice so they could talk about what happened to them as a child. I had someone send me a Facebook message that said ‘I think you’re documentary literally saved my life.’ You can’t get better than that, and as more people get to know about it, more people get to see and talk about it, more good goes out into the world.