A film, a piece of theatre, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world.
– Alan Rickman, British actor and director
In 2010, reporting of LGTBQ (lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, queer) suicides in the U.S. spiked in the media. The following year, a National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that a staggering 41 percent of transgender and gender non-conforming people had attempted suicide, compared to a national average of 4.6 percent. Furthermore, more than 50 percent of transgender youth will have had at least one suicide attempt by their 20th birthday, according to the national Youth Suicide Prevention Program. “It [the phenomenon] was so heartbreaking, that I really wanted to do something about it,” filmmaker Sarah Feeley told me in a recent interview. She wanted to know where the positive stories were, finding answers to the question: “Where are the parents who are lovingly and supportively raising LGBTQ youth?”
So Sarah went in search of these parents and these families. Among the “amazing group of parents” she met, Hillary Whittington came forward, wanting to share her story, along with her husband, Jeff, and their child. Thus began Sarah’s journey to make the documentary short, Raising Ryland, which was chosen as one of six films for this year’s LUNAFEST film festival. When Sarah set out to make the film, she wanted to “make a difference in one child’s life,” which would define the ultimate success of the film.
A year and a half into the project, CNN Films contacted Sarah. CNN Films and its partner CNN Digital Studios were looking to support new, original short-documentary content for their new programming effort. Raising Ryland was among the first three films released on CNN.com as part of the program. “CNN Films is very filmmaker-centric,” Sarah explained. “They supported my vision for the film through the entire process and were fantastic partners.” CNN shared the film internally and excitement spread across the organization, with the news department wanting to write a feature article on Raising Ryland. “It shows how powerful sharing a story like this can be,” Sarah pointed out. “We saw it happening right there at CNN.” On the film’s online launch date, March 18, 2015, CNN interviewed Sarah, and an article accompanied the film on the home page.
Seeing our reflection in the universe
The reaction to the film was “overwhelmingly positive,” according to Sarah. “In making this film, I recognized the emotional risk the family was taking and just how vulnerable they are by sharing their story,” she said. “What the Whittingtons did, by sharing their story, takes a tremendous amount of courage.”
Sarah was worried that the Whittingtons would be attacked for sharing their story. “I really wanted the audience to feel like it was a positive story that honored Ryland’s identity and Hillary and Jeff’s support,” she said. Some members of the transgender community, however, felt that Ryland’s parents had “outed” him to the world and thus endangered him, and questioned whether the film was in Ryland’s best interest. “One of the reasons Hillary wanted to share this story,” Sarah emphasized, “is because Ryland wanted to share his story.” When the family attended The Transgender Day of Empowerment in San Diego, Ryland, who was five years old at the time, asked his mother if he could go up and tell his story like the other speakers on stage did. “He’s just a remarkable, amazing child,” Sarah said, of Ryland.
Ryland was born “profoundly deaf,” but wasn’t diagnosed until he was 13 months old. While some members of the deaf community may disagree with parents who choose cochlear implants for their children, Sarah explained, “Hillary and Jeff are a hearing family, and when they found out that Ryland was a candidate for cochlear implants, they wanted him to be able to have access to sound.” Interestingly, people with cochlear implants have reached out in support of the family’s decision, including trans-people with cochlear implants. At the heart of it, Sarah noted, “Everybody wants to see themselves reflected out there in the universe, and for people who have less mainstream identities, it can really be hard to find. That’s why stories like these are vitally important.”
A production company of her own: sharing stories, opening minds
In 2014, Sarah founded her production company, Mile Marker Entertainment, which grew out of her last two projects, My Side of the Sky and Raising Ryland. My Side of the Sky, which she sold to Hulu, was a six-episode television show profiling six teenagers who attend Windells Academy, a unique boarding school for skaters, skiers, and snowboarders. When My Side of the Sky was released on Hulu, she began setting up Raising Ryland with CNN Films. Sarah noted that she’s been fortunate to bring in work either with projects like Raising Ryland or more client-based work to keep her company thriving. Meanwhile, Raising Ryland has been making the rounds at film festivals, including Atlanta, Barcelona, Helsinki, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Melbourne. And Hillary’s book by the same name of the film is being published by HarperCollins this month.
At heart, Sarah says, “I’m a dreamer. I do think it’s possible if we raise our voices, we can make real and lasting change. The key is that you have to share your stories. As a filmmaker, I get the chance to work with people who are brave enough to do that. I hope that the stories that we tell make a lasting impact.” If the reception to Raising Ryland is any indication, Sarah’s hope will surely become a reality. “When people get a chance to experience a story or perspective that’s different from their own, it opens minds,” she said, with a nod to her short film. “On a very basic level, as humans, we all crave the desire to be wholly and authentically known for who we truly are. The world is a better place when all people can live open and honest lives.”
Note: You can see Sarah’s short film at LUNAFEST East Bay’s screening on Saturday, March 19th, 7:30pm, at the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.