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Newport Beach Film Festival: 'A Brave Heart' shows Lizzie Velasquez's fight

'A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story,' a SXSW award winner, screens at Newport Beach Film Festival

Sara Hirsh Bordo's documentary "A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story" begins with silence, a blank white wall and then a woman's face.

That face may be jarring to unprepared viewers — an understanding that led Bordo to place it on the screen first. The nose is unusually long and slender, the cheeks gaunt, the baggy skin suggesting a person much older than 25. Without narration or fanfare, the woman walks in from off camera and simply sits with a smile, stroking her hair as if waiting to have her picture taken.

Most important, she makes eye contact with the audience. Velasquez, born with a rare condition that makes her incapable of gaining weight, is used to doing that as a motivational speaker and anti-bullying activist. She urges viewers to set their inhibitions aside and look at the person in front of them.

Bordo, who began work on "A Brave Heart" after filming Velasquez at a TED talk, opted to start her documentary on a similarly direct note.

"There was a comment that someone had made to me back when the TED video came out: 'Once I got used to looking at Lizzie close up and got comfortable with her, I was able to listen to her even more,' " she said. "And that comment was the inspiration for why I shot the opening like that. I wanted audiences to get past being uncomfortable as quickly as I could, so that there wasn't any time wasted."

"A Brave Heart," which will screen Tuesday night in the Newport Beach Film Festival, is about a social advocate's life, but it is also about a face. The movie never plays that face up for dramatic effect — it is simply there, constant, laughing and joking, applying makeup, bathed in lights on the lecture stage. By the end of the 78-minute film, it's become familiar and unthreatening.

As a child, Velasquez endured ridicule — or outright fear — from classmates, who would sometimes run away if she tried to play with them. The Texan's father took to introducing her on the first day of school; later, she introduced herself. By high school, she had established a rapport with her peers and even joined the cheerleading squad.

Then, one day, she realized that the taunts hadn't stopped. They had just taken on a more vicious — and anonymous — form.

Browsing YouTube, Velasquez found a short video of herself posted with the title "The World's Ugliest Woman." The video had millions of views and thousands of comments, which included, "Why would her parents keep her?" and "Do everyone a favor and just kill yourself."

Velasquez, the eldest of three children, fought back. She started her own YouTube channel and hit the talk-show circuit, appearing with Katie Couric and guesting on "The View." Last year, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for the Safe Schools Improvement Act, a proposed bill to fight bullying and harassment in schools.

In the film, Velasquez is seen greeting adoring followers, facing warm crowds — and enduring online harassment. At one point, as she prepares to give a talk in Mexico, she receives a tweet mocking her looks and ordering her to "just die."

Do the taunts roll off her back now? Velasquez, who worked on the film as an executive producer, said that time may never come.

"Absolutely, they still hurt," she said. "At the end of the day, I'm human. You can be a person who has all the courage and strength and the thickest skin in the world, but there are still days when I can read a negative comment or get a tweet, and it gets to me."

Still, for every put-down from an anonymous source, Velasquez gets plenty of inspiring comments from people willing to give their identities. She's heard from children who said they opted not to drop out of school because of her example. Recently, she got a tweet from a man who said he had shared her story with prison inmates — Velasquez isn't sure if the writer was an inmate himself — and that they had had an "overwhelming" reaction to it.

Earlier this year, "A Brave Heart" won the Audience Award for documentaries after its premiere at the South by Southwest film festival. Velasquez attended that screening and held a question-and-answer session, and she plans to do the same at Newport.

When she faces those crowds, Velasquez always keeps one thing in mind: She may not be the only person in the room who has endured ridicule or worse. Sometimes, that becomes clear when attendees stand to address her.

"It always warms my heart to see people be brave enough to stand up in an auditorium and ask a question that's personal to them, or get emotional when they're asking a question," Velasquez said. "It's remarkable to see people take off that mask and become really real."

michael.miller@latimes.com

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'A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story'

Where: Regency South Coast Village, 1561 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Cost: $14

Info: (949) 253-2880, newportbeachfilmfest.com

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