A spotlight on the slighted

The threats came quickly.

Alix Lambert had only just released a trailer about "Mentor" when she began getting unwanted attention by way of tweets, emails and YouTube messages.

The director, nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award for the HBO series "Deadwood," was attempting to raise money to finish producing her latest documentary, but residents of Mentor, Ohio saw things differently.

Local students and community members criticized Lambert and insinuated illegal bodily harm, claiming that she was dredging up the past. While some lauded her efforts, most others wrote things like "Choke on it," "You better hope we don't find you," "We're going to shove this up your [expletive]."

"When an entire student body is sending threatening tweets to a filmmaker in New York and the film isn't even out yet, that's a problem," she remarked. "It serves as evidence that the problem didn't go away and is an illustration of what's happening in Mentor."

Although CNNMoney.com ranked the city 68th among the "Top 100 Best Places to Live in America" in 2006 and 37th in 2010, an ominous undercurrent apparently lurks in the idyllic suburb on the south shore of Lake Erie.

The 79-minute movie, which will premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival at 5 p.m. Monday, explores the experiences of the Mohat and Vidovic families, whose children, Eric and Sladjana, were tortured endlessly and, ultimately, committed suicide to escape the daily grind. By interviewing Dorothy Espelage, an educational psychologist and expert on peer aggression, attorney Ken Myers and others, "Mentor" also claims negligence on the part of guidance counselors, principals, teachers, cafeteria workers and security guards.

Lambert, 45, recalled reading the press surrounding the deaths of both teenagers and the subsequent lawsuits filed by their parents against the school district. Neither family is demanding compensation. Rather, they want Mentor High School administrators to instill a sorely needed anti-bullying program.

"I'm interested in storytelling and, in terms of documentaries, in stories that don't otherwise get told, really," she said. "It's not specifically about just the two families involved. It's about the entire community and the culture of conformity that exists there. A lot of my work deals with looking at larger stories of communities and how we live with each other. I don't think we have one person to blame. I think it's a complex set of problems that needs to be dealt with systemically."


'Let her rest in peace'

In "Mentor," 17-year-old Eric was shown as a quiet but likable boy with an earnest smile and a love for hugs, theater and music. His harassment took the form of frequent name-calling, shoving and hitting. On the day that the boy who was mocked as "fag," "queer" and "homo" decided to take his own life, a bully told him, "Why don't you go home and shoot yourself? No one will miss you." That's exactly what he did.

According to Myers, though, William and Janis Mohat were not aware of their son's depression and suicidal thoughts, and were aware, but to a limited extent, of the bullying he endured. Three other students ended their own lives in 2007, the same year as Eric, who wanted to deal with the issue himself.

By contrast, Sladjana's parents, Dragan and Celija, and her older sister, Suzana, were completely in the know about the abuse she faced when not at home. They also repeatedly informed school officials about the bullying and Sladjana's resulting mental fragility. The documentation — both written and in the form of verbal testimony — gave them a stronger lawsuit.

The slender, light-eyed brunette was mocked because of her appearance and Croatian accent, pelted with food and, at one point, even pushed down the stairs. Her tearful parents recalled that their child, 16, loved pink and was lain to rest in a sparkly dress and sandals that she'd originally purchased for prom. The bullies who attended her 2008 wake laughed at Sladjana's body in her coffin, commenting later on MySpace that her clothes were ugly.

"Let her rest in peace," Suzana said on screen. "Let her rest in peace and be left alone."

Mary Cummins, a festival programmer, deemed "Mentor" "heartbreaking," adding that bullying has reached vicious, new heights in comparison to what went on in her youth.


A marginalized people

Lambert's submission is part of this year's new "Women Direct!" series, showcasing over 30 films by female directors. At a panel discussion Tuesday, she will join fellow female moviemakers — Kate Ryan being one of them.

The Los Angeles resident produced and directed "Welcome Nowhere," an 80-minute documentary that investigates the lives of the impoverished and maligned Roma community in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Ryan, who attended film school at Cal State Northridge, visited the Eastern European area thrice along with a humanitarian organization called Global Celebration. Immediately, she was struck by the living conditions of nearly 200 "gypsies" squeezed into 29 boxcars.

"The segregation was fascinating because they typically don't mix with non-Roma," she said. "The film was my way of answering questions like 'Is it by choice, or are they being forced to live like this?' and 'Why do people hate them so much?' It was sort of my own research project, as I wanted to have answers not only for myself but to also educate other people."

"Welcome Nowhere" sheds light on the underbelly of Bulgarian society, where dirt and grime stain children's faces and once-precious toys lie face-down in puddles of mud. It doesn't shy away from showing how the Roma live without sewage pipes, septic tanks, running water or paved streets, while families of five subsist on $65 a week.

According to Ethan Hawke, the film's narrator, an estimated 12 million Roma inhabit pockets of Europe and, despite migrating from India in the 12th and 13th centuries, continue to be the poorest, least educated and most mistrusted ethnic minority. Their life expectancy is nearly a decade less than other local populations, while their birth rate is three times higher and male members of this group make a living by digging through trash to collect and, then, sell metal.


'A centuries-old issue'

Ryan's project focuses on a group in the city of Lyulin and explains, with help of interviews with former and current politicians, activists and pastors, that they were forcibly evicted from government-owned apartments to make space for Billa, a popular department store. Although relocated to dilapidated boxcars — held together by tarp, rope and a prayer — for a proposed six months, the Roma had shared one tap with which to bathe, brush their teeth, wash clothes and cook for nearly 10 years at the time of filming.

Deeply impacted by the knowledge that Roma children fall sick with alarming regularity due to their unsanitary surroundings, Ryan said they also frequently miss school, dreaming of karate, magic and driving horse-drawn carriages as career options, since their parents lack the resources to buy them shoes, books and bags.

"This is a centuries-old issue as well as one that is not going to clear up any time soon," she said. "And yet, the victims of this racism, prejudice and continued systemic marginalization are the next generation. The kids have grown up around this poverty, playing amid fire and glass, and they don't even seem to notice it — that was the most heartbreaking thing."

Funding the entire film herself, Ryan, who used a Panasonic HVX 200, first spent two years earning money for her travels. She slowed down after returning stateside in 2009 to once again earn money for post-production duties. Although "Welcome Nowhere" premiered in London last September, she heard about the Newport festival through her friends Adam and Jaye Fenderson, whose documentary "First Generation" was shown in 2012, and expressed barely contained excitement about her upcoming screening at 7:30 p.m. Monday.

"I think that both of these films demonstrate how important documentaries are for allowing us to begin to understand, or at least consider, the lives of people who may be quite different from ourselves," Cummins remarked. "We can get so busy and isolated in our own lives that we don't see, or don't even care about, what's going on in the lives of other people."

If You Go

What: "Mentor"

Where: Triangle Square Cinemas, 1870 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa

When: 5 p.m. Monday

Cost: $14

Information: (949) 253-2880 or http://www.newportbeachfilmfest.com


What: "Welcome Nowhere"

Where: Triangle Square Cinemas, 1870 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday

Cost: $14

Information: (949) 253-2880 or http://www.newportbeachfilmfest.com

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