All of us, at one time or another, have felt like we didn’t belong. Many of us have also experienced bullying in some capacity during our lives. Unfortunately, technology has amplified the power of bullies. Their taunts used to be limited to school hallways and playgrounds, but the Internet has given a lot of freedom for mean people, often hiding behind anonymous accounts, to attack us and our loved ones.
That is exactly what happened to Austin native Lizzie Velasquez, who’s the subject of “A Brave Heart.” Born just 2 pounds and 11 ounces with a rare congenital disease, her fragile appearance only exacerbated the issues she had with bullies as she got older. Lizzie attended Gallindo Elementary in South Austin where her father was also a teacher. He was able to be extra watchful and protective of her during those years, which helped her transition to junior high and high school.
When she was only 17, Lizzie stumbled across a video of herself that had been uploaded to YouTube calling her “The World’s Ugliest Woman.” She wasn’t able to stop herself from reading the cruel and increasingly offensive comments the video inspired and, as you can imagine, she became very depressed and angry over what she saw. Scenarios less hurtful than these lead impressionable kids to take their own lives on a regular basis, but Lizzie’s strength and the love of her friends and family took things in another direction entirely. She harnessed the power of social media to turn the tables on her bullies by creating her own YouTube channel so that people could get to know her as a person, not as a hurtful meme.
First-time director Sara Hirsh Bordo chronicles Lizzie’s inspirational journey as she becomes an activist and motivational speaker. A TED Talk in late 2013 made her an instantly recognizable public figure in the fight against bullying. The documentary shows her gradually speaking to larger crowds until she finally takes the stage before 10,000 people in Mexico at an event where she follows up a speech by Hillary Clinton and then gets on a plane to lobby for a Safe Schools bill in D.C.
I’ve never attended a festival film before where the audience was openly and frequently sobbing. The film’s dialogue was often punctuated by people blowing their noses and wiping the tears from their eyes. I doubt there was a dry eye in the house by the end of the film, when Lizzie and her incredible family members took the stage for a Q&A after a rousing standing ovation from the passionate audience, which included two school buses full of local students.
When asked what she hopes people will take away from watching the film, Lizzie simply said, “I hope you’re inspired, but also a little bit angry.” As a call-to-action, its message is loud and clear. As a debut film, “A Brave Heart” is a powerful portrait of one of the most determined and authentic people you’ll ever encounter.
“A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story” screens again at 2:30 p.m. on Monday at the Alamo Slaughter Lane and at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday at the Topher Theatre.