Many Austinites are familiar with the story of hometown girl Lizzie Velasquez. She rose to fame December 2013, when she gave a TedX Austin Women talk about how you define yourself. It went on YouTube and more than 10 million people have watched it in English and Spanish. We profiled here last July as she was about to release her third book. You can read that story here.
Velasquez has a rare syndrome that prohibits her from gaining weight. In high school, someone posted a YouTube video and labeled her “The World’s Ugliest Woman.”
Now her story has been made into “A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story,” by first-time director Sara Hirsh Bordo. It had three screenings during SXSW, the final one was Thursday night.
“A Brave Heart” advances Velasquez story from what has previously written about her, but first it provides the back story. You see home movies and photos of her parents as Velasquez is born with unexplained differences. Her family recounts her first days of kindergarten at Galindo Elementary, and you see a grown up Velasquez at that elementary school pointing out where she would sit and hide while the other kids played.
The film takes you through middle school and high school where you see her as a teenager and then you watch Velasquez explain what happened to her when she found the Ugliest Woman YouTube post.
“A Brave Heart” also shows you Velasquez today: You watch as she finally gets a name to her syndrome, which is actually two syndromes on the same gene. You also get to watch her travel around the world and be embraced by people who now recognize her not as the Ugliest Woman but as the TedX Austin Women speaker. In what is a true triumph, you see her talk to 10,000 people in Mexico from a stage that earlier held Hillary Rodham Clinton.
You also get to watch Velasquez go to Washington, D.C., and lobby Congress to pass the Safe Schools Improvement Act to give schools tools and resources to fight bullying. You see her talk to some of our Texas representatives in their Washington offices and you also see as only one member of Congress shows up to a larger forum on the subject.
The film is beautiful and incredibly uplifting to watch, as Velasquez’s story continues to be. There is one jarring part that later pays off. At one point, the action turns from Velasquez to Tina Meier, whose daughter Megan killed herself in 2006 after being cyber bullied. It’s a distraction at first, but then it comes together as Tina Meier accompanies Velasquez to Washington to fight for the Safe Schools Improvement Act. It further pays off when you watch Velasquez and Meier talk openly and honestly about the pressure of representing a cause. It also makes you wonder, why Velasquez was able to survive a very public bullying and why Meier was not. What was different about them?
The film is incredibly touching and you could hear people sniffling in the audience. The film received a standing ovation even before Velasquez and Bordo came out to answer questions.
During SXSW, Bordo said, she has received three offers to distribute the film, but they are waiting for the right one. They want it to be seen by every school child and they want it to be seen by the Republican members of Congress and their children and grandchildren who haven’t signed on to the Safe Schools Improvement Act. “Republican children and grandchildren get bullied, too,” Bordo said.
During SXSW, the film has been seen by everyone from 6 year old children to 80 year old grandparents and everyone in between. “They are moved by hope,” she says. “That’s what Lizzie brings.”
They also talked about Velasquez’s new initiative “Take the High Road.” It’s a simple concept. When you see hateful comments online, rather than fighting back and adding more fuel, you just type: I’m taking the high road.
It’s what many people tell kids who are being bullied to do: not give bullies the satisfaction, but, boy, is that hard to do. Online, just typing “I’m taking the high road” feels much easier to do.
Velasquez talked about her rise as a YouTube star at a SXSW Interactive panel earlier in the week. You can read about that here.
She credits her parents for building her up to be as strong as she is and she continues to say, “I’m just Lizzie.”
This is a film that I would love to show to the girls in my Girl Scout troop, who are in fifth and sixth grade, prime years for bullying. And I would love to share it with my own daughter who has been teased mercilessly this year about her own illness that like Velasquez means that she can’t run as fast as other kids and that makes her miss a lot of school for doctors appointments and hospitalizations. Like Velasquez and my daughter’s theme song goes, “I want to see you be brave.” But I also want to see that you don’t have to be brave all the time when we live in a world where bullying isn’t accepted as a normal part of childhood.