Cheryl Allison is an activist and award-winning actress who has performed on Broadway and regional theatre as well as in film and television for over 25 years. But today I’d like to focus on her directorial film work. She is the founder, producer, and director of WOW FILMS, a production company that strives to create thought provoking stories that deepen our understanding of the human experience.
Shatter the Silence, Allison’s amazingly powerful and moving documentary about breaking women’s silence covers the full spectrum of Women’s Rights in today’s society. Timed impeccably with the Me Too Movement, the documentary is smart, clear, concise, and emotional. It shares insight from a multitude of institutions in the Texas area, from the United Methodist Church, the Baptist Church, the political arena, and the arts. Shatter the Silence does not just illuminate the problem of gender inequality and sexual inappropriation, it also highlights the people, young and old, female and male, who are actively and successfully enlightening the world and helping to solve the problems.
Cheryl, how did Shatter the Silence, this very revealing, inspirational, and timely film, come about?
Back in the Fall of 2017 when the national reckoning for women was happening and men in power began facing the consequences of their actions, I was incredibly inspired by the courage of the women coming forward and sharing their stories. Women were no longer whispering and were finding their voices to speak about a very taboo subject. I started to question what happens when this initial firestorm starts to simmer and the national media moves on to another hot topic, how do we keep the movement going and continue the conversation? I thought about the phrase “Grassroots change starts at the community level” so I decided to turn my camera on my hometown of Dallas, Texas and see if churches, schools, political leaders and more were addressing the Me Too Movement and if so, what were they saying and what initiatives, if any, were taking place.
What did you discover?
It was quite exciting what I discovered. A white, male Baptist preacher was using his pulpit to preach against patriarchy and addressing sexual assault. It was incredible. An African-American female pastor in the Methodist Church spoke of being pervasively sexually harassed in the church and how the church trivialized her complaints and told her to try “putting up better boundaries.” High School students created a website for their peers called Sexual Awareness for Teens. Political change was also happening at our local and state level. I filmed for about a year and I edited it as well. We finished post-production in the first quarter of 2019 and had our World Premiere in Dallas to a sold out crowd at the USA Film Festival. The film screened in 17 film festivals worldwide and received 8 awards. We also made our broadcast premiere on KERA PBS which was very exciting. The film is now available on Amazon Prime in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany.
And you’ve recently received a best director nod for Shatter the Silence?
Yes, I did! I was so excited and honored. I received Best Director at the Southampton International Film Festival in England. I also won the Emerging Filmmaker Award at the Thin Line Documentary Film Festival. As an actress I have received recognition for my work on stage and in film, but these were my first awards for directing so I think they’re going to get a prominent spot in my office! This film is my baby so I’m grateful that it is being received so well.
You’re now wrapping up editing Pieces of Us, your most recent project. Can you share more about the film?
I was beyond excited when I was hired to direct and edit this documentary. Pieces of Us focuses on the personal journeys of LGBTQ+ hate crime survivors. The inspiring and courageous men and women featured in the film are not only publicly sharing their experiences, but they are paying it forward in different ways to help other survivors. It’s 5 intersecting stories including the story of Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of India. He is the only openly gay royal in the world. He became internationally known when Oprah invited him to be a guest on her show. He is leading the way for LGBTQ+ equality in India. The wellknown rapper Jipsta (who is also a school psychologist) is featured in the film with his husband. Through his music and working with his students to develop anti-bullying programs and LGBTQ+ inclusivity, he has chosen to use his story and recovery as a way to pay it forward. Artist and actor Mykel is the link between the people and stories in the film and through his own recovery has created international workshops using the beautiful art of flagging to help other survivors and marginalized groups begin the road to healing. Can you tell I’m excited about the film? There are several other inspiring people in the film. We brought all of them together for World Pride in NYC. It was the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall and filming them as they marched in the parade and at Stonewall was really emotional.
You’ve beautifully directed narrative films like Hiding in Daylight as well as documentaries. Is it challenging to dance between the two mediums?
That is a great question. Each medium brings its own unique challenges. The majority of my career has been as an actress so directing a narrative enables me to work with actors and I think having been in films myself makes it familiar territory to me. I love determining the style of the narrative and how I want it to be told. Having a great relationship with the writer is essential as changes and revisions to the script are always happening even while filming. In a narrative it is also crucial to have a strong partnership with the director of photography. They will bring your vision to fruition.
So, with a narrative I have found that the most important aspect is to surround yourself with the best crew you can and then listen to them. They are experts at their job. With that said, it’s a director’s film. So, while being collaborative is a must , remember that you are the head of the ship and that sometimes requires making decisions that differ from your director of photography, cast or producers. You have to stick with your artistic vision and trust it. While there are many people on a narrative set, documentary filmmaking can feel a bit lonely. Many times when I interview a subject for a documentary it is just me, the person I’m interviewing, and my two-camera setup. I film, light, and set up the sound, so I’m more of a one-woman crew.
Documentaries are a blank slate. You start out with your general topic but the story can change moment to moment. It’s real life. There is a real freedom in that, but it’s also a bit scary. There is pressure in hoping you captured everything you need and covered all the pertinent questions and scenarios. It’s the ultimate reality show and I want to honor the people who courageously tell their story and allow the public to see into their lives. As I begin editing documentaries I am always insecure. There are infinite possibilities in piecing it together and I just have to trust I will find the best pieces to bring the story to life. I’m going through all those emotions right now as editing has just started for Pieces of Us.