November 19th, 2011 Robert Champion was just your average college student with goals and dreams. Among his plans was to be a member of the marching band at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. What Champion did not realize, was that he was signing his death sentence.
All over the United States, schools are cracking down on Greek Life misconduct and houses are getting suspended and/or shut down, especially in the South where the tradition of hazing is said to be the harshest. Florida State University is among them after the death of a pledge.
In wake of such tragedy, one organization decided to take action on the issue: The Helene G. Simon Hillel Center at Indiana University. The Jewish organization sponsored an event surrounding the issue of hazing in Greek Life by featuring a showing of the groundbreaking film, "Haze"*, followed by a discussion with the film’s director/producer, David Burkman; whom I got the opportunity to interview. The film not only brings to light the critical issues that occur in sororities and fraternities, but also the struggle of identity when entering a college campus.
The film has received quite a few accolades, which leaves us wondering, how did such an idea come about? Who exactly is the mastermind behind such a brilliant piece that Los Angeles Times calls, “ ...fresh [and]...raw?”
Burkman, an Indiana University (IU) undergrad alumni, grew up in Columbus, Ohio before spending a majority of his adult life in the Los Angeles, California and Washington, DC area. However, upon having a son, he has moved back to his hometown to be closer to the grandparents.
Film directing was not something Burkman always knew would be his career, evidenced by his change in major 15 times! He does describe a consistent involvement acting in plays upon growing up, including many leads for most high school productions. Furthermore, he also directed some plays here and there in high school.
Despite his recent success, Burkman suggests that although his family was supportive of his decision to become a film director, it was accepted with great anxiety and “growing pains." He even admits, “I was as anxious about going into the arts as maybe my parents were…” to describe the decision to go into a difficult business and take a risk. Not-surprising-at-all, the artistic craft runs in the family as Burkman’s mother is heavily involved in the arts as a theatre director. He describes her to be a major influence in his life in becoming a film director. He marks the immediate turning point of confidence in his abilities to be the acceptance into University of Southern California Film School. The fact that somebody believed he had a chance gave Burkman the drive he needed to pursue his dream.
After watching the film myself, I would sum it up in two words: intense and heartbreaking. One could only hope that the brutal scenes depicted were just a movie, however, the horrors portrayed in the film could only be drawn from personal experience. Burkman shares that he was a former Sigma Alpha Mu or Sammy pledge and best describes himself as both Nick and Pete in relation to his film. He jokes: “... I’m not quite as cool as Nick is, he’s the fantasy version of me…” and says that he shares with Nick the desire to be a part of the Greek Life group. But, another side of Burkman also thought Greek Life was “... all a bunch of bulls$#*,” such as Pete. He revealed that he did have many questions about the seemingly suspicious “cult of the rich.” As you might have guessed, Burkman was definitely hazed upon acceptance into the Sammys. In fact, Burkman explicates that 80% to 90% of the movie was based on his own experience in Greek Life at IU with accounts from other students as well. “Almost everything that they watch in the movie, they will be watching what I endured.” One personal experience he explains from his “Hell Week," which is 10 days, the pledges were not allowed to eat or sleep. In addition, when the pledges were not in class they were to be at the Frat house all locked in one very small room together. There were thirty-two of them. He compares it to the “Super Happy Fun Room” from the film, which is taken from real life, as well. I will spare you the gory details of Beta Baseball. We’ll just say it involved quite a bit of vomit and other unknown fluids.
Another point worth mentioning is the repeated objectification of women in Greek Life. Those scenes were the most difficult to watch for me. I could not stand the sexualizing of these women. Burkman speaks on some of those film scenes such as the sorority girls dancing and “performing” for the men: “The way the men treat the women is disgusting. Also, the way we see the women treat each other. The way the women allow themselves or almost volunteer to be complicit in their own misogyny.” He even goes as far to share that the showing of the film got a hostile response from one school, mainly the women, claiming that the activities the girls in the film were doing were degrading to women and that it was full of lies. Burkman did further research on the school and discovered one of the houses were kicked off for grinding on the men in their underwear and, I quote, “licking chocolate off their... junk.”
On his challenges aside from being in Greek Life, Burkman speaks on his trials in college. He reminisces being an excellent student in high school and becoming just an average student in college. He speaks of being a bit lost and not knowing what he really wanted to do; which, lets be honest, every student can relate to. He explains that many young people jump into the college experience without a level of maturity and college then becomes “beer camp, four years of drinking and partying.” He shows remorse that he did not take his studies more seriously and that he put himself in so much physical harm with the amount of alcohol consumed.
Speaking on the construction of the film, Burkman confesses that the film was originally three and a half hours long (don’t worry, it’s an hour and a half long now)! This could not be the final cut for obvious reasons of people’s attention spans. He refers to the editing process as “the final rewrite” because of the altering in the direction of the movie. Burkman relays that as the film began as a dual protagonist narrative, it developed to be more on the pledging process at its core.
This extraordinary film’s actors were not paid for their roles. Burkman told the actors that it was about them all rising together to do something they were all very passionate about, a "labor of love," in his own words.
I discussed with Burkman his plans for the future and overall take on the event in total. When I asked about a celebrity Burkman would like to collab with for a film, he was caught off guard. However, his first thought was Frances McDormand after seeing her in a recent film, "3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." He describes having a high respect for her talent. Interestingly enough, Burkman believes he did and did not make the right decision to become a film director at the same time. Why the conflicting views you may ask? The business is difficult and he expresses that “creating this film is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” This is aside from raising his one-year-old son that comes in a “close second.” He states that “you can pour years of your life into something, and be completely unsure if it is going anywhere.” He advises people seeking film directing to “follow your passion and your vision...it is not found once, you have to find it, refind it, and hone it.” Following that, I asked about where the film director/producer sees himself in 10 years: “ If the alcohol hasn’t caused permanent damage, and I survive, I hope to balance everything that is important to me in my life--my personal relationships, my family, my friends, and my work. I hope to continue to have the ability to create art and do it my way.”
In conclusion, Burkman speaks on a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” that he believes is relevant to his film and the message of the evening: “Those who just follow the herd blindly, are losing out on an opportunity to find out who they really are.” He desires that all who come across this film not only learns a bit about his story but thinks about the issues and talks about them. Burkman does reveal being at a crossroads, “do I want to do this again?” before answering his own question. “[Film] It’s in my blood now, I’m not going to turn away, lets be honest.”
After Thoughts From Students and Faculty
Oddly enough, the students were very quiet when the room opened up for discussion after the film. It appeared no Greek Life student was willing to admit being hazed as if the whole film was unrealistic. Despite this, I did get the chance to hear a student’s perspective on the event with a one-on-one interview. Iv Menache is a sophomore at Indiana University (IU), as well as, a proud member of the fraternity Zeta Beta Tau. He explains that it was his second encounter with the film as he watched it with a few of his fraternity brothers. They were all appalled at what was happening and did not believe it happened on IU’s campus. However, Menache recognized that even if it was not occurring in their own house, it could be happening directly across the street from them. He also made a point to acknowledge that people’s lives could be taken away from these activities and traditions. The film opened Menache’s eyes to the mental and real-life effects that hazing, to this extent, has on kids. Menache reveals that he would 100% recommend this movie and has publicized the film in his own fraternity house. “I think it is really important for everyone in Greek Life and anyone who wants to make a better society to watch this movie and realize what is really going on.” For someone that is so passionate about the issues of hazing, it is also interesting to see that Menache is still a strong supporter of what Greek Life is about. To be more specific, the true meaning of being a member of Greek Life. When I probed him about his initial reasons for joining Greek Life and what he thought it stood for. He answered unfalteringly: “[I wanted to] be a part of something bigger than myself, gain relationships, and experience for pretty much a legacy. I think Greek Life is about building brotherhood, but there’s steps and proper steps in order to achieve that, and it’s not hazing.”
The executive director of The Hillel Foundation at Indiana University, Rabbi Sue Silberberg, had a short comment to make on the overall success of the event: “I think it was a really important event to have. Obviously, the movie was extremely disturbing, but it is really important to shed light on what is going on. I think it is a really valuable movie. I hope that it can bring discussion and some proactive ways to stop hazing; possibly even looking at what the purposes of hazing are and how do you build that in ways that are a lot less destructive. When you look at a movie like this, you begin to understand how something like the Holocaust can happen and some of the horrible things that go on. The way that groups build identity and how difficult it is to stand up against things that you know are wrong when you see them occurring demonstrates why this issue is so prevalent.”
(D. Burkman, personal communication, January 29, 2018)
(S. Silberberg, personal communication, January 29, 2018)
(I. Menache, personal communication, January 29, 2018)
*The film is available on many popular streaming platforms, including Netflix.