Shatter the Silence is a documentary that thinks globally but acts locally
Updated: Jan 16
Dallas actress and independent filmmaker Cheryl Allison’s award-winning documentary, Shatter the Silence, was inspired by the #metoo and #timesup movements. In the film, Texas women and men in D/FW discuss sexual harassment, rape culture, the watershed moment for women, and what the road ahead might look like. After a substantial festival tour, Shatter the Silence is screening this week at the Reel East Texas Film Festival. In anticipation of the screening, Allison and I chatted about the film, her journey with documentary filmmaking, and her activism through art.
I know you’ve had a rich career in live theatre. How did you get started in filmmaking?
In our industry we're really taught to try to do everything because as an actress you don't just pigeonhole yourself…so when I lived in New York, I also did television. I did a soap opera. I did As the World Turns for a while. You know, you're, you're doing different projects like that as well. So, I have worked in film and television as an actress. When I would be on set, instead of being on my phone or sitting over at the craft table eating, I would just watch. I would watch what was going on behind the scenes and I would watch the Director and the Director's relationship with the Director of Photography. It was on the job training. I just looked and I just thought: the power to tell these stories is really amazing. And eventually I would love to possibly direct a film. I just kind of had that seed planted and it happened with me being on set as an actress.
Is there any reason you chose Documentary films?
The first thing I ever produced was a documentary short film. I love documentary. I'm a huge fan of them because, as an actress, it's sort of opposite: I pretend to be a character and I take on that character and I tell that story. But documentary - that's the real thing. You’re telling someone's real story. You cannot get more authentic than that. The bravery and the courage of someone to get on camera and tell their story or to let you follow their story - that's real. These people trust you. So, I fell in love with that genre and that's how I started my film company, Wow Films. Then that led then to the biggest work I've done so far, which is Shatter the Silence.
What inspired the documentary?
In the fall of 2017 when the big #metoo movement happened… being an empowered female myself, I was proud of these women for standing up and talking. I was proud that it felt like we were being listened to and that it seemed like for the first time there were consequences happening. But I thought, how do we keep this going? What do we do? And I thought - I believe it was President Obama said this -that grassroots change starts at the community level. So, how do we keep this grassroots movement going? I want to know what my community in Dallas is saying. Are they talking about the #metoo movement? Churches and preachers? What are our schools saying? Do our teachers address it? Are students talking about it? What about our politicians and community leaders? That's what I thought. So, I started to just start to reach out to people. And after about 18 months of filming, I ended up getting a prominent male Baptist minister from Wilshire Baptist Church to talk about this issue. And then I interviewed an African American female minister of the Methodist church who was pervasively sexually harassed while she was a minister of a church. And I reached out to the theatre community. I talked to Denise Lee and Wendy Welch – and what we ended up really talking about is the “whisper network.” Bigger and more important than [specific situations or people] - what was even more concerning to me than the fact that this was happening in our local community, was the fact that people had to know – in powerful positions – people knew, and they just turned away cause they weren't getting called out on it. But in dressing rooms and backstage, women were warning each other…so, the whisper network was a big part of the conversation with Denise and Wendy.
It sounds like you had some powerful conversations. How did you tie it all together?
Yeah, Shatter the Silence is a big broad look about all these different things from the church patriarchy to the whisper network. I wove it together with archival footage. I have archival footage of the suffragettes marching and Eleanor Roosevelt talking about women's rights. I have portions of Anita Hill’s testimony on the Hill. So, what really has touched people about this documentary is that you'll hear someone like Denise Lee talking about a current problem and then it cuts to some archival footage and they're talking about the same thing a hundred years ago. This has been an ongoing battle for gender equality. That’s basically what it is because when you're a marginalized group - and women are a marginalized group - we're still working. So even though it focuses solely on the DFW community, it has a universal message.
Besides film festivals, what are your plans for the film going forward?
Well, we just had our Los Angeles premiere. Also, here at the USA Film Festival in Dallas. It was just on PBS, KERA here in Dallas aired it, and it aired throughout all of North Texas. So now we're in talks with other BBC and PBS stations to air it. We are also in talks for distribution. Eventually it'll be on Amazon prime and iTunes. We’re also really excited because we're close to getting educational distribution, and what that means is a distribution company licenses it out to universities and colleges and high schools. So, it's a part of their curriculum. And that's where I really want to see this film go because that's what documentary work is about - raising awareness. You've got to get it into…the community level. We need community organizations to help continue the conversation.
Finally, something I ask everyone I talk to for Dallas Art Beat: As an artist, what keeps you inspired? How do you maintain that creative spark?
My film company, WOW Films, believes in activism through art. I'm just going to continue using my voice and trying to raise awareness. So maybe if even if one person…sees this film and goes: you know what? This isn't right, and I'm going to speak up - then you know we're making a difference. It’s just that little ripple and then hopefully that ripple will spread out. I feel like right now…to put the kind of work you have to into making a film, for me, it has to be something that's going to talk about a social issue or cultural change. I'm always looking for projects that are going to educate, raise awareness, make people think, and make people question. So, right now, it's the activism. That's how I'm telling the story….especially through documentary work. It's a female perspective and it's my story. In Shatter the Silence, a lot of women's voices are in that, but I am honing it through my vision. It’s an empowering feeling to tell a story that way.
Shatter the Silence is screening at the Reel East Texas Film Festival in Kilgore, Texas on Friday, November 15th at 11 a.m. in the Texan Theater. For tickets to the screening, visit http://reeleasttexas.com.
For more information about the film, visit http://www.shatterthesilencefilm.com.