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Online Support Brings Lizzie Velasquez to the Big Screen in Anti-Bullying Documentary

Lizzie Velasquez was thrust in the spotlight at 17 years old when a YouTube video labeled her the “world’s ugliest woman.” Velasquez, who was diagnosed with a rare syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight, has since become an accomplished author, motivational speaker, anti-bullying activist and (positive) YouTube sensation. After recording her moving TED Talk, which received millions of views online, the 26-year-old is showing her journey of great adversity on the big screen with the documentary “A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story.”

Velasquez told Variety that she had been approached with numerous movie and reality television offers over the years, but agreed to collaborate with first-time filmmaker Sara Hirsh Bordo and her Women Rising production banner. The documentary was ultimately given a PG-13 rating that limits its younger target audience. Nevertheless, Bordo said that it was important to show the crude language and tragic stories that motivated the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which Velasquez lobbies for in the film.

“A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story” bowed in theaters Sept. 25.

Why did you agree to do this documentary as opposed to all of the other offers? 

Velasquez: I am the type of person that when I have a gut feeling about something, I usually trust it and that is exactly what happened with Sara. When she brought up the idea, I just instantly said yes. After Sara had asked me, my first thought was my parents. After dinner with my parents, they both said, “She’s it. She’s the right person.”

What can your fans expect to see in this documentary that they have not seen in your TED Talk or your YouTube channel?

Velasquez: I usually don’t show my vulnerable side. It’s very rare that I cry on camera because I’ve always thought that I would lose credit or that they would think that I was weak. On the first day of shooting I told Sara, “I’m just letting you know, I’m not going to cry on camera.” Within the first hour or two that completely went out the window. We had such a small and intimate crew and they made me feel very comfortable to show that side.

How was it for you having your family involved in this project?

Velasquez: I wanted it to be our story as a family because I had been asked so many times how I had become the person I am today and I’ve always said, “My family.” My parents always get emotional when talking about the YouTube video and other topics like that, but during the process of filming I never went to anybody’s interviews because we wanted them to be comfortable and very honest.

It was very emotional for me because everyone was so strong and that’s all I saw. They were always encouraging me and I never saw that behind the scenes they were as affected as I was.

What is your mission with this film? The tagline reads “Bullying stories are famous for having victims, not heroes.”

Bordo: That is a line that I wrote… At the end of the day, this film is absolutely for the kids, for the people who are in the middle of the experience and they’re not sure that they can make it through. I wanted to show the universality of things through a circumstance and thriving on the other side.

Can you tell me about the Kickstarter campaign and getting funded for this project?

Bordo: For me, this issue of bullying doesn’t discriminate… and what we were saying was that Lizzie’s fans and supporters online, it only made sense that we crowdfund the first leg of the financing. We shot for $185,000 and ended up with $213,00, I believe is the final number, and more than 3,000 backers. What we learned is that we actually broke a record for the largest documentary raised in 30 days on the platform.

Do you have a goal for this film? Where do you hope this documentary will go?

Bordo: It’s a survival story, but we wanted to show that not all of those survived. Stories like Megan Meier… these are stories that we hear of everyday. We hear from different parents everyday. Lizzie and I intended on getting this film out as quickly as we could and as widely as we could. Doing SXSW, there was a parent after the screening who said, “What took you so long?” and I said, “I’m sorry.” She said, crying at that moment, “If you had just come out with this a month earlier, maybe my son would have still been here.” That was the sense of urgency that really drove a lot of the decisions that we made.

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