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'I felt like my physical safety was in jeopardy'
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Bama Rush, which debuted May 23 on Max.]
What does it mean to be a young woman in America today? It's a broad question with plenty of approaches. But for filmmaker Rachel Fleit (Introducing Selma Blair), Greek life was the ultimate entry point for an honest and intimate portrayal. Thus, her Max (formerly HBO Max) documentary, Bama Rush, was born.
Little did Fleit know, her "360 degree view of the sorority experience" would become the most dangerous film of her award-winning career.
Bama Rush follows four central young women as they go to extremes to prepare for rush week at The University of Alabama, popularized as Bama Rush thanks to a recent TikTok phenomenon. There are binders, resumes, headshots, outfit selections, and even meetings with rush consultants to consider, as the girls ready to partake in weeklong activities that will determine the course of their college lives. In other words, the pressure is on.
More than 2,500 women registered for official recruitment at the university last year, many of whom hoped to get into the school's top sororities. Despite the fleeting nature of rush itself, it's an expensive and lengthy process shrouded in secrecy. Hundreds of the women Fleit reached out to revealed their sororities prohibited them from speaking with media. Thankfully, others were willing to take the risk.
"There was something about these four," Fleit tells TV Guide of Holliday, Shelby, Makalya, and Isabelle. "It was a feeling that their experiences were going to be so different but the themes would resonate." It's worth noting of the four subjects, two dropped out and one stopped filming before the project was complete because she was scared of the consequences. Only Isabelle stuck through until the very end.
As for the themes, there are almost too many to count. Bama Rush clocks in at an hour and forty minutes, which is only enough time to broach topics including (but not limited to) racism, eating disorders, body image, female competition, classism, sexual assault, and feminism. As the girls open up about their hopes and dreams, there's also a sense of wanting to belong to something greater than their current selves.
That resonated with Fleit, who lost her hair to alopecia totalis at 18 months and spent years agonizing under wigs while grappling with self-identity. So much so that midway through the process of making the film, she decided to break the fourth wall and share her own experiences with viewers for added depth. She wanted to convey that, despite outward appearances, women are much the same. After all, who doesn't want to feel like they belong and are loved?
"I found myself telling my subjects my own personal story of belonging and it would resonate for all of them," Fleit explains. "At first I was super resistant but as we went along it felt necessary to create the kind of empathy I was hoping for. Like if I stood shoulder-to-shoulder and said, 'I too, wanted to belong. And this is a way that I rushed.'"
What Fleit wasn't expecting in making the documentary was being outed as the filmmaker before the project was complete. Thanks to the power of social media (and one prominent New York Times article), fear spread that the film was trying to take sororities down. False reports that secret microphones in bracelets were being worn inside houses surfaced. One girl was kicked out of rush when a hair elastic tied around her shirt was mistaken for a mic. And the crew had to hire additional security to ensure their safety.
"I had to go to great lengths in order to continue making this film. I felt like my physical safety was in jeopardy," Fleit says. "Because of the power of social media and this rumor, it spread like wildfire. We had no control."
The filmmaker admits it felt "dangerous and stressful and frustrating" because this really was supposed to be a look at what it means to be a young woman right now, told through the lens of the sorority system at the University of Alabama. In the end, Fleit feels as though she did that, and is proud of the results. The resistance only reinforced certain themes.
"It felt so intense and like a real obstacle, but in the end it created the most brilliant metaphor for the true stakes of belonging in this film and in the sorority system," she adds.
Fleit drives that point home in a moment toward the ends of the film, when she is forced to once again don a wig in order to hide her identity and wrap the story.
"It was really hard for me and quite profound," she concludes. "The hardest thing I had to do in my life was take off my wig. And in order to continue filming in Alabama after that rumor, I had to put a wig back on. It was a lot. But it just goes to show the sorority system is powerful."
Bama Rush is now streaming on Max.