Stranger Than Fiction - "The Education of Shelby Knox" - Jan. 20, 2009
The Education of Shelby Knox
Q&A with Marion Lipschutz, Rose Rosenblatt and Shelby Knox
New York, NY
January 20, 2008
(L to R: Hugo Perez, Marion Lipschutz, Shelby Knox, and Rose Rosenblatt. Photo by Brian Geldin.)
Marion Lipschutz’ and Rose Rosenblatt’s 2005 documentary, The Education of Shelby Knox, that centers on then teen Shelby Knox’s advocacy for better sex education programs at her Lubbock, Texas, high school as well as compassion for a gay-straight student alliance, was the second screening of the spring season of Stranger Than Fiction at the IFC Center Tuesday night. Shelby, a teen with a liberal view on life, despite her parents’ conservative background, comes-of-age in this funny and poignant story, that’s told in a verité structure without being preachy. A now grown Knox who lives and works in New York and travels across the country speaking about youth feminism, responded to questions from the audience about the film together with Lipschutz and Rosenblatt. Hugo Perez, who was pinch-hitting for Thom Powers who's currently at Sundance, moderated the discussion. Below are highlights from that discussion.
Perez: (To Shelby) What was it like to be filmed, and four years later looking back at the film, what are your thoughts?
Knox: You know when you hear yourself talking on the answering machine, and you’re like…do I really sound like that? That’s the same experience and I do regret a lot of those outfits…At the time, it didn’t seem all that odd…At 15, you don’t really know what’s normal and abnormal…The really fantastic thing about Rose and Marion and Gary (Griffin, cinematographer) as artists is they included us in the process…They told us everything that was going on and I had a lot of trust in them. I never felt exploited and I never felt really exposed because I really trusted what they were doing. I do think the one way it has affected me is it did make me more introspective at a very young age because you have to think of yourself as I am being looked in the lens of this camera and people are going to judge me. At 15, you’re thinking about how the high school quarterback is going to judge you, but I was thinking about how nationwide audiences were going to judge me…I think I went through all the existential and all of those phases a little before college more than most young people do.
Perez: (To the filmmakers) How did you come to the subject matter of sex education…and how did you meet Shelby?
Rosenblatt: This was an outgrowth of the last film we did called Live Free or Die. It tracked an OB/GYN in New Hampshire who was one of the few OB/GYNs who was doing abortions. He was also teaching sex ed in a local school. The Right to Lifers who had infiltrated the school board went after him and tried to get him kicked off. We tracked that story. We learned very quickly about the sad state of affairs about sex education. Post that film, we thought we’d try to find a place, a town where there was a fight between those parents who wanted better sex ed and those that wanted abstinence. We knew that the federal government was pouring a lot of money through faith-based groups for this abstinence-based program…We thought we would find a town pretty rapidly, but it took us a year. It was a horrible search. There was no such town where one side was against the other…Finally after a year of looking, we got a call from...‘Cowboy’ Fred Ortiz who was in Lubbock, Texas…He heard we were looking for a story…He was the adult advisor of a group of about 36 kids who were trying to advocate for better sex ed and he wanted to get the publicity, so he contacted us…We were pretty desperate for a story…Shelby didn’t present immediately…It’s kind of complicated what happened, but there was a group of other kids who were getting very frustrated with the town because they had been empowered to work on teen issues, but as soon as they wanted to do sex ed, the town started distancing itself from them…Corey (Nicholls) and Shelby kind of came forward and they did this dance around who would become mayor of this Lubbock Youth Commission…Shelby always showed up on time…Shelby’s parents were really into it and saw that she was, so she came forward and we started filming her.
Perez: Can you talk about how outreach and activism has worked into the distribution of the film?
Lipschutz: Very often the films we’re doing are on a political subject…you’re filming activities. You train a camera on an action and you tend to sometimes exaggerate…bring attention to it in ways that either exacerbates or hinder a particular situation. It’s kind of inevitable. You’re there and you’re working with people, so for example if Shelby is doing something with the youth commission and we need to film something, there’s an incentive for Shelby to plan in a certain way to make it better…By now we have a network of people nationally. Whenever you go into a town, one of the things I always do is find who’s going to disagree with us, because we do have a point of view that’s obvious…I usually try to find a reporter, somebody who’s on some kind of political group, find out basically who the players in town are…Then when it’s done, kind of the same thing, but less so. Usually when it’s done, things come to us. At that point, you’re just meeting opportunities.
Audience Question: (To Shelby) Was there a particular moment or event in your life that influence your call to action and advocacy?
Knox: Let me preface this by saying that I think that our culture tells young people to over and over again, yes you can do whatever you want, you can grow up and be president, but your opinion doesn’t matter quite yet. Keep in mind, I was a very good Southern Baptist girl and sort of had that idea, but what I thought wasn’t going to be valid to older people. When (the youth commission) decided to work on sex education, we really decided we wanted to lower the rates of teen pregnancy and STDs. We really didn’t know it had to do with sex education. It wasn’t until we started doing research that we found out what a political issue it was, that the federal government was funneling so much money to abstinence only, that it wasn’t working, that the school district was playing into that. It was very clear to me that the people who were supposed to be taking care of me and standing up for my interests were playing politics with our lives…It wasn’t a particular moment, it was this aggregation of knowledge about how much we were actually being screwed over and that no one was going to stand up for us.
Audience Question: How did you gain the trust of the pastor (Ed Ainsworth) who served as Shelby’s ideological counterpart?
Knox: The Jews that needed to be converted.
Lipschutz: He centered on a mission to convert us.
Knox: He said that their souls were my responsibility; because I might be the only Christian that they ever met, so it was my responsibility as a Christian to save them from burning in hell, and I tried in earnest…it didn’t work.
Lipschutz: Ed also was smitten a little bit with the cameras...We wanted to film a lot more with him than we did. In the end, I think he was a little upset because he thought it was going to be a film about him and Shelby…The worst thing someone can do is to a filmmaker…is say you won’t talk. Most of Lubbock refused to talk to us. To Ed’s credit, he was willing to talk to us.
Perez: Has he seen the film? What was his reaction to it?
Lipschutz: At first he liked it. We usually prep people ahead of time with what’s in the film. When he saw it alone, he actually though it was fair. We got his message out and he wished it hadn’t been told so much from Shelby’s point of view. I think then after he starts getting feedback, you can say what he thinks now.
Rosenblatt: We’re doing a little update. He agreed to be interviewed again. Shelby goes to his house now after all these years and talks to him…He tried to explain that tolerant thing.
Knox: As he got negative media attention, he then started to feel as if he’d been exploited, but the real truth of the matter was he was always there. He was always eager to be there in front of that camera…About the tolerance thing, when I went back, he had started his own church…I asked him about, because we’re looking into using the film to do anti-homophobia trainings in California, I asked him about gay congregants and if gay people came to his church. He said we would tolerate them, we would accept them into the congregation because it is our responsibility as Christians to tell them that they are committing a fatal sin. So I said, you would tolerate them to tell them that they’re going to hell? He said, I wouldn’t put it exactly that way, but they are welcome in order to hear the word of Jesus Christ. His thing about tolerance is basically you tolerate people in order to tell them that they’re wrong. I think in the gay community, that term is whether you’re tolerated or accepted. Now when a lot of people see the film, that term brings up a lot of issues.
Audience Question: How do you consider yourself religiously now?
Know: I consider myself a spiritual person. I would not consider myself a practicing Christian. The reason is I’ve come to a point in my life where I can’t belong to a faith that does not see me as divine. The Christian faith does not see woman as holy and does not see them as equal. While I do believe that Jesus Christ as a historical figure was one of the first community organizers, we can learn a lot from going back to his example. I say now that feminism is my new religion. My fellowship, my spirituality, how I get my energy and give my energy is by speaking to young woman and telling our stories and finding power in our shared experience.