Last week, I shared my thoughts on what I believe is a stellar new documentary about people coming together to fight hatred, Pieces of Us. After putting the piece together, I felt it was important to share the full interviews I did with Cheryl and Mark. I shared some of my favorite answers of theirs in the previous pieces, but the interviews were so insightful that it felt unfair not to share them with the world.
I asked them both the same questions at separate times, so if their answers seem to overlap, that is why. And, as noted above, both shared so much great insight on the process that it felt important to share them in full. So without further ado, I bring to you Cheryl Allison and Mark Von der Heide…
How did this project come about?
Cheryl: I have been friends with lead subject Mykel Dicus for many years. We both met doing theatre in NYC. He approached me with the idea for the documentary and then introduced me to Executive Producer Mark Von der Heide. We had a series of meetings and discussed their goals for the film. Being an out gay woman and activist for my community, I knew it was a project I wanted to do.
Mark: It’s interesting because the genesis of the film really has a similar theme to what you see on screen, people who came into each other’s lives for a purpose. The film was born out of my friendships with Mykel, Jipsta and Sue Sena and Mykel’s connection with Cheryl and the Prince. Mykel is a performer at heart, and he created a one man stage show called “Pieces of Me” to help him heal from his attack. When I heard about his and Jipsta’s experiences, I was struck by how both of them used the arts and music to heal themselves. Some time went by. In 2018 Mykel reached out to Leia, and when he told me that Victoria Cruz had been his crisis counselor and the Prince would be in New York for World Pride, I said someone should make a film about these interconnecting stories. And then it hit me… that someone was me. Mykel brought up Cheryl, who he had met many years before through their shared stage acting careers, so we reached out to her. She had just finished directing two films, a narrative short “Hiding in Daylight” and a documentary,“Shatter the Silence”, both powerful films about important social issues. Watching them, I immediately knew she was the right person to direct this film, and thankfully she said yes!
What inspired each of you to get involved in a spotlight on this important topic?
Cheryl: Despite the progress we have made around the world in advancing gay rights, we still have so much to do. I personally have friends who are survivors of hate crimes and there is much awareness and education that is needed when it comes to discrimination, bullying and hate towards LGBTQ+ people. I hope the film will spark hard conversations and touch the common humanity that we all share.
Mark: I was initially inspired by the courage I saw in Mykel and Jipsta, and then certainly when I met Leia. Speaking out about something so personal and horrific, and healing that open wound in public takes incredible bravery, which is why four out of five hate crimes go unreported. I didn’t have that experience myself, but because I came out late at 32, I understood the power that shame can have over your life – a darkness that can be so overwhelming. And yet Victoria and the Prince each took on an entire country, just asking to be who they really are. It took me a long time to find the courage to live a life true to my authentic self. I wanted to honor these stories that illustrate the reach one voice can have. You never know who needs to hear it, and no matter how dark it may be, there is always light.
How did you meet the subjects features in the documentary? Were there any interviews that were particularly fun or particularly difficult?
Mark: All of this was made possible because the first person I came out to was Sue Sena, who also grew up in Madison, New Jersey. I had moved to Los Angeles to start my life over at 32. On my first visit back, sitting in my mother’s car in a diner parking lot, I told Sue I was gay, and everything changed. I chose her because I instinctively knew there would be no judgment. She smiled and asked, “are you happy”? The weight that was lifted from my shoulders at that moment was unbelievable. It was no longer a secret. Sue created “The Swish Ally Fund” because she didn’t want anyone else to hide their light like I had done. I met Mykel through Sue, and the rest is history.
Cheryl: As mentioned earlier, I knew Mykel Dicus but I met the other subjects of the film through either Mykel or Mark. The subject matter was especially tough so I wanted to create a very safe space for my subjects. I was asking them to recall some very painful memories or events and it was of the utmost importance to me that they felt supported and protected during the filming process. I was very inspired by my interview with Dakota Keys. She is a principal in Brooklyn who is making great change in bringing acceptance, understanding and education for our LGBTQ+ youth. So that was once interview that really gave me hope for our future. My interview with Leia Pierce was an extremely hard interview. She was so brave opening her heart and sharing the devastating emotions from losing her young gay son to suicide from bullying at school. I had a closed set where it was just her and me in a room. She was so brave and trusted me with a very painful and personal story.
What are you hoping people take away most from the film?
Mark: That what unites us as human beings is stronger than what divides us. This is more than an LGBTQ film, it’s a film with a universal message of how courage is contagious, how healing from trauma is possible by choosing love. Very few of us escape trauma, and yet no one teaches us how to deal with it. We hope this film furthers that conversation. Some of the most moving reactions in our festival screenings came from the straight community. Parents who decided to open up to their estranged gay child, adults who were bullied for being different as kids still holding on to that shame, students who were proud of the diversity in their school, teachers who wanted to emulate Dakota and Jipsta’s model of empowering students by teaching from love. Hate is a learned behavior. No one is born with it. We have to remember that.
Cheryl: That from pain and hate love can rise and healing can begin by tapping into that love and helping others. I didn’t want the film to solely focus on hate crimes and statistics. I hope the viewer finishes watching the film with a feeling of hope and being inspired by a group of brave individuals who took their own pain and paid it forward to form a community of healing and change for others.
Any other key highlights about the film, the process, the production, or future projects?
Cheryl: The production shot on location in NYC, Denver and India so it was quite a lot to manage. We finished filming out last interview with the iconic Stonewall riots survivor Victoria Cruz the day before NYC was shut down due to COVID-19. I flew back to my hometown of Dallas early and then the world shut down. I was thankful the filming was completed and I edited the film during COVID. An interesting filming moment was shooting all day at the Stonewall 50th Pride Parade in NYC. Our subjects were all on a float and it was amazing. That day I turned to Mark, our Executive Producer, and said “We have something great and magical with this film.”
Mark: I am developing a limited series called “A Wig and a Prayer” about a hard up straight bartender who takes a job at an LA gay bar and finds himself inexplicably drawn to the drag queen hosting a drag competition. Set in 2004, it’s about the sexual norms and roles society tries to force on us, the many forms love can take, and how two people seeking connection can defy the odds. My husband of ten years is a drag queen, ChaCha. They say write what you know, so I’m taking that advice.