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Pieces of Us is a new documentary film from longtime actor turned writer and director Cheryl Allison (Honk) about LGBTQ+ hate crime survivors who took their recovery public to inspire others to do the same.
A global story, Pieces of Us travels from New York to India to reveal the inspirational stories of several survivors. These disparate people stood against hate, becoming unlikely heroes. The stories, like those of transgender activist and Stonewall Riots survivor Victoria Cruz, sparked powerful connections worldwide with other survivors. By speaking their truth, the community strengthens and motivates change.
PopAxiom spoke with Cheryl Allison about becoming a creative professional and making Pieces of Us.
Cheryl’s a longtime performer. “For over 30 years, I’ve performed in primarily musical theatre in New York City and theatres across the country.”
“As many actors do,” the actress, who’s also been on TV in shows like Dallas, says, “I always enjoyed the process behind the scenes. Then, about five years ago, a story fell into my lap that I thought would make a good documentary. So, I decided to tell this story. I formed WOW Films and began making the documentary I’m still filming.”
Soon after, Cheryl “directed my first narrative, a short film called Hiding in Daylight, in 2018. After that, it just sort of snowballed from there.”
“I consider myself a documentarian,” she affirms, “but that’s how that evolved. I still perform and I love being an actress.”
Creating Pieces of Us started even before Cheryl or the film’s primary subject Mykel Dicus were aware. “I’d met Mykel Dicus back in the early 90s. He’s a fellow musical theatre performer. Fast forward to a couple of years ago, and he’s a survivor of a hate crime.”
“So, what he’d done in his recovery and working through years of PTSD … he created a one-man cabaret show called Pieces of Me.” In the show, Mykel talked about the crime, how he survived it, and the process for his healing. “In talking to other survivors, he realized the story was bigger than him. So, he approached me with the idea for this documentary.”
“I loved the fact that the film was going to concentrate on being a survivor,” she declares, “not a victim. How do you heal from such an event, and how do you pay it forward?”
“Mykel had already secured an executive producer for the film called Mark von der Heide,” she says, which is a vital part of any burgeoning film production. “I began to film things in June of 2019, where we filmed at World Pride.”
A narrative film follows a script, though it might change through the process, “the script gives you the template of where the story’s going to go.”
“But with a documentary,” Cheryl adds, “it can go anywhere. You know the main subject of the film. We knew this film was going to deal with LGBTQ+ hate crime survivors. But how do we tell it, and how do we connect all these different stories?”
Mykel was a subject of the film and one of its producers. “The way I approached it, I told Mykel, you’re going to have to trust me and remove yourself from the producing end of it and just be the subject. So let me handle it.”
“I asked our executive producer, can you give me autonomy?” Cheryl continues, “I like to work with autonomy. In a documentary, you have to allow yourself the freedom to let the story unfold how it’s supposed to unfold. You can’t predict things.”
As if written in a script, our call fails right here.
Cheryl returns to discuss further how to let a documentary organically come together. “If you try to squeeze it too tight into some preconceived notion of what the documentary is supposed to be, then you’ll suffocate it. It changes depending on what you get in interviews and through the process.”
Interviews were the first step for Cheryl in making Pieces of Us. “I interviewed amazing people and followed them to World Pride. After about five months of filming, I felt very comfortable that I had everything. But the scary part is going into editing to look at everything. It’s a jigsaw puzzle.”
Pieces of Us took nine months to edit. “It’s like sewing together a film. It’s a process that you have to understand is going to come and give it that breathing room to happen.”
“I always think about editing like a sculptor,” she adds, “Instead of building the movie, we already have everything, and we just need to chip away. That’s what editing is until you see that movie develop.”
“The website has so much information about the film on there.” Cheryl asserts that anyone worldwide can learn more about the film and the stories it documents. “The website I love because you can read about the various survivors in the film.”
Pieces of Us took Cheryl from New York to Pittsburgh to India. “The circle of people involved is international. We have the Prince of India, the only openly gay royal in the world.”
The story of Manvendra Singh Gohil is harrowing and all too common. “… when he came out, his country disowned him. They burned his effigy. His father disowned him. He talks about the process of his healing. Now, his father is accepting. His mother is not. He endured shock therapy while his country tried to ‘make him straight.’”
The story of Pieces of Us is powerful and poignant. It’s a deep dive into the darkest sides of bullying and hate. But the film hopes too that others will stand against such evil. “We have a section of the film that talks about straight allies. We need straight allies.”
Cheryl is a musical theatre performer and enthusiast, so what’s her favorite musical? “That is hard! That’s like choosing a favorite child or pet. I will say I have two that are opposites, but I had the honor of doing them. The first is Les Miserables which is one of my favorites. I saw it when I’d just graduated high school, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life. My other favorite show is Mamma Mia. It’s so much fun.”
“I’m finishing up a documentary about a goose that I rescued during the pandemic. He went viral. He has eighty thousand followers on Instagram. People all over became invested in this goose. His name is Honk.”
Is Pieces of Us on your watch list?
Thanks to Cheryl Allison and Wild Works PR
for making this interview possible.
Find more interviews from Ruben R. Diaz here!
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