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Bama Rush Director Reveals How She Overcame 'Resistance' From Sororities and 'The Machine'

Rachel Fleit opens up about the "high stakes" of filming a documentary about a notoriously private, inaccessible process.
  • Sorority recruitment at the University of Alabama; Bama Rush director Rachel Fleit (Photos: Max/Michele Robertson Company)
    Sorority recruitment at the University of Alabama; Bama Rush director Rachel Fleit (Photos: Max/Michele Robertson Company)

    For a variety of reasons, Bama Rush could never actually document sorority recruitment. Directed by Rachel Fleit (Introducing, Selma Blair), Max's new documentary centers on a group of young women preparing for rush at the University of Alabama in August 2022, one year after "Bama Rush" became a viral sensation on TikTok. Fleit followed the "potential new members" — two already enrolled at Alabama, and two seniors in high school — for 10 months as they picked out perfect outfits, polished their resumes, and mentally prepared for the grueling experience of finding their sisterhood, but when it came time for the doors of each sorority house to open, the cameras were shut out. One subject, Shelby, even stopped filming after false rumors emerged on social media (and were later publicized by the New York Times) about producers surreptitiously recording inside houses during recruitment events.

    The controversy wasn't the first time Fleit encountered opposition during production on Bama Rush. Producers contacted over 500 young women involved in Greek life at Alabama, but were repeatedly told that participating in the documentary would violate their sorority's rules. As a former member of a sorority at a large university in the South, this didn't surprise me: I saw firsthand how the organization put its reputation above the wellbeing of its members and the many ways "tradition" was used as a guise to strip women of their individuality.

    Despite the hesitancy from potential subjects, a hostile university administration (and an underground political organization known as "the Machine"), an online rumor mill run amok, and concerns for the crew's physical safety, Fleit accomplished her goal of exploring what it means to be a young woman today. Bama Rush may be less about the actual sorority recruitment experience than she envisioned — "In my ideal world, the sororities were just going to open up their doors," she says — but it makes for an intimate look at what it means to belong, and why we crave that sense of security even when it proves harmful.

    In an interview with Primetimer, Fleit discusses the immense "resistance" she faced throughout the process, the bond she developed with her subjects, and why she chose to open up about her experience with Alopecia in Bama Rush.

    What drew you to Alabama Rush as a potential documentary subject? Were you familiar with Greek life and the process of sorority recruitment before it went viral on TikTok in 2021?

    Interestingly enough, I had the inspiration to make a documentary about Greek life all the way back in 2018 because of the #MeToo movement, and I just started to think about what it was like at these institutions during this cultural moment. I did some preliminary research, and then I got swept into my next documentary, so I had to put it on the shelf. But once my other film about Selma Blair was completed, I started having a lot of meetings and production companies would say, "Rachel, what's next?" So I picked up my Greek life documentary idea off the shelf and I said, "I'd still love to make this documentary."

    I personally was not in the system. I went to a liberal arts school in upstate New York; I was a theater major. But I was always fascinated by these young women and by fraternities and sororities, and I always felt in my heart that there was so much more there than what we saw in mainstream media. So I had a meeting with Vice Studios about this, and they were like, "We love this idea!" and I was like, "Okay, well let's talk about it more." And then serendipitously, almost one month later, there was this viral sensation on TikTok at the University of Alabama. It just felt like, why don't we go to Alabama and pull back the curtain on these TikToks and make this documentary?

    I had always had the sense that I was going to learn so much about young womanhood by taking a deep dive into the sorority system, and Alabama just felt like the right place to do it. I'm very much a present tense, vérité documentary filmmaker, and an overview felt less interesting to me than going straight to one institution and taking a magnifying glass to it.

    When you conceived of the film, what did you envision? Because I imagine the final product is slightly different than what you had in mind, given the pushback from the university, the sororities, and many students.

    I set out to make a documentary about what it means to be a young woman right now. That really was my intention the whole way through. And you saw, I felt like I appeared different to these young women as I was growing up and even into adulthood. I've always felt like, underneath the hood of the car, we're all the same. So I really went out with that spirit of, I want to talk to these young women and I want to see how we're similar. I had a sense that we all really just want to belong, and this is how some people do it.

    But right upon arrival in Tuscaloosa, I felt resistance. We contacted over 500 young women. Some of them would not even respond, and then others would say, "I'm so sorry, I'm not allowed to speak to you. It's against the rules."

    That's not surprising to me, as someone who was responsible for writing my sorority's code of conduct [when I served on the executive council].

    I kept on stressing, "I really just want to look at what it's like to be a young woman right now, particularly through this lens of the sorority system at the University of Alabama." I met a lot of resistance, but there were these really wonderful young women who understood my vision and felt compelled to tell their story, and I'm so proud of their participation in the documentary. The resistance was difficult, you know? But making a movie is not easy, and I think it just spoke to the stakes of the belonging, the resistance that I experienced, and that the entire film crew experienced.

    What was it like for your team on a day-to-day level in Tuscaloosa?

    For the first nine months of making this film, we had a very small crew, and we had these intimate filming sessions with the young women in the film. We had a very small footprint. I was just really wanting to understand, what are these young women up against?

    Once we got down to Tuscaloosa, this rumor that we were up to surreptitious filmmaking exploded like wildfire. On top of that, the New York Times article, in which I'm named, and my presence, and the film's presence, became actually kind of dangerous. My producers had to send down security for me. It was intense. But again, it goes back to this institution that's so strong and powerful and then underneath all of that, which is why I feel so proud of the film we made, are these stakes for belonging. The idea – a young woman got kicked out of rush for wearing a black hair tie on the back of her T-shirt! My film crew was on high alert because we were a little bit, or a lot, afraid for our physical safety because the backlash felt so strong. But then these young women were also on high alert during rush, accusing this girl of being mic'd. So it got [to be] very high stakes.

    Did you attempt to reach out to the girl who was kicked out for the hair tie? I don't really know how you can mistake a hair tie for a mic pack.

    We didn't, you know? We didn't reach out to her. I felt so terrible for her; I hope that this film allows the world to see that she wasn't doing anything wrong. But we didn't really want to add fuel to that fire, because that wasn't the film we were making. We were really focused on our subjects who were actually going through this process.

    It's hard because you don't want to open yourself up to a lawsuit, but did you discuss how to get more of a glimpse of what goes on in the sorority houses during rush?

    Yeah, in my ideal world, the sororities were just going to open up their doors and we were all going to just talk about belonging and what's so wonderful about the sorority system and what needs improvement, and all of that. But whenever I tried, the door was shut. And that's too bad — I would have loved to have that kind of participation. It would have been exciting. But the lack of access also tells you a lot about the system, right? But yeah, we didn't break in, as we were accused of.

    Because of my background, I was immediately concerned about the repercussions for women like Rian, who discussed the microaggressions she experienced as a Sigma Kappa, the sorority I was in at Clemson University. Have you heard from any of the girls since wrapping production? How are they doing in the face of all this?

    I'm in regular contact with mostly all of my subjects. All of them – the ones that I'm in contact with are having a really positive experience. There are some that received some resistance, but they're maintaining a positive attitude.

    I hope that once people see the film, they see it's so much more than they imagined it could be. I understand the fear and insecurity because of negative portrayals of sororities in the past, and the Greek system in general, that this could be something that could potentially harm the tradition, but my subjects – I absolutely have checked in on them. They definitely have been in contact with me. We formed quite a bond.

    It really comes though.

    I'm so glad. I care deeply for these young women. And as you saw in the film, Rian had her own experiences, yet in the end, she said that thing about, "I hope I can join an alumni chapter. I hope they'll have me." She's phenomenal. I also just feel like the sorority experience is so individual, right? You saw the impact of Isabelle, who had such a difficult time right before rush, like a really traumatic time, and you saw the way that her sisterhood just transforms her experience. She feels so held and she feels like she found the place where she belongs, and then you look at a subject like Holliday, who, it's not been great at all for her. She gets kicked out for something so minor. [Holliday received a bid from Delta Zeta in 2021, but was dropped for wearing another sorority's sticker.]

    I was having traumatic flashbacks about the sticker.

    The sticker! She had to repeat it. I was like, "For a sticker?!"

    But she's had a really difficult time. That whole thing and the proverbial blacklisting. But again, this is part of becoming an adult and growing up and womanhood. She's finding her way, and it happens to be [outside] of the Greek system, she's finding her way somewhere else.

    About 25 minutes into the film, you reveal your own "rush" experience of trying to fit in as a young woman with Alopecia. At what point did you decide to infuse your story within the larger narrative about recruitment? Was it difficult for you to relive those moments?

    My integration in the film was really challenging, but then it just became so clear that it was absolutely necessary. What happened was, in getting to know my subjects and being in this moment – college was so seminal for me, and it was such a huge part of becoming who I am. I kept on telling my subjects my own story of college and my own story of belonging, and around January 2022, my editor said to me, "Rachel, I think your story needs to be in this film." And I was like, "What?!"

    I resisted it at first, but then it became so clear to me that in order to show the audience the kind of empathy that these young women deserved, I had to stand side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, and say, "I, too, really wanted to belong, and this was the way I did it." And you know what? It was emotional to tell that story, but it was also profound for me. Just in the film coming out, I got to say to my subjects, "I, too, am in this film. I'm standing with you and telling my truth." That's what I'm committed to. I'm a documentary filmmaker, so the truth is what's important to me.

    They were so brave, and I'm so proud of my subjects for being so vulnerable, and I was like, "You know what? I can do this, too, with them." My goal is ultimately that everyone, regardless of if you were in the Greek system, you're just a human being on this planet. This rush experience – you can look at it and say, "Ooh, what's the way that I 'rushed?'" This is just one way that people find themselves and find belonging. We all have our own "rush" experience.

    Do you feel as if your vulnerability pushed your subjects to go to a deeper level? After you open up, there's a shift in the way they tell their own stories, like Holliday talking about how she was drugged, but saying, "I don't want to press charges. I've already been through that legal battle."

    It's interesting, with the kinds of documentaries I make and the ones I'm interested in, you really do get to know each other. And it all goes back to this idea of "the truth." I walk around without this wig on, I have for the past 20-something years, and I think that experience – I'm embodying, physically, the truth. I'm not hiding who I am. I can't because it's too painful to hide who I am. It was really a bummer wearing that wig for so many years.

    We filmed these young women for many, many days. Over the course of our filming, we really created a bond. You have a trust between you, documentary director and documentary participant. It allowed for a safe place for them to be vulnerable and be honest. I do think you're right. We wanted to present, obviously, the viral sensation at the start of the film, and to me, my intention was always, "Who are these young women behind the TikToks? How do we pull back the curtain?" Because everybody has their truth at their gooey molten core. And I wanted to reveal that and share that with the world. My hope is, in my last film and in this one, the truth will set you free, and the truth will inspire others to do the same.

    Greek life, as an institution, is designed to be difficult to penetrate — and that's without something like the Machine pulling the strings. Do you think this documentary will lead to a world where there's greater transparency and tolerance among the chapters and their national organizations?

    My hope is that this film will inspire some of these organizations to really take a deep look at themselves and their practices. We all can find ways to improve ourselves and be better in the world, individuals or institutions. I don't know. My hope is that it will change and people will become transparent.

    It's going to be a long process, whatever happens.

    Right, it's a long, long process. It's definitely something that could change — it would be amazing if it did.

    Something that Rian talks about at the end of the film that really stuck out for me, and it's obviously why it's in the film, is [a sorority] caring about the individuality of its members. As somebody who couldn't possibly look like all the other girls, and who wore a wig in order to try and look like the other girls, and now I'm not somebody who looks like the other girls and I celebrate my individuality, that's my wish and hope. Even if everybody wants the exact same look, it's like, can we celebrate our differences and can we celebrate individuality a little bit more? And can we also still belong?

    This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

    Bama Rush is now streaming on Max.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Bama Rush, HBO Max, Rachel Fleit