At its best, the value of documentary filmmaking allows filmmakers to bring an important subject to light to enact change for the betterment of the world. That’s what makes the documentary feature film Chewed Gum so prescient. It’s a film that follows the personal story of Alana Maiello, who confronts her rape and the conditions of a religious society that chooses to silence the victims of such crimes.
Alana’s story serves as a launching point in the film that opens up to reveal the punishment of sexual assault victims, the failure to convict sexual predators by the Utah legal system, and the lack of resources allocated to sex crimes by politicians.
Chewed Gum Trailer
Watch the trailer for Chewed Gum below to learn more about the film.
Fifteen years after her rape drove her to seek solace in the Mormon Church, filmmaker Alana Maiello returns to Utah to confront her unresolved trauma and to connect with other LDS sexual violence survivors. Discovering a buried epidemic of sexual violence in Utah, she experiences the power of religion to suppress personal truth and faces her own history in the community she left behind.
DocPitch at DocLands
Presented by the California Film Institute (CFI), DocLands designed DocPitch, a program that connects filmmakers to potential funders, distributors, organizations, philanthropists, fellow filmmakers, and future audiences.
The program chooses five finalists for a chance to win the jury award of $40,000 and an audience award of $45,000. Of the finalists is Chewed Gum which is currently in post-production and is pursuing finishing funds in order to complete the film.
Filmmakers Academy sat down with filmmaker Alana Maiello to discuss her latest project. Watch the full interview below!
Chewed Gum is a documentary feature film that blends a variety of elements from a personal and investigative story to follow the trajectory of survivor arcs. Alana notes that she wouldn’t be making the film if she hadn’t experienced it herself because it is so personal and traumatic.
Alana began her freshman year at Brigham Young University (BYU) in 2005 on a golf scholarship. After she was raped at a party the first semester, Alana feared what would happen if she reported it. That’s because BYU has what’s called an Honor Code Office that disciplines students who violate its Mormon Honor Code.
The Honor Code
The rules of the Honor Code include no drinking, no smoking, no parties, no coffee, no tea, men can’t grow beards and no premarital sex. This creates a campus culture where students watch one another and report to the Honor Code Office if someone violates the Honor Code.
However, the Honor Code Office has also disciplined the victims of rape and sexual assault by considering them the same as premarital sex – especially if the victims were breaking other rules such as drinking alcohol. Sexual predators have also used the Honor Code to silence their victims by threatening to report them.
Alana had heard stories of other girls reporting their rapes and getting expelled so she feared if she said anything, she would be punished and it would affect her future. Typically, students should have the Title IX office to report such crimes. But, in the case of BYU, the Title IX office was a stone’s throw away from the Honor Code Office and those who went to Title IX would soon find a case opened with the Honor Code Office.
Alana’s rape occurred at a time that predated the #MeToo movement. Rape and sexual assault weren’t even talked about. Unfortunately, Alana’s experience is common as a large percentage of victims of sexual assault never report it. And in a community where everyone talks about the law of chastity and marriage, like so many others, she had no recourse.
Starting a Filmmaking Journey
It was after Alana finished her short film Esfuerzo and she was shopping it around to make a series centered on wine. For her next project, Alana wanted to explore a deeply personal trauma that she suffered as a student at BYU, a university that also taught that if a woman had sex before marriage, she was worthless, like a piece of chewed gum. This would later embody the film and serve as its title of Chewed Gum.
Around this time, other women from BYU had come forward to the media and were featured in The New York Times for being expelled for their own rapes. Now, Alana needed to learn how to make an independent film on a small budget under half a million dollars. Previously, she had made a short film where production took all of four days. Now, she would hop in and out of production for nearly four years. And when she wasn’t filming, she discovered how to raise money as an unknown director. Even though she encountered many obstacles along the way, her passion for the project kept her motivated. She needed the closure that she was deprived of all those years ago.
The Approach to Chewed Gum
Many docu-film procedures can feel extractive where filmmakers go into a community and want to make a story. Whether they have good intentions or not, this could have negative effects if they don’t have a personal stake or experience in the subject matter. That’s how people get hurt – especially when working with survivors. It’s very important to keep yourself very open and patient with survivors and to also prepare an impact program since there is still a lot of unresolved trauma.
When Alana reached out to survivors, she did so via email or phone calls and she first shared her own story. She wanted them to understand why she was making the film in the first place. It’s important to be very open with your story to let the survivors know that they, too, can be open.
“I feel like that’s where our trust kind of began,” says Alana, “and we had that same shared experience… we wanted to connect with each other because we had been so alone.”
There were times when Alana didn’t even feel that she was making a film. Upon meeting the women, they taught her how to heal from her own experience. Alana went in with the mindset that she would hear them out but she quickly realized that they were a different kind of interview that required both sensitivity and patience.
“I can’t always know what’s in their head, Alana explains, “So, I would ask questions like, ‘How are you feeling?’ And trying to make them feel as comfortable as possible. And I think it’s really important to even ask those questions. ‘Are you comfortable sharing this, and if you’re not, that’s okay, you don’t have to.’”
Bringing survivors together
While hearing the stories from other victims in Utah, and what they encountered with their sexual assaults, along with the disciplining by bishops and church leaders, Alana witnessed how destructive it was to their lives. However, it was incredible for Alana because she also saw that they went through the same thing she had. They, too, didn’t know how to talk about it and froze during their assaults, and couldn’t fight off their predators like Mormon doctrine demands. Then, they felt bad about themselves as if they sinned by being raped.
However, Alana then talks to a detective who explains that most victims of sexual assault freeze. There’s an inherent act of freeze or flight. While meeting experts in sex crimes along with attorneys, they further contextualize the science behind what transpires during such an encounter. Then, Alana connects the dots to see why sex crimes are so prevalent in Utah.
Filming Chewed Gum
The DP of Chewed Gum, Brendan Sweeney, wanted to go in with as small a footprint as possible. When you’re working with people who are not used to being on camera, you have a short window to work within. The last thing you need is to take too much time lighting the room. This approach helped define their lighting package. This was discovered in real-time after initially going into a shooting block with too much equipment and too large of a crew.
“Then we realized when we got in some of these situations, wait, we can’t do this,” explains Brendan. “We’re being way too disruptive. We’re being way too overbearing with our footprint. And we had to dial it back significantly.”
They ended up using a Light Mat 8, which is a larger source along with some diff. Then, they would set up a camera, find windows, and use practical lights to their advantage, while shooting during the day. Although, there were times when they had to shoot at night. Another tactic that was used was that they would invite interviewees to a third-party location and prelight the area.
Alana told Brendan that above all else technically, she wanted the film to feel cinematic while also feeling personal. They shot with two RED Weapon Dragons on their first collaboration (Esfuerzo), and that’s what they started with on Chewed Gum. Alana wanted nice, sharp lenses and they did a little lens test. They ended up using the Leica Summicron-C Primes, Fujinon Cabrio Zooms, and Angenieux EZ Zooms.
The look of Chewed Gum
Utah itself is full of breathtaking landscapes and there’s a vibe that’s very unique. It’s a rich land with the Red Rock desert, scenic mountainscapes, and lush forests. Now, contrast this together with a community full of hyper-religious conservatism and you have an interesting image on the screen. They used the RED Gemini to artistically capture the temples and landscapes.
Verite filmmaking was also another large aspect of Chewed Gum. This is in part an investigative film, after all. They captured in-the-moment scenes with journalists and survivor advocates. This helps convey the journey that you’re on and brings the audience into the experience.
Chewed Gum Post-Production
For Alana, the post-production process is the most enlightening form of documentary storytelling. When preparing for documentary production, you can do as much research as possible, like collecting all of the data to interview a journalist or an attorney. Then, you go and ask them your questions and hear their answers. But in post-production, you need to find the story and figure out how to tell the story in the most efficient and cinematic way possible since you roughly have 90 minutes.
There was so much information that Alana wanted to convey at the beginning of post-production but then realized that she was making a 10-hour movie. So, what she learned the most throughout post-production was figuring out the most central moments of the footage that tell the most powerful story. Then, you have to create a character journey for your audience. It’s taken many iterations.
Writing the film in post-production
While connecting with numerous filmmakers, Alana realized that you write documentaries in post-production. In many ways, the editor is the writer. This is the case because the filmmakers go and capture all of the footage, and don’t really know what they will get until after production. Then, you take the best moments and place them in an order that makes sense for a story and discover themes and deeper emotions, and character arcs.
Before the pandemic, Alana didn’t edit at all. But throughout the pandemic, she read editing books to understand the language and then got her hands on the footage and made hard decisions. Through the post-production process, Alana learned the value of studying other films and how to tell a story without words. They had captured so much beautiful cinematography in Utah and she grappled with how to use it for nearly two years. She needed to figure out how to leverage the cinematography in a visually poetic way that conveys both sexual violence and trauma.
On Being LDS (Mormon)
Alana was baptized after her rape because the missionaries told her that it would make her pure again. She remained Mormon for the following eight years where she was a dedicated member of the LDS church. She taught at the Mormon Training Center (MTC) and was herself a missionary in the Philippines for a year and a half. Then, following graduation, she was instructed by her bishop to remain in Utah in order to find a Mormon husband.
That’s when she started a career in finance at Goldman Sachs. However, this also created a hinge point where she traveled to New York City for work. While there, Alana saw that women could exist beyond the confines of a housewife. Drawn to the Guggenheim, Alana discovered a creative desire within herself she never before knew possible – such ideas were nowhere to be found in Utah.
“This film is not about disparaging the LDS community…”
Overall, Alana loved her Mormon congregations. They were very social and full of friends and incredible people. It’s not Chewed Gum’s intention to disparage the LDS community. Rather, the film serves as a way to help fix a terrible problem that Utah ignored for far too long.
Just like her own rape, which went unresolved for years, her trauma eventually began to surface once more. While in church, she began to think beyond what church leaders instructed her. Then, in 2015, when the church officially recognized that Joseph Smith had 40 wives, she became even more uncomfortable. For years they denied this fact, so if they were willing to overlook the truth in that instance, what else were they willing to do for self-preservation?
“I realized,” says Alana “I’ve been living for the last eight years ignoring my intuition, ignoring my personality, ignoring my rape, and I can’t live like that anymore, because it’s hurting me. And so that’s when I decided, I was like, I have to learn how to make the next step, and I just have to do it. I started hiking in Utah, I started going to movies on Sunday instead of going to church – reading books and opening my mind again. It was an incredible journey to leave.”
Director Alana Maiello first started in the film industry working for HBO for their exclusive docu-series The Defiant Ones. She continues to work in production management for HBO Max, where she works behind the scenes, capturing interviews with amazing talent on such projects as Westworld, The Flight Attendant, and Insecure. According to Alana, there’s no better way outside of Filmmakers Academy to learn than being on set with exceptional filmmakers and learning about them and their journeys to reach success.
Before her career in the film industry, Alana worked in finance at Goldman Sachs. However, when she left the Mormon faith and Utah altogether in 2016, she returned to California to heal from her trauma. According to Alana, she’s grateful for her time at Goldman as it gave her the producing skills that she would need to be successful in the film industry.
She knew that she had to share her story because there were so many others who didn’t have the same opportunity to leave Utah or confront its problem with sex crimes. Although, at first she didn’t know what medium would be best to reach as many people as possible. But, ultimately, she discovered her love of documentary filmmaking and realized it would be best to get as many people as possible on the record in an audio/visual format.
When she met a producer at HBO, her entire trajectory changed forever. Soon after, she met the Hurlbuts and joined Filmmakers Academy.
The Bottom Line
After a journey of four years of planning, filming, and working on the film in post, Chewed Gum is close to completion. But, it just needs the finishing funds necessary to bring it to the finish line. The funds will help with hiring an editor and colorist to polish the film, as well as hire a composer to score it.
Vote for Chewed Gum at the DocPitch competition, so they can win the audience award and complete the film. The voting period is between April 29th and May 8th.
Vote at DocLands
We also asked Alana to share some advice for filmmakers pursuing their own independent films. She recommends keeping open-minded and flexible, finding collaborators (because it’s not a solo journey), and standing up for yourself and your vision. Don’t be afraid of failure because once you fail, that’s an opportunity to grow from your mistakes. You don’t need ten feature scripts written to become a filmmaker, you need to go out and film something. She also recommends surrounding yourself with creative people. According to Alana, the best way to do that is to join Filmmakers Academy, Facebook groups, and constantly interact with others in the industry, or who want to tell a story and learn together.
Silence is one of the major themes of this film. So, if you’ve experienced something dark, please speak up. People typically don’t speak up for fear of their safety and how others will judge them. Sometimes you have to go into the shadows to emerge and create something beautiful. Overall, from her experience until now, it’s been a 16-year journey. There were so many years when Alana kept silent and didn’t know how to talk about her rape,
Alana hopes that the audience will follow her on this journey and see the humanity, transcendence, and growth that can happen. This goes beyond Mormonism and reaches our entire culture.
“There’s a lot of love for the Mormon church inside of me and there’s also a desire for accountability,” says Alana, “and I think both of those things can live together. I’m hoping that that’s what people gather from this film.”