Karine Jean-Pierre
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New Doc Pieces of Us Honors Resilience of Those Who've Survived Hate

Cheryl Allison and Prince Manvendra

Those who’ve endured anti-LGBTQ+ hate are more than victims, more even than survivors — they’re incredibly brave and resilient people, says filmmaker Cheryl Allison, who is honoring them in her latest documentary, Pieces of Us.

“This is a story of hope, this is a story of courage ... no matter how you identify, you can see a piece of yourself in this story,” Allison says. Unlike some other films about hate crimes and other horrific instances of bigotry, Pieces of Us isn’t primarily about those incidents, she says. “This was about what happens afterwards and how you handle it,” she explains.

Victoria Cruz and Mykel Dicus

Victoria Cruz and Mykel Dicus

The film, which will make the festival rounds this fall, tells the stories of multiple subjects. Jipsta is a gay rapper and school psychologist in Brooklyn who was beaten on a New York City subway platform for holding hands with his partner. Leia Pierce is a single mother from Denver whose 9-year-old son, Jamel, took his own life after being bullied for being gay. Mykel Dicus is a gay New York performance artist who was physically attacked in his home by a man he met in a bar. Victoria Cruz is a transgender veteran of the Stonewall riots and longtime activist who was Dicus’s crisis counselor. Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of India, known as the world’s first out gay royal, received death threats after coming out and was initially disowned by his family. The movie shows how all have responded to traumatic events by becoming advocates for their community, and it spotlights other activists and allies as well.

Allison, who is based in Dallas, came to the film through Dicus, who was the thread connecting the other subjects, and executive producer Mark Von Der Heide, who’s worked on Netflix documentaries and the animated series Bob’s Burgers. They were looking for a director and wanted someone from the LGBTQ+ community.

“I was very drawn to the story,” says Allison, a lesbian. “This really hit home for me. This was happening to my community. ... With my filmmaking, I’m always looking for social issues or causes to raise awareness.” Her previous work includes the documentary Shatter the Silence, about sexual violence, rape culture, and the ongoing struggle for gender equality, and the short narrative film Hiding in Daylight, set in a dystopian near future in which being gay has been outlawed.

Prince Manvendra at the Stonewall Inn

The prince at the iconic gay bar

Prince Manvendra, who came out in 2006, wanted to be a part of the film because “it’s always good to talk about these issues,” he says. “Film is a very good medium through which we can express many things. ... If these stories come out on the screen, from the horse’s mouth, as I call it, then it definitely has a very big impact on the minds of the audience, it educates them, removes a lot of misconceptions.”

While India took away some privileges of royals in 1971, members of royal families retain honorary titles and certain civic responsibilities. Prince Manvendra has used his position to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community; he’s establishing a center that will provide shelter for those who are unhoused and will teach them skills so they can be empowered and employed.

“We want them to go back and face the homophobic world with confidence,” he says. He has reconciled with most members of his family and is happily married to deAndre Richardson.

He has been featured in several documentaries, but this is the first one where he has met the other principals. He gathered with the others in New York in June 2019 for WorldPride and the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, and Allison did much of the filming there. “WorldPride gave us an opportunity for all of us to come together and [share] our stories of hope with each other,” the prince says. Then Allison went to Denver in November 2019 and filmed Pierce, had a separate unit shoot footage of the prince in India, where Dicus conducted flag-dancing workshops, and finally filmed Cruz on a beach in New York in March 2020, just before the pandemic forced the shutdown of most public spaces. Editing and post-production of the film occurred during lockdown.

The interview with Pierce was the hardest one of the film, Allison says. “She is really raw and so brave to take me down to [Jamel’s] shrine and read the note he left her,” the director says. Afterward, Allison went back to her hotel room, poured a glass of wine, and cried. But Pierce’s resilience is palpable in the film, as she says she’s dedicated to being her son’s voice.

Leia Pierce

Leia Pierce

While Pieces of Us includes some statistics on hate crimes and news clips about them, it isn’t a story about statistics, Allison says. “This is a human story, a personal story,” she says. There’s new hope for LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. with Joe Biden as president, after four horrific years under Donald Trump, she notes, but much remains to be done; likewise, Prince Manvendra feels India is going in the right direction. Both hope the film can advance the cause of equality worldwide.

“With this film, if people can listen to these stories and hear the humanity in it and start to grasp that we all are the same, then can that hopefully start to spark conversations?” Allison says.

Among the screenings scheduled so far, Pieces of Us will have its mid-Atlantic premiere October 2 at the qFLIX festival in Philadelphia, which has chosen Allison to receive its award for best artistic achievement in directing for a documentary. The movie has also won five Awards of Excellence at the Accolade Global Film Competition, an online contest. Those accolades were for LGBTQ film, direction, original score, original song, and women filmmakers. It will have its Texas premiere September 30 at the Dallas VideoFest, as the opening night attraction. And there will be a screening in India, Allison promises. Watch the trailer below, and check for updates on the film’s official website, Instagram, and Facebook.

Tags: film, Hate Crimes

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