'Bama Rush' Director Talks Alleged Threats Surrounding Doc: 'Access Was Challenging' (Exclusive)
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Warning: The following contains minor spoilers for Bama Rush, available on Max.
Bama Rush documentary director Rachel Fleit originally began work on her University of Alabama sorority documentary because she wanted to study what it meant to be a young woman today. By the time she was done, her answer was punctuated with something far more sinister than what she originally predicted.
Fleit and her team faced an onslaught of rumors about their filming practices, she told ET, which culminated in alleged threats that necessitated a security detail and led to one participant cutting off contact from the documentary.
"It felt really scary, honestly," Fleit said. "My intention was to tell the story of what it means to be a young woman right now, and the backlash was intense."
Known as #BamaRush to its TikTok followers, the University of Alabama's cutthroat greek life recruitment process first went viral across social media in August 2021, when users around the globe found themselves mysteriously captivated with the social schedules and daily outfit announcements of Alabama students in pursuit of sorority bid day success.
"It became like a sport," Fleit recalled. "And why do we watch sports so much? Because it helps be a part of a community and we want to cheer for people and for people to win."
She's right: when rush week began again in 2022, one TikTok user told their followers, "This is my Super Bowl."
In the documentary, one subject also affirms the comparison. "I definitely think it's a sport," she says.
Bama Rush follows four students in their preparations to rush for the 2022-23 academic year. Finding women willing to speak on camera, though, was Fleit's first bump in the road.
Fleit told ET she reached out to hundreds of young women, both high school seniors and active college students, most of whom said no, citing codes of conduct prohibiting their participation.
"The participation access was challenging," Fleit said. "Hundreds of women told us they weren't allowed to participate, that it was against the rules."
Fleit also struggled to get footage outside the sorority houses in Alabama, and the doc includes sound bytes of women asking her to stop filming. Her team was never allowed inside the houses.
After a long search, Fleit and her team did find a group of students who trusted her vision, and Fleit began conducting interviews, always in sanctioned spaces, often in the women's family homes.
"We were talking about what it means to be a young woman," Fleit said. "We were talking about eating disorders, we were talking about sexual assault, we were talking about trauma, we were talking about unprocessed grief, really hard-hitting subjects, and then also this desire to belong."
Midway through her interviews, a rumor surfaced on TikTok that Fleit was paying women to attend rush while secretly recording them. The claim, Fleit said, "spread like wildfire." Soon, the New York Times wrote a piece about the documentary, naming Fleit and leading to concerns for her physical safety and the documentary's future.
"That was the biggest blowback," she recalled. "To gain the trust of my subjects and then to have this [rumor] be swirling during the pinnacle of our filming." Shirts reading "F the Documentary" began to sell online -- Fleit says they're still available for purchase on Instagram today.
"It felt violent," Fleit said. "The system was very angry about this film being made."
Eventually, Vice Studios hired a security detail for the team, but the added protection was not a panacea. Around the same time, one of Fleit's documentary subjects, Shelby Rose, ceased contact with the documentary's team.
"To me, it's just like the ultimate symbol of how powerful the sorority system is, and how high the stakes are for belonging," Fleit said of Shelby's departure.
Shortly after the film's trailer release, Shelby posted a video to TikTok offering her own perspective on the documentary, telling her followers she filmed interviews with Fleit before arriving on UA's campus, but dropped out before beginning the rush process.
"What they were doing did not align with my morals and values and it made me very uncomfortable," Shelby said. She did not specify what the documentary was doing to make her uncomfortable, but added that she does "not agree with any of the negative things said about anything to do with the University of Alabama campus as a whole, and the UA Panhellenic Association."
Fleit said she had seen Shelby's video, but that she wishes her all the best. "I hope when she sees the film she'll see that my original intention remained intact, which was to tell the story of these young women going through the sorority system," Fleit said.
Despite the obstacles, Fleit remained steadfast in her conviction to finish the project. "I feel so proud of this movie," she said. "I'm a documentary filmmaker, committed to the truth, and I needed to tell the full story of the sorority system at the University of Alabama, which includes some things that I think maybe just need some improvement or just a closer look at."
"What I learned in the film is that every one of these young women are struggling with the way they look," Fleit said. "These young women are dealing with so many of the things I was dealing with in the 90s." The realization was, to her, simultaneously shocking and not surprising. "I was worried about them," she said.
"The good thing about the system is the sisterhood," she continued. "They take care of each other, even outside of the sisterhood. Female friends help each other and support each other, and we watched some friendships fail in the end, and some people move on, but everybody found their place no matter what it was."
The Bama Rush documentary is now available to stream on Max.
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