For decades, young gymnasts sought treatment and support from former sports doctor Larry Nassar. But after years of allegations and lawsuits, Nassar was convicted of child pornography charges and multiple sex crimes against athletes under his care.
On Tuesday night, Ivy Film Festival hosted a screening of HBO’s “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal,” released in April, which examines the environment that allowed these actions to go unpunished for so many years while also sharing the stories of survivors.
A panel featuring the film’s producers Steven Ungerleider and David Ulich, activist and survivor Jessica Ann Smith and Visiting Assistant Professor of Education Hillary Levey Friedman followed the screening.
The documentary begins with footage of various gymnasts performing impressive flips and tricks, accompanied by voice-over statements describing the grueling nature of competitive gymnastics. The rigorous culture depicted in the film’s opening has led many young athletes to turn to figures like Nassar, who previously worked at Michigan State University and as a USA Gymnastics team doctor, as a source of support. Throughout the film, featured survivors explain how they were compelled to view the always-smiling Nassar favorably in such an environment.
The documentary emphasizes the failure of individuals and institutions to protect young women and girls from Nassar, who touched patients inappropriately under the guise of treatment. “So many cases were reported before anything was done or anyone was really listened to,” said Grace Attanasio ’21, a director of Ivy Film Festival. “We’re taught to trust the system … and this film brings a lot of (questions) to mind.”
During the panel, Ungerleider and Ulich discussed how the project aims to educate and raise awareness about sexual abuse in youth sports. “Through this film, we can do our small part in increasing awareness,” Ungerleider said, adding that they plan to continue touring the film to further this outreach.
The documentary culminates in Nassar’s trial, during which over 150 women delivered emotional and pointed statements to a packed courtroom. The film makes a point to focus on the survivors rather than their abuser, Ungerleider said. “We wanted to keep the film full of hope because gymnastics is such a beautiful sport,” he added.
Smith, who previously trained as a dancer and sought medical treatment from Nassar, was one of the 12 survivors featured in the film and one of the hundreds who delivered courtroom statements. “My first intention was to read it to (Judge Rosemarie Aquilina); my second intention was to read it to (Nassar),” she said during the panel. “And I realized that the person who really needed to hear it most was myself, and the feeling of standing there … was the start of something therapeutic.”
Smith described how she was initially nervous to see the documentary. But she ultimately appreciated how it highlights the scope of abuse, while maintaining that the institutions surrounding gymnastics can move forward with increased transparency. The film “was therapeutic in itself,” she said.
“One of the most healing things you can have as a survivor is (the feeling that) there’s change happening,” Smith added.
Because of the documentary’s sensitive nature, Ivy Film Festival took care to ensure audience members felt safe before, during and after watching the film, Attanasio said. SHARE advocates were present at the event, and flyers listing campus resources were handed out at the door. “We shouldn’t shy away from giving (this documentary) its airtime and space, but because this is a difficult subject matter, we need to take care of our audience,” Attanasio said.