Byron Hurt’s Hazing, the season opener for PBS’ Independent Lens, offers an evocative precursor to National Hazing Prevention Week, which begins September 19. Equal parts portraiture, confessional, and investigation, at its core, Hurt’s film is also a study on the dangers of silence, and storytelling as a unique antidote to historically sanctioned abuse.
Exploring the deeper cultural implications that both inform and result from hazing, Hurt, a fraternity brother himself, manages to recontextualize brutal images of ritualized paddling, humiliation, and physical and psychological torment. He displays an anchoring commitment to the families and traumas leftover from these rituals.
“When a hazing happens and you just see a headline,” Hurt tells LAMag. “It kind of makes it seem like these people are ‘The Other.’” He was driven to make Hazing, a project he’s been developing for 10 years, as a way of disabling this dangerous illusion of distance, he adds.
Among the survivors and families who Hurt gives a voice in the film are Reverend Patricia Strong-Fargas and Nikki High. Kristin High, Strong-Fargas’ daughter and Nikki’s sister, died in 2002, participating in what Strong-Fargas believes was an Alpha Kappa Alpha hazing ritual on Dockweiler State Beach. Kristin, 22, drowned helping a friend and pledge sister, Kenitha Saafir, who’d been pulled into the water.
Anxious about the film’s debut, Strong-Fargas lives with the burden of reliving Kristin’s death while telling her story. “The world lost something special,” she says of Kristin. “Not just us.”
Alpha Kappa Alpha boasts a number of surprising and powerful alumni—Toni Morrison and Kamala Harris are among them. And according to her family, High’s desire to become an agent of change is partly what motivated her to pledge. This is one of the nuances Hurt explores in Hazing: Deaths by hazing are shrouded in a chorus of victim blaming and secrets. But this should not distract from the fact that the desire to belong is not an unfamiliar one. Probing deep historical wounds, Hurt underscores traditions that are not dissuaded by casualties but, in fact, appear fed by the promise of esteem that especially vicious tactics and behavior can afford. To pledge the hardest, in other words, is to get the most respect.
Recognizing this after Kristin’s death, Strong-Fargas founded Mothers Against Hazing. “This mother, this lady,” she says, “is reaching out to help others.” The work has, perhaps, sharpened her eye. She still remembers sitting in her hair salon, recognizing the signs when a young woman heeded an accompanying pledge sister’s harsh comments on her hair. Strong-Fargas asked them if this was a pledge process. “As soon as I said that, they disappeared.”
Even still, Strong-Fargas lives by the argument that Hazing advances: To be silent is to be complicit. In interviews with both survivors and perpetrators, the film shows spaces where enduring pain becomes a wager on strength and questioning, an act of betrayal.
In their own family, Nikki and Strong-Fargas continue to face the consequences of speaking up. Nikki describes the family member who recently faced hazing when he pledged a fraternity. When Nikki questioned it, she was frustrated by the lack of response. It has led to a small rift that troubles her. Strong-Fargas, meanwhile, details the two family members who also pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha. After Kristin’s death, one family member disavowed the sorority. For the other, “AKA became her God,” she says.
This story is an echo of Hurt’s questions in the film. How and why do these organizations garner such loyalty? What conditions us to pursue legitimacy through violence? And do we really need to survive so much, just to say we are capable of surviving? True to the complexity of these questions, the film affords no singular answer. It does, however, shed light on possibilities. A sobering interview with a pledge brother Hurt admits to hazing, Yvel Joseph, leads to Joseph’s relieved confession that the conversation is the most he’s ever discussed his abuse. “How do we help each other release?” he asks, “How do we help each other cope?” In these questions, there is a quiet implication Just as violence can be communal, so can aid and compassion.
Today, Strong-Fargas “lives in the realm of positivity,” at the same time that she has low expectations she’ll ever know exactly what happened on the night of Kristin’s death. She stands as testimony to Hazing’s rallying cry that victims, as well as their families, are not abstract headlines. To give voice to them, and who they are, is a vital act of resistance.
So who was Kristin High? If you ask Nikki, she will tell you: Kristin was not a weak person. She was beautiful. She was the mother to a young boy who would grow up to become a renowned street artist. “When she stepped into a room,” High says, “she made noise.” Ask Strong-Fargas and she’ll say something similar. Kristin was innovative and creative. She wanted to become a lawyer.
Ultimately, the people who loved Kristin most are left with all of the things she could have become. “She would have made change if she lived,” Strong-Fargas says. “And she will make change now.”
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