Educational and Artistic Background
I am a current graduate student receiving my Master of Science in Public Interest Media and Communications with a graduate certificate in Digital Video Production. I received my bachelor’s degree from Florida State as well in 2021 in Media and Communication Studies with minors in Film Studies and English. During my undergraduate years, I took production courses such as Media Techniques and TV Interviewing and Hosting in the School of Communication. As a final project for Media Techniques, I worked alongside my group to create the short film “Love-Hate.” This was the first time I had worked alongside a group to create a short film from start to finish. With TV Interviewing and Hosting, I worked alone as a multi-media journalist to create three short video news stories about a topic of my choosing. After pitching these ideas in class, I scheduled and shot interviews with appropriate and creative b-roll. I then edited these stories myself and wrote a corresponding two-column script. This class not only let me execute more technical skills, but also management skills. My first news package required sending a cold email to FSU’s International Programs to ask for an interview about sending students abroad in Fall of 2020. This highly sensitive topic required me to interview multiple sides of this issue. This project encouraged me to break out of my comfort zone and gave me the freedom to respectfully ask tough questions.
For my undergraduate minor, I took five film classes across multiple departments. Certain Film Studies courses such as Film Genres allowed me to create a video for my final project. Titled Falling in Film Noir, this mock trailer poked at film noir troupes and conventions to demonstrate my knowledge of the genre. I produced, wrote, directed, and edited the entire project by myself. I cast my friends and family as actors, as well as shot in their apartments. Although I did not learn how to use Adobe Premiere Pro until two years later, I felt comfortable enough with trailer conventions to edit the project in iMovie. This project gave me insight into how to produce my work on a limited budget from pre-production to distribution.
During my time in graduate school, I have taken production classes such as Foundations of Digital Video, Advanced Post-Production, and Documenting the Past. For Foundations of Digital Video, I worked alongside three classmates to create a public interest media piece for the local non-profit the Council on Culture and Arts (COCA). This project allowed me to become comfortable using a camcorder, audio equipment, lighting equipment, and Premiere Pro. Though I had some difficulties working with a team member, I ultimately learned how I can better handle a situation like that in the future. My biggest project to date is producing and directing a short documentary about the well-known jazz artists Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and Nat Adderley for Documenting the Past. From scheduling interviews to arranging archival materials, I am applying the same skills learned while producing my previous projects. I am also serving as Director while my two classmates are serving as the Director of Photography and Editor. I serve as the first point of contact with subjects, which helps build comfort with them before they are in front of the camera. This project further allows me to grow with time management and collaboration while giving me and my team lots of creative freedom.
Outside of the classroom, I have worked on a wide variety of independent films in Tallahassee. For the past four years, I acted in a variety of films and series with the FSU Film School, Alignment Entertainment, and CBF Media. This past summer, I started to take on positions that put me behind the camera instead of in front of it. While I had wanted to join a crew on an independent film set sooner, I had reservations about the process since I felt that I lacked a lot of technical understanding. Foundations of Digital Media let me feel more comfortable behind the camera in the classroom. I started as a production assistant and script supervisor for The Well. I then continued as a script supervisor for other short films like Amber’s Ghost and You’re Out of Post-It Notes. While script supervision is uncommon (if not unheard of) in documentary filmmaking, note-taking and organizational skills are transferable across genres. Aside from staying continuity-focused, it also prepared me for thinking holistically. This role helps me to consider choices that will be made in post-production before even wrapping up production. Being detail-oriented helps my editing and keeps me mindful of the intentional choices I make in post-production. This semester is the first semester that I started applying these learned skills to my filmmaking process.
I would like to produce a documentary about the dangers and impacts of Florida book bans, specifically citing the 2022 Florida Legislative Session House Bills 1467 and 1557. HB 1467 sets term limits for school board members but also increases the level of involvement non-media specialists can involve themselves with when it comes to library materials. Schools are required to be upfront with parents about the instructional materials that they give students access to. This bill was passed in the same session as the notorious HB 1557 Parental Rights in Education Bill, also known as the Don’t Say Gay bill. Some cite that this bill allows parents more say in their children’s education, but HB 1557 also paves the way for students to be outed if they disclose their sexuality at school while not being out of the closet at home. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill is extremely dangerous to LGBTQ+ youth, especially if they would be unsafe if they came out. However, HB 1467 is dangerous in other ways. The bill bans “pornographic” materials from school settings. While this statement itself is not controversial, the lack of definition of what constitutes "pornographic” makes this bill confusing. Some books such as A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas depict explicit sex scenes. Others such as the graphic novel Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe express gender orientation while also depicting nudity and sexual acts. However, some books being banned in certain counties are aimed at children and do not include this content. I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings is about a transgender child and its target audience is children 4-8 years old. Jazz Jennings is a well-known Youtuber and TLC star that is openly transgender. This book recalls Jennings’s journey and explains what it is like to be transgender for a low reading level. The story follows the main protagonist ultimately being supported by her family and friends. There are no explicit sex scenes or nudity. This book depicts an experience that transgender people go through in order to educate young people on what it means to be transgender. Yet, this book is being banned in certain schools for being “inappropriate for children” despite being written for that age group.
While the Leon County Public Library system vocally disagrees with this type of legislation, other counties throughout Florida do not. Brevard, Flagler, Osceola, Pinellas, Polk, Volusia, and Walton counties have either called for or removed certain books from their school libraries. Polk County groups submitted I Am Jazz for review, stating that this book and others on the list “are age inappropriate and hypersexualize children, violating numerous Florida Statutes” (Thomas, 2022). Groups such as Moms for Liberty and Florida Citizens Alliance have been the most vocal in the calls to restrict access to certain books. Even though the 2022 legislative session is over, these calls are far from over. Keith Flaugh, the co-founder of the Florida Citizens Alliance, said, “we’ll be continuing to work in the legislative cycle to get some teeth in that [legislation]” (Ross and Wong, 2022). Flaugh also disagrees with the word “ban,” but prefers the term “prohibit” due to the incendiary nature of the word “ban” (Thomas, 2022). Though no new legislation has been filed at the state level, there is still time for bill authors and sponsors to file for the 2023 legislative session. School book bans are far from over.
To better understand the current situation, it is important to look at book bans in the throughout the history of the United States. The pamphlet The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption by William Pynchon was the first case in 1650 after being banned for religious heresy (Blakemore, 2022). This was the first instance of a book ban in the United States, but before the First Amendment was signed into law. After Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852, southern plantation owners fought to ban it due to its anti-slavery rhetoric. By exposing the horrendous conditions of slavery, author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book threatened rich plantation owners’ income. Therefore, they struck back. This book ban became so severe that even owning a copy of the book was a jail sentence. Later, during the Reconstruction era, books that were considered “obscene or immoral” were criminalized (Blakemore, 2022). While Uncle Tom’s Cabin was banned for its negative depiction of slavery, books discussing contraception and sexuality were banned for their positive depictions. This heavily drew on Christian beliefs to justify banning these “inappropriate” books. However, this caused some serious repercussions to women’s health and safety since “infant mortality and maternal mortality were rampant” and such matters were not talked about in person (Blakemore, 2020). This really demonstrates how book bans have not truly changed. Many people in power now use their position when they feel threatened to ban books they do not like and cite religious and moral reasons to do so.
The most important piece of this legal history is Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico in 1982. Five students complained after nine books were removed from their high school library and only two were returned. Though the committee in charge of reviewing the books allowed for five books to be returned, the school board took it upon itself to only allow two. Books like Slaughterhouse-Five and Best Short Stories of Negro Writers were called “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy” by the Island Trees Board of Education in New York (Oyez, 2022). The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court after battles in the lower courts. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court case ruled that “local school boards may not remove books from school libraries because they dislike the ideas contained in those books” (Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, 1982). This ruling supported students and limited the power of the school board regarding reading materials by citing students’ First Amendment rights. This is the biggest and only Supreme Court case regarding book bans in schools. I had never heard of this case before researching book bans and have not heard it discussed when talking about the recent Florida book bans. There is a legal precedent here that rules in favor of students’ literary freedom in schools and no one seems to be talking about it. I also aim to incorporate this ruling into my documentary to further educate my audience on the dangers of book bans.
Like previous book bans throughout United States history, citing morality is a key argument for banning books. Members of various groups state that they are protecting children from “unsafe” and “inappropriate” material. Historically, this is not a new argument for book bans in schools—these were the arguments in Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico. Yet, this case establishes a precedent in favor of students' First Amendment Rights to these materials in school. However, there is less precedent when it comes to defining and regulating “inappropriate” material. With people such as Keith Flaugh already looking to implement these bans across more counties, this situation is far from over. While I can agree with not allowing books with explicit sex scenes (aside from sexual education textbooks) into school libraries, I think that banning books about and by LGBTQ+ people is extremely dangerous. This creates a false equivalency and feeds into the narrative that LGTBQ+ people are dangerous and inappropriate. This will ultimately do more harm to these students than good. There are many books about LGTBQ+ people written by LGBTQ+ authors that are appropriate for various reading levels. Acting like these books and authors are inappropriate or only for adults ostracizes children at key moments in their development when they want to feel seen and understood.
I aim to make this documentary fifteen to twenty minutes long and it is for festival release. Some prospective film festivals I would like to submit this film to are the Tallahassee Film Festival, Tally Shorts Film Festival, Jacksonville Documentary Film Festival, Jacksonville Film Festival, Through Women’s Eyes International Film Festival, Central Florida CineFest, Sarasota Film Festival, and Los Angeles Women in Film Festival. I would also like to release my film on YouTube so anyone can access it, but I will do this after the festival run.
I am looking to solidify interviews and begin shooting by late January. I will start emailing people as soon as possible this semester and continue doing so during winter break. The first round of interviews shot will be with educators. Interviews with educational professionals like media specialists, teachers, and librarians will be the priority to gain a better understanding of how this directly impacts them and their careers. This law limits their use of certain materials in the classroom and creates new rules that they must follow, so it directly impacts what they can and cannot discuss in the classroom. These interviews set a good foundation to delve into more specific issues with other interviews. According to the Florida Senate, Regular Session begins on March 7, 2023. With the legislative session starting while I am in production, this will allow me to film the b-roll myself instead of pulling from purely archival materials. I will also be reaching out to politicians who introduced the bill. Though some friends that have worked in state government have cautioned me that they most likely would decline interviews, I think it is a good idea to at least reach out and ask. If not, I will also ask for a statement from their office. If no statement is included, that information will be included in the final edit of the film. I would also like to interview a parent and child duo who is impacted by these bans. Malia and I put a couple of posts out to local Facebook groups saying the following:
My name is Laura Sayer and I am a graduate student studying Public Interest Media and Communications at Florida State. I am working on my thesis documentary about the book bans going on in Florida. As you might know, some books are being banned for sexually explicit content and others for having LGBT and minority characters and authors. I think the film will be much more powerful if I can include children and families from the groups whose identities are being targeted by these bans. I’d like to talk with you if you or your family are interested in sharing your side of the story so audiences can better understand the impact of this kind of legislation. It is ideal to see and hear from people affected, but if you are interested in remaining anonymous, that would be possible. If you are willing to participate, please call or email me at email@example.com or by phone at 904-383-9489. Thank you for your time!
However, there have not been any responses to these posts. I will be putting out calls on my social media profiles (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok) as well as reaching out to local groups such as Capitol Tea and the PFLAG Tallahassee Chapter. An alternate angle would be keeping the film focused on education and how this impacts media specialists. In case I do not receive any subjects, I am prepared to use this angle. However, I think the story is best served with LGBTQ+ young people to better show the real damages of this legislation. Visually, I would like lots of b-roll of Tallahassee and the capitol, establishing how this city is our political center. The capitol, FSU campus, and other relevant city landmarks will all be shown on screen. I also want to spend time with my subjects to show them in their day-to-day life, whether that is in the classroom as a college student or working at a library. This helps demonstrate their speaker credibility but also shows them as real people with real lives.
I am aiming to wrap production and begin editing in mid to late March. This then allows me to create compositions in After Effects in addition to building a robust sound environment and color correction/grading. While I know how to do many effects in After Effects, I feel most comfortable animating text and the 2.5D Parallax Effect. I think incorporating these techniques into the film would add visual interest and creativity to the film. There are many audio-visual components to this topic, but animating text allows me to use actual quotes from the Supreme Court case and House bills in a visually compelling way. The 2.5D Parallax Effect allows for more archival material to be incorporated. Instead of relying purely on video or still photos, I can also animate photos. This technique allows the audience to feel more immersed by feeling like they are moving toward a subject or scene. Not only does this give me more material to visually tell this story with, but also allows me to emphasize a serious tone.
Significance and Impact
With legislation being passed and lobbyists intending for more, this topic is incredibly relevant to the present. There is some legal precedent that sides with the First Amendment rights of those who consume this media, but HB 1467 allows for outside intervention in public school library materials. Book bans are an ongoing issue that has been occurring in this country for hundreds of years. With more and more counties banning books, this issue is not going away. While HB 1557 plays a role, HB 1467 specifically refers to library material access for these students. On the federal level, there could also be some concern about Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico. With the overturning of Roe v. Wade and some justices discussing reevaluating other landmark cases, it makes one wonder if this is just another court case about to be overturned by a heavily Republican-appointed Supreme Court. This is extremely relevant to the current state of the country at all levels of government.
These bans have very real effects on children, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community. According to the Trevor Project, their research finds that while suicide is the second largest cause of death among young people, LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts (The Trevor Project, 2022). This is due to a lack of acceptance both at home and at school. LGBTQ Youth of Color are also more likely to commit suicide than their white counterparts. In spaces where youths’ sexualities and gender identities are respected, suicide rates decline. Creating environments where students are not accurately represented in the books they read creates a culture of taboo around their gender and sexuality. For LGBTQ students of color, this is even more severe when books with characters and authors that look like them are also banned in schools. Not only does this make them feel unaccepted for their sexuality and gender, but also their racial and ethnic background.
I want to make this film due to the lack of education on both House Bill 1467 and its media effects on LGBTQ youth. With the legislative session beginning when I am in production, I have a unique opportunity to capture this story as it continues to unfold. I am also in a privileged position to make this film with resources from the FSU School of Communication and as someone who lives in Tallahassee. By using my filmmaking skills, I hope to educate my audience about this issue and contribute to the larger conversation about book bans in the United States.
Blakemore, E. (2022, September 6). The history of book bans-and their changing targets-in the U.S. Culture. Retrieved November 3, 2022, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/history-of-book-bans-in-the-united-states
Facts about LGBTQ youth suicide. The Trevor Project. (2022, October 25). Retrieved November 3, 2022, from https://www.thetrevorproject.org/resources/article/facts-about-lgbtq-youth-suicide/
Flanigan, T. (2022, February 7). Book bans may impact Florida Public Schools but, Leon's public library system supports literary choice. WFSU News. Retrieved November 3, 2022, from https://news.wfsu.org/wfsu-local-news/2022-02-06/as-book-bans-may-impact-florida-public-schools-leons-public-library-system-supports-literary-choice
H.B. 1467, 2022 Legislature. 2022 Reg. Sess. (Florida, 2022). https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2022/1467/?Tab=BillHistory
Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico. 457 U.S. 853(1982). https://www.oyez.org/cases/1981/80-2043
Ross, N., & Wong, A. (2022, September 26). PEN America report shows Florida has 2nd highest number of school-related book bans. Press. Retrieved November 3, 2022, from https://www.news-press.com/story/news/education/2022/09/26/school-book-bans-florida-2nd-highest-nation-pen-america-report-banned/10428021002/
Thomas, R. (2022, April 26). Florida's book bans: Which titles are being pulled from school media centers? The Ledger. Retrieved November 3, 2022, from https://www.theledger.com/story/news/state/2022/04/26/florida-school-book-bans-these-library-titles-being-reviewed-school-boards/9542938002/