Jeannette Feliciano was sipping on cherry vodka and soda at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, “having a blast.” It was almost two a.m. when the sound of firearms broke out and turned her life upside down. Blood. Bullets. Debris. Dead bodies falling in front of her from the hand of “silent and methodical” terrorist Omar Mateen. Mental images engraved into eternally painful emotions and memories of survivors and families of victims. Six years later, the forty-nine people killed that night still live in the private recollections of those who continue to suffer and fend for themselves as the media moves on.
These days, Jeannette Feliciano is back in the spotlight to tell her survivor’s story of strength and vulnerability through an intimate vérité documentary “Jeannette,” directed by acclaimed filmmaker Maris Curran. A story about survival in which life keeps throwing curveballs. The raw, heartfelt, and intimate portrait of Jeannette’s life post-trauma premiering at the San Francisco International Film Festival revolves around the question: In the wake of tragedy, how do we move toward wholeness?
During our interview, Jeannette is upbeat, dressed in black with her hair tied in a sleek ponytail.
—How do you look at that night at Pulse now that you’ve made the documentary “Jeannette” and six years after the fact? I asked.
“So much growth happened” since that fatal night in Orlando, Jeannette began. “After Pulse, there were a lot of things that I was going through internally,” she said. “A sense of anger, but not anger towards the individual, just more like anger towards what people said to me ‘You made it out for a reason.’ That is something that I did not like,” she said. “So that relationship with God was a little bit different for me.”
Jeannette said that “even my thought process back then is different from today.” One of the most profound personal moments for her was deepening her relationship with her mother as a result of the “Jeannette” documentary.”My relationship with my mother has gotten so much stronger since Pulse.”
In a documentary, Jeannette and her mom share a complicated relationship and have a “really tough discussion” on queerness. “But you see the love,” Jeannette stressed, “and that was the most important because, prior to Pulse, going back into my childhood and into adulthood, there was always me fighting for that love and acceptance.” She went on: “To me, that was something very profound and something that I’m proud of because the movie solidifies the love back in my past I did not see. So, you know, of course, it’s still something that there’s so much that I’m learning for myself. I believe that we have to constantly stay learning and understanding ourselves.”
I didn’t want to be the one to survive and to see how families suffer. That was hard for me to deal with.Jeannette Feliciano
In a documentary, Jeannette says that she is a survivor but sometimes wishes she was not. “I feel that there are times that I wish I weren’t a survivor because of the difficulties in life. A lot of times we go through stuff, and sometimes it’s easier to give up than continuing to fight,” she said candidly. Jeannette, however, is the one who never quits and instead soldiers on.
—Is that a mantra for you, perseverance?
“Absolutely,” she quipped. “Never, never quit, but we are human beings. And we are imperfect. And at times, we’re vulnerable. It’s hard for us to face certain situations. And you know, being a survivor, yes, I was happy. But for me when I think about the other lives, no, I didn’t want to be the one to survive and to see how families suffer. That was hard for me to deal with. And that’s where the survivor’s guilt came into play.”
Jeannette: FBI used us as their shields
Six years after the terrorist attack at Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12, 2016 , in which 49 people were killed and 53 were wounded, survivors and families of victims feel that the FBI, who arrived at the nightclub while the shooting was still ongoing and were involved in the ensuing investigations, has failed them. Jeannette can be heard in a documentary offering a critique of the American justice system, the FBI and law enforcement. “Lives lost and no one’s held responsible for it,” she said.
—Do you and the families feel that the FBI failed the victims?
“Yes,” she said with conviction. “There is a lot of disappointment, yes. I did mention that there were a lot of lives lost and nobody was held accountable. That is a very strong feeling. And that continues to stay the same. That is something that will not change,” she reiterated.
I had interviews with the FBI. I’m a very honest person, and the way that I feel is exactly what I’m going to express to them. I literally told them that they [FBI] used us as their shields.Jeannette Feliciano
“We see so much in the media when something happens, people are held responsible. Unfortunately, in the case of the Orlando Pulse massacre, I was in it, I was there, I was fighting with the police to go in, to go in, there’s an active shooter. I understand protocol, I, myself , had had interviews with the FBI. I’m a very honest person, and the way that I feel is exactly what I’m going to express to them. I literally told them that they [FBI] used us as their shields. What I mean by that is they didn’t come in. They were there to protect and serve. And at no point were they protecting and serving us, because of their failure to react accordingly,” said Jeannette.
“So for me, then all of a sudden, the case happens, right? We have his wife who was facing trial, and nothing was done,” Jeanette referred to Noor Salman, the wife of Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen.
“So all these lives are lost, nobody’s held accountable— for those who are gone and also, for those who actually survived. The things that we have to deal with, on a mental and daily basis are never ending,” she revealed. “We just managed, we had to just manage our feelings through life. So yeah, that feeling still remains the same. Nobody has been held accountable; she [Noor Salman] has been acquitted. So what is it? Lives are lost and our lives mentally are messed up.”
Enter filmmaker Maris Curran.
“Neglect that Jeannette is talking about in terms of the community is really strong. I think that the media can play a role in not letting a story be forgotten.That’s really important, because it is a community that feels neglected.” said Maris.
What happens when you have survived a trauma that big?Maris Curran
Maris Curran’s documentary starts with what happened at Pulse, but it’s really about what happens after. “What happens when you have survived a trauma that big? Unfortunately, in this country, this is not a one time event that is, you know, a freak thing. This is something that we know too well happens day in and day out. And so one of the questions that the film asks is how after experiencing something like this can you ever feel safe again? And that is the question that I think we see, beautifully articulated in Jeannette’s life. We look to her family and her community and the work that she does with other survivors and the work that she does for herself. But it’s also something that we need to answer collectively. Because, it’s not only Jeanette’s experiences, it’s an experience that is on the societal level also right now.”
Maris was working on another film, when she met Jeannette and the two recognized an immediate connection. “You can have an idea for something and if it doesn’t feel like there’s an avenue to take it, then what is that worth?” said Maris. “I think that Jeannette and I are both very different and very much the same. Prior to Pulse, we both have experienced sexual and physical violence,” she revealed. As the two women spent time together, wounds from the past, from Pulse, began to open for Jeannette, trauma that she was eager to heal and to help others work through as well.
“So, it felt like this really kind of beautiful opening, to be able to tell a really intimate story about the impact of violence in order to spark necessary conversation about how do we shift this? One, how do we actually help our brothers and sisters be safe, and two, are there ways that through having conversations, through doing outreach with the film, where we might be able to move the needle and actually make some sorts of change?”
Jeannette: Life’s a rollercoaster
In the movie, Jeannette seems never to be able to catch the break. As her life begins to calm, Hurricane María hits Puerto Rico, where her extended family lives, and Jeannette is thrown back into survival mode. “It’s always something,'” she says..
—How do you move through all that? And why is it important for resilience? I wanted to know.
“That’s how life happens,” said Jeannette. “Unforeseen occurrences befall us all. Situations happen that we don’t know are going to happen, right? And all these things happen back to back, and it’s unfortunate, but that is the life that we live.”
Irrespective of the difficulties and realities of living with the trauma, the crucial question for Jeannette is, “How do we better prepare ourselves each and every time?” For the single mom and competitive bodybuilder she is, resilience has “always been a matter of constantly. Just getting up. Bouncing back.” No matter what happens, Jeannette lives by the motto: “We have to fight.”
There’s an epidemic of mass shootings in the country, and that it’s an issue that needs to be dealt with on the legislative level.”Maris Curran
As the movie hits the festival circuit in the coming months, Jeannette wants first and foremost for the Orlando shooting victims not to be forgotten and for the community to be “touched in a positive way.”
“One of my really close friends, she’s going to be at one of the festivals coming up. She actually lost her best friend, Shane. So she will be watching the film. We’re very close, I actually train her through her trauma, and have been helping her through personal training.”
In the spirit of raising greater awareness, empathy, and encouraging action, what message is filmmaker Maris Curran hoping her documentary “Jeannette” will have for the White House and President Biden?
“There’s an epidemic of mass shootings in the country, and that it’s an issue that needs to be dealt with on the legislative level. If this film shines a light on that, that’s very important. There needs to be more resources for survivors. And, frankly, we need better mental health care in this country. We need more support for survivors,” said Maris.
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The acclaimed filmmaker has shown at Berlinale, TIFF, MoMA, the NY Times Op-Docs, and PBS’s Independent Lens. Among her films are her feature debut, “Five Nights in Maine” (Festival 2016) and two documentary shorts, “The Man Is the Music” (2016) and “While I Yet Live” (2018). Due to her work in fiction, “Jeannette” has a feel of a narrative film. “I think that’s what I set out to have that happen,” revealed Maris. “I’m interested in making films that are about these kinds of deep, pressing, important issues, but that are told in a very intimate scoring, that are told in a poetic way, that are told in an artful way.”
In her artistic process Maris put a lot of thought into how the “Jeannette” documentary would look and feel. Working with the cinematographer Jerry Henry on what is now their third film gave them a “real shorthand.” Maris told me that Henry is “one of the most talented documentary cinematographers” she knows.”He is particularly good at this style, which is called verite, an observational documentary, where you’re telling the story through real life.”
Maris wanted for the “Jeannette” documentary to “look and feel like Jeanette” and to draw viewers into “Jeanette’s world, where you feel both her boldness and her tenderness.” In the filmmaking process, Maris thought through the colors, the framing, the composition all with the purpose of “accentuating this incredible woman [Jeannette] who we get to spend 78 minutes with.”
Trusting does not come easily to Jeannette Feliciano but as she told Maris, through the work they’ve done together, “she felt seen.”
—Have you found your safe harbor yet?, I asked Jeannette.
“You’re gonna make me emotional there,” she responded. She paused. “It’s the relationship with my son. My son is my world,” Jeannette was raw. “I’ve learned that he is my safe haven, my family. My mother, she is my safe haven. Sometimes we don’t realize that the safe haven is there, that it’s been there. We are afraid to reach out to our safe haven because we’re afraid to be judged. We’re afraid to be ridiculed. We’re afraid of what people may think of our mindset. But the thing is, it was there. And I was able to discover it so much more.” She paused.
We are afraid to reach out to our safe haven because we’re afraid to be judged. We’re afraid to be ridiculed.Jeannette Feliciano
“I’m sorry, I really don’t mean to get this emotional,” she said, brushing off a tear in her eye. “But seeing the film,” she continued her voice breaking up, “Maris knows there was a part of me that didn’t want to see the film, believe it or not, because I knew what I was going through mentally during that time.” She paused again. “When I see myself in the film, I can literally see into my brain and understand what I was going through, and maybe some people will get that. So to see that and most importantly, to see that my mom loves me, to see that and to understand that it’s okay to disagree. You know, for parents to look at the fact that maybe you may not approve of your child’s lifestyle, but it doesn’t mean you push them away, outcast them. For me, the safe haven sometimes we go looking for, but it’s in our own home. So have I found it? Absolutely.”
As the camera lights switch off, the sunlight of remembrance shines on the place where the stories of victims and survivors continue to live—a place where humanity abodes.
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