Amazing story of Lizzie Velasquez is a moving and inspiring experience
There is mystery at the center of A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story, one of the several new docs opening in theaters today. The 26-year-old Texas native was born with an extremely rare medical syndrome that has defied diagnosis, one that deprives her of the ability to put on weight.
As a child Velasquez endured ostracism and bullying over her appearance. And that only got worse -- much worse -- at the age of 17 when a video of her went viral online under the unimaginably hurtful headline "World's Ugliest Woman." Anonymous internet users encouraged Velasquez to kill herself.
"I think that her circumstance in terms of finding the bad video would have broken 90+ percent of people that we all know,." director Sara Hirsh Bordo told Nonfictionfilm.com. "I think that Lizzie has always had within her the sense of resilience. Always.
To me the greatest mystery about Velasquez is not what caused her medical condition, nor what would prompt people to cruelly attack her over the internet. It is how she could find the grace to respond to the bullying and online vilification with love and compassion. How could she retain her humanity, and expand it to enfold us all?
Once I started high school I decided I was going to eliminate the word “why” out of my vocabulary.
Bordo, a first-time filmmaker, met Lizzie through a TEDx talk that the former marketing executive produced in Austin, Texas. Lizzie's speech at that event -- which she decided at the last minute to do in an extemporaneous fashion rather than from her intended script -- went viral and has at last count attracted almost 10 million views on YouTube.
"What defines you? Who are you?" Velasquez asked the audience at that talk. "What defines who you are as a person?"
She said she consciously decided she would not let her medical condition, or mean-spirited internet users, be the last word on Lizzie Velasquez.
"Even though I have this syndrome, even though things are hard, I can't let that define me," she told the crowd in Austin.
Not long after that TEDx talk Bordo conceived the idea of doing a feature-length documentary on Velasquez, proposing it first to Lizzie and then to her parents.
"Her family had been asked I think many, many times [about doing a documentary on Lizzie] and they had passed on all of the opportunities, be them reality shows or full-length docs," Bordo said. But after Bordo explained how she thought the film should be made, "Her mom said through tears, 'You’re the one we’ve been waiting for.’ And a month later we started the Kickstarter campaign and the rest is history."
A Brave Heart is now playing in select cinemas, and is available on DVD, VOD, Google Play and other streaming services.
I think that Lizzie has always had within her the sense of resilience. Always.
In the film, Lizzie's parents recall the birth of their daughter in 1989, who arrived four weeks premature, weighing less than three pounds. Doctors were concerned the tiny infant's unorthodox appearance might startle the new mother, so they first showed Rita a photo of her daughter before presenting her with the newborn.
The parents' reaction was not one of fear, alarm or disappointment, but simply love for their first-born child.
"They never asked, 'Why me?' Velasquez told Nonfictionfilm.com. "They always said, 'We’re just going to take her home [from the hospital] and love her.' They encouraged me from day one to reach for the stars no matter what. No matter what size I am or any obstacle that comes my why... I have their constant support day in and day out they’ve been like my rock."
"They are the most amazing parents," Bordo said. "There are certain parents that love to parent. And then there are parents that [just] want to have kids. Rita and Lupe Velasquez are parents who wanted to parent, who love to parent and who adore their children."
Bordo sees a key element of the film as "Lupe’s love for Lizzie and how that father-daughter love story is a main anchor of Lizzie’s self-worth."
Bordo is inviting schools to screen the film as part of anti-bullying efforts. She said her goal is to get as many people to see it as possible because of the film's capacity to change attitudes -- both among bullies and targets of bullying.
"I’ve definitely seen that it’s been working," Velasquez said of response to the film, her YouTube videos and motivational speeches across the country and globe. "I... hear from people who tell me their story and by the end of the email or call or whatever it may be I can feel them smiling. And hearing them say, 'I was struggling and then I heard your story and now I've applied that to my life and I've joined a club or made new friends and so now I'm happy.' They want to spread that on to somebody else."
Velasquez told Nonfictionfilm.com she learned not to question how she maintains a positive outlook in the midst of circumstances most people would find overwhelmingly difficult.
"Once I started high school I decided I was going to eliminate the word 'why' out of my vocabulary because it just led me down this path and never got me anywhere," she said. "So I just completely took it out and I still to this day don’t ever really use that word."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.