Paige Tolmach’s film ‘What Haunts Us’ gives voice to the voiceless
“The really simple answer to all of this is, I decided to do this because I love my son,” says filmmaker and producer Paige Goldberg Tolmach, speaking recently about directing the film “What Haunts Us.”
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“What Haunts Us” will next screen at the Ojai Film Festival in Ojai, California in November. For more information on the documentary, visit www.whathauntsusfilm.com.
“As I got older and became a mother,” she explains, “I realized that I didn’t know how to protect my kid. I was like, ‘I’m really good at a lot of things, but I don’t know how to protect him from a sexual predator.’”
“What Haunts Us,” which had its world premiere at the Boston Film Festival this past September, reveals the sexual abuse that took place at the Porter-Gaud School in Tolmach’s hometown of Charleston, South Carolina in the 1970s and early 1980s.
One of the factors that propelled Tolmach toward making the documentary was a call from Mackie Krawcheck Moore, one of the first girls to be accepted to the elite all-boys’ school. Moore told her that another former Porter-Gaud student had committed suicide. Out of 49 boys in the class of 1979, six had taken their lives over the years.
With this latest news, Tolmach realized that something was really wrong at Porter-Gaud and that she needed answers or she would be forever haunted by the school she loved. As she states in the beginning of the film, “With each death, I’m 16 again, back in high school, trying to figure it all out.”
As Tolmach began her research in 2012, she began to hear the awful truth about a much-admired teacher who manipulated and molested many of his students for years. It became her obsession to understand how it could have happened in plain view and, as it turned out, with the knowledge of Porter-Gaud administrators.
When the sexual abuse scandal broke in 1998, through a lawsuit filed by Harold Glover, the father of a former Porter-Gaud student, “It was shocking to us. But then we didn’t talk about it,” Tolmach says. She realized that the Charleston community didn’t talk about it because “they didn’t know how to talk about it.”
The scandal became a call to action for the first-time filmmaker, who believes that people deserve to hear the story. “Let’s uncover it, and then have this film be the start of a conversation. That’s why I made it. To start the conversation,” explains Tolmach.
It was a conversation that a lot of people in Charleston and at Porter-Gaud didn’t want to have. Even though Tolmach grew up in the port city, there were many people who questioned her motives, who yelled and screamed at her. Some even went so far as spitting in her face. Over the course of the five years that it took to make the film, people would say things like “How dare you? Why are you doing this to people you care about? It didn’t happen to you. Who do you think you are? If more people die, their blood is on your hands. Why did you bring this up again?” recalls the director.
Making the documentary was a sobering and very personal journey for Tolmach. She wasn’t a filmmaker “for hire,” she says — this was also her story and she, too, had to figure out how to deal with it. Despite the hostility, negativity and numerous calls from attorneys representing the high school, she was determined. She knew that she needed to pursue the truth on behalf of the former students. “They needed to be honored — the ones who aren’t here anymore and the ones who are still living today,” stresses Tolmach. “People deserve to hear this story, and if they heard it maybe they would see themselves and realize that we can stop this. We have a hand in stopping this before it starts.”