May 15, 2020
First Look 2020: Breach of Trust
Winner of the Industry Award for Best Documentary
The First Look Film Festival is the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ celebration of the best advanced student films of the year. Presented by the Office of Industry Relations.
This is one in a series of stories about the filmmakers’ motivations behind their First Look projects. Click here for an overview of all First Look winners.
Breach of Trust
Industry Award: Documentary
Sufian Abulohom, Producer ‘21
Ariel Cantrell, Director of Photography ‘20
Kara Fein, Editor ‘20
Kelsy Lua ‘20
Mishal Mahmud, Director ‘20
Jack Walterman, Producer ‘20
When the Los Angeles Times told the world that USC had been covering up crimes of George Tyndall, its resident gynecologist, for three decades, the mood on campus went from shock to outrage. Breach of Trust is a documentary that exposes the scandal from the inside, with the filmmakers talking to key figures in the story: the survivors of Tyndall’s violations, the nurse "whistleblower" who reported Tyndall, the journalist who broke the story, and the university faculty that mobilized to demand repercussions including the removal of USC President Max Nikias.
“What I am most proud of was the connections we made with our subjects,” says director Mishal Mahmud, who conceived the project. “Cindy Gilbert, the nurse who risked her job to report Tyndall, was initially reticent to talk on camera. We respected her boundaries and focused instead on building a relationship with her. Eventually we had the honor of interviewing her.”
Producer Sufian Abulohom agrees that landing Gilbert was perhaps the biggest success of the production, since she had refused every other on-camera interview. The experience of making the film, he says, provided a way of processing and dealing with the shock and disappointment of finding out the university’s role in the coverup. “After reading the story on the LA Times Website, I think that’s when I felt embarrassed to have the USC name on my resume forever. I wanted to channel my frustration at the administration by producing this documentary,” says Abulohom. “The production process was extremely stressful, but very rewarding. I think I sometimes felt the pressure of all eyes were staring at us and as a producer I felt the weight very much so… Finding the subjects during the production process was extremely hard, but honestly worth it. I never worked more than working on this, but ultimately it was worth it.”
Jack Walterman, the other producer on the documentary, says the pressure helped focus the production. “Everyone put their time and energy into the film, which in turn, elevated the end product. There were plenty of rocky times outside of the interviews but it was each individual crew member's longing to tell the story respectfully that produced an end product we are proud to share with audiences to this day,” says Walterman. “Our admiration for the featured speakers was so crucial to earning their trust. I found this to be one of the most rewarding experiences during my time here at USC.”
Another coup for Breach of Trust was earning the cooperation of Matt Hamilton, one of the Los Angeles Times reporters who broke the story. Walterman says Hamilton became a “guide” on the story. “He even became a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter during production for his work on the George Tyndall case,” says Walterman. Along with Gilbert and Hamilton, the production got four survivors to go on the record: Brennan Heil, who was then a USC freshman; alumna Amanda Davis; international graduate student Kay Zhang; and USC alumna and current professor, Dr. Dana Loewy. “Together their stories showed the impact and long history of abuse behind closed doors on our USC campus,” says Walterman.
Cutting the project was a challenge for editors Kelsy Lua and Kara Fein as the final running time was only twenty minutes, and there was more than forty hours of footage to work with. “We interviewed many brave survivors that each had emotional and captivating recounts to share, and as much as we wanted to include everything, we knew we couldn’t due to time constraints,” says Lua. “As soon as we were able to determine the main themes of the story, we were able to find the flow. We went through several rounds of revisions, and even spent all-nighters to ensure our final project told the best story possible.”
“Working with my co-editor, Kelsy, was an incredible experience and collaboration,” says Fein. “Before we started, we knew the process would be challenging, but we wanted to push ourselves for a subject matter that was important. Having that kind of partnership to lean on was instrumental in accomplishing the film and getting through the semester. There were so many times with just the two of us listening intently and watching back interviews in the editing suite, taking in these experiences and realizing we were tasked to put it all together. It was daunting at times, but also inspiring that so many people were willing to share themselves with us and tell their stories.”
Ariel Cantrell, Director of Photography says the project took its toll. “The whole crew was exhausted and emotionally overwhelmed. In hindsight, we definitely should have had an on-set therapist,” says Cantrell. “The intensity of the interviews was unbearable.”
Director Mahmud said she was inspired to push on by “the bravery and persistence of the women speaking out. The production process was a very intense but gratifying experience.”
Producer Walterman says in the end the physical and emotional work it took to complete the film was worth it. “Overall the production process was challenging. For the majority of us, this was our first documentary experience ever and so right away we had to find crew members that were motivated and dedicated to tell the most effective version possible of this horrible true story,” he says.
Adds editor Kelsy Lua: “I’ve always felt that the process involves more than just putting footage together. It requires a lot of commitment, creativity, and a love for storytelling. I wanted to be a part of this project because I believe it’s important to share with audiences the courage of many survivors of sexual misconduct, and empower people to speak up against these types of abuse that often fly under the radar due to inaction, misinformation, and overall fear. I hope that the film can make a change.”
Breach of Trust has played at several film festivals and won the award for best student film from the Impact Docs Awards, which supports social impact documentaries
For more about the filmmakers:
Sufian Abulohom: https://www.sufianha.com/
Ariel Cantrell: https://www.instagram.com/ariel_films/
Kelsy Lua: www.kelsylua.com
Jack Walterman: https://www.jackwalterman.com/