Leah Zeiger, 20, a dance major at the college, was in an abusive relationship as a teenager. She told that story with her father, David Zeiger, 66, a professional film director and producer from California. When Doc Your World students were called upon to produce a documentary on a pivotal moment in their lives, the Zeigers felt obligated to share their story to heal themselves and other survivors.
“Making this film about what Leah and our family went through was necessary for all of us,” said David Zeiger. “It’s part of our DNA; that’s how we deal with it.”
Her father used his talents in film and photography to express his emotions after the death of his 9-year-old son in 1987.
Doc Your World is an interdisciplinary course. In addition to making short films, the students organized this two-day event.
A panel including the Zeigers and other sexual assault survivors, Jean Cozier, 61, and Cassandra Kaczor, 23, shared their experiences. Cozier, founder and executive director of Awakenings Foundation Center and Gallery, encompassed all of the panelist’s goals in combining their pain with their art.
“I’m a survivor who uses my art to heal myself and other people as well,” Cozier said. “I believe in it more strongly than I believe in almost anything in my life. The power of taking control of what happened to you is the most empowering thing that anybody can ever experience.”
Cozier, who was sexually assaulted as a child, exemplified this mindset with her foundation. The center provides coaching and a platform for survivors to open up about sexual violence in their lives in the form of artwork, writing, and graphic design.
Kaczor, a Roosevelt University graduate student in music composition, was sexually assaulted at 16, when a music producer she worked with forced her to perform sexual acts on him. She was then raped her junior year of college. Since then, she made it her mission to create and perform pieces that help herself and other survivors recover from their trauma.
With the same goal of healing through artistic expression, Leah Zeiger created the Sunflower Project. The multimedia organization uses dance, film and writing to educate young adults from middle school to high school about sexual assault, domestic violence and dating abuse.
Through education of young adults about healthy relationships, she hoped that they would be able to spot the early signs of abuse before escalation. One indicator she stressed was jealousy or paranoia, two signs that were prevalent in the beginning of her relationship.
The relationship was abusive mentally, physically and verbally, she recalled. After prom night, the abuse became sexual. She internalized the abuse, became depressed and attempted suicide. With her parents’ and professional help, she ended the relationship and filed a restraining order.
Sitting on a couch with her father in her documentary, she told of her ex-boyfriend’s terrifying retaliation. Police found him and a friend outside her house with a backpack filled with rope, chloroform, a bat, bullets, and condoms. Their intent was to break in the Zeiger home, take out her father, tie up her mother and siblings and rape her, police later said.
He was arrested and charged with eight felonies. After a plea deal, he was sentenced to two years in prison.
She recalled the first time she revealed her story to the public, in a dance called “Unnamed.” She spoke of the emotions that lead to it and the insights and power she gained by creating it.
“I was a dancer before I was a survivor,” she said. “Dance became a way to communicate what was going on and what happened–also a way to heal. I started dancing with a different purpose–I can dance to heal others.”