Childhood memories turn Pittsburgh dancer into filmmaker

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What would end up being a life-changing project started out as a simple, visceral response to a clip on CNN.

It was 2009. Joshua Sweeny came home from a full day of rehearsal at the Pittsburgh dance company Bodiography Contemporary Ballet. He sat down at his computer. Anderson Cooper was interviewing the mother of Asher Brown, a 13-year-old boy in Texas who had committed suicide after being bullied for being openly gay.

Mr. Sweeny flashed back to himself at 15 years old, wanting to come out to his brothers. 

“I could tell my brothers and the people around me that I feel love toward a human being and that person just happens to be of the same gender. I could say that, simple. Three words: I am gay,” he said. “Or I could jump off of this five-story building. Those were my two thoughts.”

He watched Mrs. Brown cry on the computer screen, and Mr. Sweeny began to cry. It was the first time in his adult life he had thought about being 15 years old again.

“I just had a panic attack, basically. I had the most visceral response to any piece of media. I’ve never cried so hard,” the 31-year-old said.

In that moment, everything changed.

“I had spent a decade of my life training to become a professional dancer and right then and there I decided that I was going to do whatever it took to hopefully keep some other young person from experiencing that,” he said.

He didn’t know he wanted to make a feature-length film; he just wanted to create some sort of media for youth. He began his master’s degree at Chatham University, and on the first day, he met Kyle Wentzel, who would ultimately co-produce their documentary, “Same Difference.”

Now five years in the making, “Same Difference” follows the story of Graeme Taylor as he grows up in a supportive environment and prepares to go off to college. The other teen is Justin Aaberg, a LGTB youth who is bullied at school. He was one of the nine young people in the Anoka-Hennepin School District to commit suicide between 2009 and 2011. The film also integrates interviews with professionals such as Dorothy Espelage and Antoine Douaihy, who study anti-bullying and gender issues in adolescents.

The film is focused on LGBT youth — something Mr. Sweeny says isn’t talked about enough. A major problem, he says, is that there is very little representation of LGBT youth in the mainstream and that LGBT identity is conflated with sexual identity and behavior.

“So when a 9-year-old little boy has a crush on a little 9-year-old boy, he doesn't get to see a Disney movie where two 9-year-old boys hold hands. You have that for straight people,” he said.

When children don’t see representation of themselves in the media, that can be isolating and lead to depression and self-harm.

“So most little kids, when they realize they’re gay, they have this awareness or this concept that they’re the only one they know experiencing this … [and that there’s] something wrong with you and the way you experience love,” he said.

The project relied heavily on funds from a Kickstarter campaign as the documentary has “grown organically,” as Mr. Sweeny says. The crew mainly consists of students at Chatham University and Point Park University. There are usually only five crew members on shoots, and the film has three executive producers who joined the project at various times.

Most of the film was made out-of-pocket, and production has stuck to a low budget.

“It’s been incredibly difficult. We had a lot of issues and had a difficult time raising funds. We sacrificed money and time,” co-producer Wentzel said.

For Mr. Sweeny, the documentary has nearly become a full-time job.

“It’s been intense,” Mr. Sweeny said. “This has been the most difficult, challenging experience of my life, and I also think it’s the most important thing I’ve ever done.”

Since the age of 9, Mr. Sweeny has taken care of himself. He spent three years in a group home and three years in a foster home. He dropped out of high school and joined an ashram in North Carolina. But making “Same Difference” proved a unique challenge. 

“It’s been the most trying experience of my life. I’ve had problems sleeping, nightmares. … How has it been? It’s been hard. It’s probably the most difficult experience in my life.”

The film is now in postproduction, and Mr. Sweeny projects that it will be ready to enter into several film festivals in January.

After that, the film will likely gain corporate support to be made available for middle and high school students and diversity trainings in schools and corporations.

The film, Mr. Sweeny said, will never be finished. There are too many countries in the world that condemn being LGBT.

“I highly doubt that when I’m 50 this film won’t be relevant in places like Uganda or throughout the Middle East. I think that this film will probably outlive me as far as I can see this going, as far as LGBT equality,” he said.

The film likely will be translated in several languages so that people in other countries can have access to it.

“I think where the film will have the most impact is some little 10-year-old or 11-year-old boy with an iPhone in Pakistan, or some little 15-year-old girl in Uganda who’s seeing people killed for being gay,” he said. “Because the message of the film is to show children and show them in an honest light that they’re beautiful and deserve love.”

Kate Mishkin: or 412-263-1352. On Twitter: katemishkin.

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