Melora, Lelina and Yin Chang have a lot to say about bullying, an experience they've personally witnessed and endured, so the sisters spoke up and made a silent film about it.
"Strain" is the story of two childhood friends who grow apart in high school when one joins another group of friends. The new group begins to emotionally and physically bully the friend who isn't in their clique, while the former friend fails to intervene.
" 'Strain' points the spotlight on the power of the bystander," said Lelina, 17, a senior at Great Neck South High School.
But there is no happy ending. At the film's conclusion, the bullied girl commits suicide, and her former friend cries as she recalls how she failed to stand up for her friend.
The movie, which runs 11 minutes, premiered in July at the Long Island International Film Expo. Besides showing at the Bellmore Movies, it was shown at the Fort Myers Beach Film Festival in Florida and the Minnesota Speechless Film Festival. To view the film strainfilm.com.
The decision to eliminate voices in the movie was deliberate, because the sisters wanted people of every language to understand the message.
"In the media, the ones being bullied have somewhat of a label of being the silent ones and not having the voice to stand up for themselves," Yin said. "I wanted viewers to experience that silence and that helplessness in hopes it would move them enough to stand up for someone being bullied."
Yin, an actress who has appeared in TV's "Gossip Girl" and the 2013 movie "The Bling Ring" and whose production company made "Strain," sent an email to officials at PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center in Minnesota. The center's director, Julie Hertzog, said she was intrigued by the film's story line and its message.
"What I was excited about when I watched 'Strain' is that it was created by young people," she said. "It's so important to have student-to-student connections."
PACER's website features the film -- which is being promoted as a national model to teach students about bullying -- and its accompanying student exercises as an ongoing resource as well as for National Bullying Prevention Month, which is in October.
A resource for educators
High-profile suicides among victims of bullying over the past several years have dramatically increased awareness of an issue that some once considered an adolescent rite of passage.
In April 2012, the National Education Association reported that 1 in 3 U.S. schoolchildren in grades six through 10 are affected by bullying, noting that 83 percent of girls and 79 percent of boys reported experiencing harassment. And according to the association, student bullying is one of the most frequently reported discipline problems at school.
Stopbullying.gov, a website of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, reports that students who are bullied are more likely to struggle in school and skip class, to abuse drugs and alcohol, be depressed, and are at higher risk of suicide. In 12 of 15 school shooting cases in the 1990s, according to the website, the shooters had a history of being bullied.
Real-life bullying inspired the sisters' film. A friend of Melora's began cutting herself after she became the target of bullies. "Overall, our school does not tolerate bullying whatsoever," said Melora, 16, a junior and her high school's student body treasurer. "But even in a school that doesn't, it still goes on."
While growing up in Great Neck, Yin said she experienced bullying about her looks, her ethnicity and her appearance. The bullied girl in "Strain" dies of a prescription pill overdose. Yin said she attempted to overdose on over-the-counter pills when she was 13. When she got to high school, Yin said her personality changed, and she joined a new group of friends and became a bully herself.
"Hearing about the recent suicides caused from bullying upsets me deeply," she said. "I knew firsthand what it was like to be bullied, yet I still chose to be one in high school."
She said that she let herself down and is not proud of her decisions, but added that the experience taught her what she knows about bullying now and can help prevent it.
To help combat the problem, Yin also created a "toolkit" to accompany the film that PACER features on its website as a resource for educators. It includes questions about the film and writing exercises.
"It's a fun exercise teachers can use with their students," Hertzog said, adding that she adopted the toolkit as a model for teachers to use in the classroom because it "was very thought-provoking and has students think through things instead of being directive."
The film also has gotten the attention of others who want to see an end to bullying. State Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) supported an amendment to the state Dignity for All Students Act, which was signed into law in 2010 to include bullying and cyberbullying. The amendment passed last year. Martins said he believes the story line in "Strain," in which much of the communication does not occur face to face, accurately depicts the necessity of the law.
"I think there's a lot that our children can learn from the movie because they can see themselves in that movie in similar instances," said Martins, who has four daughters. "That was the power of it."
The amendment requires school districts to become involved in preventing and reporting bullying. "We believe schools have a role in not only educating but to provide an environment where kids aren't going to be bullied, even if it's not physical but psychological and emotional," Martins added.
Raising funds through website
To raise money for the film, which cost $24,000, Yin said she turned to crowdfunding website Kickstarter and raised $13,000 from donors around the world. Lelina and Melora solicited contributions during the fundraising stage, with their sister covering the balance of the budget to complete the film, which has been promoted overseas.
Melora promoted "Strain" in Singapore and Malaysia during her summer vacation, and she also met with the Singapore Children's Society, which looks after the welfare of children in need, to discuss the film and its message, adding that society officials plan to use "Strain" as a resource.
The film stars Michelle Page, Cali Fredrichs, Francia Raisa and Micky Shiloah. Yin wrote, directed and produced the film through her Los Angeles-based company, LeliMelo Productions, and her younger sisters were assistant producers.
"I created 'Strain' in hopes of raising awareness about bullying and the suicides that occur from being pushed too far, and to encourage bystanders to help the kids who are targeted," Yin said.
Her sisters said the most rewarding part of working on "Strain" was contributing their high school experiences to authenticate the story line.
"Our input from a high school perspective could make sure people would understand the message," said Lelina, who is student body president, editor of the school newspaper and an intern the past three summers at The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset.
She and Melora -- who said she wants to pursue a career in business, but said she is also interested in acting and performing arts -- were involved in the film editing, including the content of the text messages between the teens and other details to help students relate to the content.
Yet, social media and cellphones have contributed to the problem, according to Martins and Hertzog, and changed the landscape of bullying over the past several years.
"Before it used to happen face to face -- it was in the schoolyard, at the playground," Martins said. "Now it's done anonymously and many times, or with little consequence from miles away. The ability to reach so many people so quickly is devastating."
The sisters hope their movie reaches a wide audience too. "Strain" has been praised as a realistic portrayal of bullying, and the sisters believe it appeals to the emotional consequences. Melora said her favorite part of the movie is a flashback of the two primary characters exchanging friendship rocks as children, years before their falling out. It's a bittersweet memory for her.
For Yin, the movie, her first foray behind the camera, has expanded her horizons.
"It's given me a whole new perspective of the industry and has deepened my appreciation and fascination of the power of storytelling," she said. "I am now very interested in writing and creating projects."