By Seth Shire
Director Paige Goldberg Tolmach’s fascinating and unsettling documentary, “What Haunts Us,” could not have come at a more appropriate time, which can be fortunate or unfortunate, depending on how one looks at it. The film is part of DOC NYC, which runs from November 9-16.
In the college sociology classes that I teach, we discuss the concept of deviance. I make the point that what, at one time, might not have been thought of as deviant behavior, now, as society progresses, is seen as deviant. The recent revelations about sexual harassment that dominate the news, including testimonies from those who knew what was going on but chose to say nothing, until now, are great examples of this.
“What Haunts Us” concerns Charleston, South Carolina’s Porter Gaud School, the high school attended by Goldberg Tolmach. Alarmed by the number of suicides of male students in her graduating class, from over 30 years ago (six suicides out of a class of 49), the filmmaker delves into what was going on, beneath the surface, particularly with a popular teacher named Eddie Fischer. Fischer sexually abused male students for years and was protected by a wall of silence, from both administrators and students. As one former, now middle-aged, student puts it, “You’re dying to tell someone about it, but you’re scared as hell someone will find out.”
In addition, the film makes the point that the very culture of South Carolina society – respectable, upper crust families not wanting to taint their reputations with something so ugly – also contributed to this silence.
“What Haunts Us” employs very effective montages of yearbook pictures, home video, modern day interviews with former faculty and students, archival photographs and tastefully done animation providing nice juxtapositions to experiences recalled by the film’s interviewees. Intercut with all of this are Goldberg Tolmach’s attempts to interview former teachers and school administrators – some willing, some not.
Fischer himself is seen in a modern day interview at various points throughout the film. I assume that this footage is from a police video made after his arrest. Fischer answers questions about the sexual abuse he committed as casually as if he was having a conversation about weekend plans with a neighbor across a suburban hedge. There is no regret, or even real understanding of the damage he has caused. What is so sobering about this footage is that Fischer comes across not as evil, but simply amoral.
“What Haunts Us” will be screened on November 9 at 7:30 p.m. at IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue at West Third Street. For more information, on this and other films, visit