Home #Hwoodtimes JEANNETTE: A Determined Female Survivor of the Pulse Nightclub Massacre

JEANNETTE: A Determined Female Survivor of the Pulse Nightclub Massacre

By Jim Gilles

Memorial Wall in front of Pulse Nightclub in Orlando where 49 were killed on June 12, 2016

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 7/18/22 – Queer single mother and bodybuilder Jeannette Feliciano believes that strength is to show love. Director Maris Curran (Five Nights in Maine, 2015) opens a door into a woman’s life after she was dramatically affected by the Orlando Massacre at Pulse. This exacting and candid yet penetrating documentary offers a unique perspective about a woman’s resilience. The film is an eye- opening look at what it means to survive and overcome trauma with pain and beauty. Jeannette is a moving documentary that goes from trauma toward healing, finds support through community, and still reminds us about the crisis era we are living in. As director Maris Curran notes, “Jeanette is a vérité documentary. The film is shot handheld and the camera is observational and direct. I set out to create an intensely intimate film that honestly reflects Jeannette’s world.” This documentary is one of most empowering films in the lineup at Outfest this year. Jeannette screens at Outfest in the DGA-2 on Wednesday, July 20, at 7:15 PM. Jeannette Feliciano and Maris Curran will be present for the Q&A. If you can’t make it to the screening at the DGA on Wednesday, consider watching the film online at home with Outfest Virtual, beginning July 21, at 8:00 AM.

Pulse Nightclub Memorial Wall

Jeannette Feliciano is a fitness trainer, an award-winning bodybuilder and mother to a teenage son. One way or another, she has a lot of people looking to her for an example. Furthermore, like a lot of those caught up in that particular shooting, she had a life full of challenges before it happened. In some ways this has toughened her up. In others, it has made the process of recovery harder. She’s very proactive and very aware of her vulnerabilities. One of the most difficult things, she says, is that she has never truly had a safe haven: Every time she thinks she’s found one, something snatches it away.

Jeannette Feliciano running a boot camp exercise class at the Iron Religion Gym in Orlando

We first meet Jeannette in her highly regulated life – early to rise and get to the Iron Religion Gym in Orlando, where she is a personal trainer and runs boot camp exercise classes. She is quite a fitness fanatic because she is a professional bodybuilder as well and determined to keep in great shape for an upcoming women’s bodybuilding contest. On the way to the gym in the morning, she muses over her dreadful memories of the night of the Pulse Nightclub Massacre, in which 49 people died and many more were left with life-changing injuries. Jeannette was one of the lucky ones, but as she says at the start, she will never forget having a gun pointed at her face. She has a chosen family of other Pulse Nightclub survivors with whom she has a close and continuing relationship as her queer chosen family.

Jeannette talking to her conservative mother, who she decided to let live her and her son

In the film she talks about her childhood growing up in New York City with her conservative Puerto Rican family who were devout believers in the Jehovah Witness religion. She reveals that her older sister was always been gay and came out long before Jeannette ever thought about what that meant. Her sister is currently living in San Juan, Puerto Rico with a female partner and when Hurricane Maria struck the island, Jeannette bought a generator and brought supplies to her out. Knowing her older sister was gay made her aware of that meant from an early age. Jeannette once lived in fear of her parents and their religious views. Her mother features in the film, and is starkly aggressive on the subject of Jeannette’s sexuality, apparently quite unconcerned as to what viewers may think of the way she treats her child. Jeannette is impressively resilient, but that’s something which has obviously come at a price.

Single mother Jeannette with her son Anthony who loves music

There are signs of damage, as she tries to stay focused on the present. As Jeannette explains after the Pulse experience, “Every place I go, I put myself in the scenario, if something is to happen.” With a tendency to obsess about things, she has channeled that determination into perfecting her figure as a female bodybuilder but which still threatens to push her to extremes. Her chosen family members are gentle with her, and quite protective. With her son Anthony, she is the most loving and supportive mother.

Jeannette with her girlfriend who moved back to Puerto Rico

Although divorced from her husband, she is still on fairly friendly terms with him. She has had relationships with other women, but the film does not focus on that aspect of her story. It seems that there is a woman in her life at the beginning of the film. However, about the time of Hurricane Maria, that woman decides to move back to Puerto Rico. Two very cute little dachshunds ensure a constant supply of affection in her Orlando home. At some point, Jeannette decides to let her mother move it and live with her – obviously a challenge given her mother’s very conservative religious views.

Jeannette in San Juan, Puerto Rico, helping her sister there after Hurricane Maria in September 2017

Maris Curran’s documentary follows Jeannette through difficult weeks. The disaster in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017 affected some of her family members, prompting her to go over there and help. Ever so frightening was the trial of Noor Salman, the Pulse gunman’s widow who was accused of helping him, and her acquittal in that same year. She is stalwart, managing her feelings. We see the effort, the careful choices involved, in a film which defies conventional narratives around victims and those perceived as heroically overcoming harm. If she provides inspiration for other survivors, it’s at a very practical level. Most importantly, she comes across as a complete individual with a full, complicated life; it is impossible to reduce her to a statistic, and that should help us to recognize the real cost of every mass killing.

A friend mixing Jeannette’s hair before the women’s bodybuilding contest

Director Maris Curran explained how the film began: “When we met, Jeannette and I recognized something of ourselves in each other. We’re both tough feminine queer women who have dealt with sexual and physical violence. At our core, each of us was formed in response to violence we faced as girls and later women and much of our adult lives have been spent trying to articulate the personal impact of violence and yet not be defined by it. It became clear as we spent time together that surviving Pulse opened wounds from the past for Jeannette – wounds that she was eager to heal and help others work through as well. It was in the question: what do we do with our trauma? that Jeannette and I connected. Each of us use our voice to spark conversations with the hope that dialogue leads to greater awareness, empathy and action. This connection and a level of shared experiences created an opening – “a space for initial conversations that fostered trust and a common language. This formed the foundation of our collaboration.”

Jeannette (center) at the women’s bodybuilding contest

In hindsight, Jeannette has reflected on her experience in making this documentary about herself:  “I look at this film like I look at life  –  I want this film to inspire people to keep going; regardless of what they may be going through we are all warriors but it takes the strong mental willingness of never quitting. We all struggle, we are all going through something and I hope this film gives people an example of resilience for their own lives. I want people to watch the film and see themselves. I don’t feel that my story is so different from that of other people, the situation at hand may be different in its description but the feeling of depression, anxiety, sadness, the feeling of feeling lost is the common demeanor of those who struggle through trials and tribulations. The question we can ask ourselves is: What do we learn from hardship? How do we use struggle to help others?”

A sidenote: The executive producers of Jeannette are filmmakers Rivkah Beth Medow and Jen Rainin, who have a short film in the SHORTS: Our History, Our Truth on Tuesday, July 19.