When Nick, a wide-eyed first-year, tries to become part of Psi Theta Epsilon in David Burkman’s film “Haze,” he and seven others are given the opportunity to pledge, but — as is tradition — the price of brotherhood is high.
From within the Greek system in Burkman’s film, Nick (Kirk Curran) faces mounting psychological anguish from the fraternity’s leader Taylor (Jeremy O’Shea) and sexual manipulation via senior sorority sister Sophie (Sophia Medley) who constantly teases him.
In an effort to keep experiences like Nick’s limited to movies — and off Pitt’s campus — producer Jayme Aronberg partnered with Fraternity and Sorority Life to screen the film for members of Greek life as part of the University’s official anti-hazing campaign week.
Hundreds of Pitt fraternity brothers and sorority sisters packed into the O’Hara Student Center ballroom this past Tuesday night for an advance screening of the indie film, which serves as a dynamic investigation into the state of modern Greek culture, as well as a bracing look at college life’s sociological effects.
Following the screening, Burkman, who wrote and directed the film, led an engaging discussion on the moral questions posed by “Haze,” which marks his feature-length debut.
Since last year, screenings like this have been stops on an ongoing nationwide tour of several other campuses including the University of Iowa and the University of Connecticut, before “Haze” releases commercially this spring. The film has also played at various film festivals, including the DC Independent Film Festival and the San Antonio Film Festival.
“We want the film to hopefully get people to speak more openly and honestly about these kinds of issues,” Burkman said.
Samuel Bowser, a junior and a brother of Beta Theta Pi, said he was more inclined to be a member of an anti-hazing community and movement after watching “Haze.”
“It was unique in the sense that the entertainment value was high,” Bowser said. “It seemed genuine, but I did not feel like I was being lectured.”
In addition to the film screening last Tuesday, last week served as Pitt’s official anti-hazing campaign week. At one event, brothers and sisters had to take a picture with a whiteboard, take a stand against hazing in writing, then post it on social media. At another, there was a roundtable discussion where people from all the Greek organizations on campus were shown different antagonistic scenarios and had to decide if each one was hazing or not.
On Wednesday of last week, Pitt welcomed Mari Callais, a speaker and consultant on Greek life who is currently the senior director of special initiatives for Delta Delta Delta. Callais talked about the positive aspects that Greek life brings to campuses and why hazing has no place in that culture.
Forty-four states currently have anti-hazing laws, yet similar tragedies to those magnified in the film still take place.
As a film, “Haze” provides real cinematic grit, but its virtue is in how skillfully it manages to get you thinking once the lights are up. Burkman — someone who pledged and was hazed during his college years — manages to cover all sides of the complicated issues at hand with brave impartiality. The film’s plot is based in part on his own experience facing harassment in Greek life, but also in similar accounts of others involved with the film.
The university that Nick attends feels plenty real. After a student dies of alcohol poisoning — the cause of about 80 percent of hazing-related deaths, according to a 2006 publication called “Hazing in View,” which offers some of the most comprehensive recent data on the subject. Nick’s brother, Pete (Mike Blejer), spearheads an anti-hazing movement within the film, resulting in mistrust between Nick and the fraternity, particularly Taylor.
The shenanigans and debauchery of the film’s raucous and funny first act slowly turn sinister and gratuitous. The pledges’ will is tested through countless creative forms of humiliation, physical pain, verbal abuse and nauseating amounts of alcohol.
“I think this film showed how psychologically damaging hazing can be — how it starts off subtle and slowly builds to terrifying levels,” said Lauren Sunday, a senior and sister of Delta Phi Epsilon.
In the post-screening discussion, Burkman explained how military traditions of bonding through hazing in WWI — such as spanking and branding the skin — were carried over to college campuses afterward.
In “Haze,” what begins innocently enough becomes an acceptable form of abuse. In his talk, Burkman also referenced the idea of “gradual operate conditioning” and punishment-reward systems that fraternities can often employ. These tactics allow frats to get away with actions imposed on pledges that range from the ethically questionable to the absurdly cruel.
Though the film touches on hazing in sororities, the girls of the main sisterhood in “Haze” are little more than exploited accessories to the fraternities’ excessive partying.
The film’s uncertain ending definitely stirred conversation following the screening. A majority of the men in the room left the screening before the talk, while nearly all of the women stayed. Burkman said this phenomenon has occurred at other universities he’s visited.
Lauren Hunter, a senior from Delta Phi Epsilon who took part in the anti-hazing week’s activities, said the film offered a lot of opportunity for self-reflection.
“I think the movie was effective in provoking thoughts about hazing and causing the audience members to really think about their organizations in a different light,” Hunter said.