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Rachel Fleit's documentary 'Bama Rush' looks at sorority culture at a university

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In 2021, TikTok got obsessed with sorority rush at the University of Alabama. The weeklong process matches potential new members with Greek organizations on campus through a series of parties. The craze inspired filmmaker Rachel Fleit to make a documentary that dove a little deeper into the rules and secrecy of sorority life, as well as young women's search for belonging.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BAMA RUSH")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Being in a sorority will kind of help me figure out who I want to be, help me be surrounded by people that will always have my back no matter what.

RASCOE: The film is called "Bama Rush," and director and executive producer Rachel Fleit joins us now. Welcome to the program.

RACHEL FLEIT: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: What drew you to sorority rush initially?

FLEIT: All the way back in 2018, during the #MeToo movement, I started to think about what it would be like to be a young woman in a sorority during what we had called the age of consent. I really wanted to explore sorority life because I felt like it was going to be a lightning rod to talk about all of these other things that young women face, like body image and sexual assault and racism, classism - I can go on and on and on. It just felt like it was ripe with fodder.

RASCOE: Looking at what you saw on TikTok, which is very stylized, and then what you saw when you were actually talking to these women, what did you see that was different than what people were seeing and following on TikTok?

FLEIT: This idea just resonated immediately. And it was this very strong message of, I just want to belong. I just want to make friends. I want to feel like I'm part of something.

RASCOE: You're talking to these young girls who are talking about why they want to join the sororities. They want to belong. They're also being, you know, very critical of themselves. But then you turn the camera on yourself. And then to tell such a personal story, you talk about how you have alopecia so you don't have hair. And so you would wear wigs for years and years and years because you didn't want people to know that you didn't have hair.

FLEIT: It was extremely emotional, but it was necessary. I was asking these young women to be so vulnerable and honest with me in this film that I would have to do the same thing. And I definitely shed some skin by continuing to explore the ways in which I could sort of weave my story into the film.

RASCOE: In the film, you do make a connection between what you were doing as far as wearing the wig and the rush. Talk to me about that, how rushing and your life - the connection that you found.

FLEIT: Yeah. So the word that comes to mind is pageantry. After watching the outfits of the day TikTok videos over and over, I saw so much similarity. Because it's like you're doing your hair every day, you're doing your makeup, you're putting your outfit on. And, you know, I spent 14 years like putting a wig on and putting on an outfit that I thought was, like, the right outfit to fit in at school.

RASCOE: One thing that I did not know about until I started watching this documentary is this idea of the machine.

FLEIT: I also had no idea what the machine was until I went to Tuscaloosa. And the machine is a not-so-secret society. It is comprised of fraternity men and sorority women. They meet secretly in a basement at the Kappa Alpha house, it's alleged, where they sort of control and dominate the student government. The result is that the Greek system, the students that are involved in the Greek system, have access to the best things on campus because what the machine does is it forces the fraternity and sorority kids to vote in a certain way so that the machine is in control - everything from scholarships and other resources to the best football seats.

RASCOE: Do you believe it was, quote-unquote, "the machine" that was behind the resistance to your film? Because people were online saying, you know, women shouldn't speak with you. Like, do you think the machine was behind that?

FLEIT: You know, I can't prove anything. But I faced so much resistance in initially making this film. I contacted hundreds and hundreds of women. We received so many emails back saying that they were not allowed to talk to us. It seems like there's a tradition of silence. I would have loved to have made this film with some participation from the sorority system at the University of Alabama or from the National Panhellenic Conference, but they didn't want to participate.

RASCOE: There's another part of this, and obviously at the University of Alabama and, you know, throughout this country - but definitely, there's the issue of race. Ten years ago this fall, the University of Alabama student newspaper, The Crimson White, reported that the Greek system at that time remained almost entirely white. What did you find as you talked to students about race and sorority life?

FLEIT: The sorority system at the University of Alabama was formally desegregated in 2013. So before that, it was segregated. And by formally, I mean, like, they made a press announcement. There's an incredible tradition of Divine Nine fraternities and sororities at the University of Alabama.

RASCOE: The Divine Nine is the Black sororities and fraternities, right?

FLEIT: Exactly. You know, I talked to a bunch of different sorority women from the D9 sororities, and it was very clear that this film had to focus on the historically white sororities. And there were two incredible mixed race young women in my film, Rian and Makayla. And so race became a part of the story with their stories because it all went back to this idea of belonging. And Makayla and Rian both really lay out their experiences of being mixed race and trying to rush or being a part of a historically white sorority where there's very few women of color.

RASCOE: Did you learn something about the rush process that really surprised you?

FLEIT: The biggest surprise for me is when I went down there, I had this, like, ultimate sort of feeling in my heart that these young women were just like me. And so I was surprised - I say this also in the film. This beautiful blonde woman, Katie - she's telling me how much she struggles and how much she compares herself to the other young women. And it would have been so great to know at 16 that, like, the really pretty girls at school were also struggling the way that I was struggling. It was surprising, honestly, because when you look at the exterior of someone, you just make this assumption that they're - they've got it made, and it's never, ever true.

RASCOE: That's filmmaker Rachel Fleit. Her new documentary, "Bama Rush," is out now. Thank you so much for being with us.

FLEIT: Thank you so much for having me, Ayesha. It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.