‘I am’ is a survivor’s story


Matthew Rezab/Iowa State Daily

[From left] Quinton Wayne, Vanessa McNeal and Micheal Phipps teamed up to produce “I am”, a film about McNeal’s struggle dealing with domestic and sexual abuse as a child. McNeal and Phipps are both recent ISU grads.

Matthew Rezab

A total of 471 victims of domestic abuse — 229 children and 242 adults — found refuge in emergency shelters or transitional housing provided by local domestic violence programs in Iowa on Sept. 17, 2013.

When the final tally was added up, 694 people used some sort of domestic violence service that day, according to the organizations that participated in the 2013 National Census of Domestic Violence Services.

Those are just numbers; easily shocking and shockingly easily to forget with another click of the mouse. But for victims like Vanessa McNeal, the memory and pain never completely goes away.

In an effort to help not only herself, but other victims heal as well, McNeal teamed up with filmmakers Micheal Phipps and Quinton Wayne to produce “I am,” a testimonial film featuring McNeal’s story, set to be released via Youtube on July 18.

McNeal, a 2015 ISU graduate, said she was 3 or 4 years old when she can first recall trouble at home. Her father was arrested “several times” for domestic violence.

“I grew up around a lot of arguing and domestic violence,” she said. “I never witnessed physical abuse, but I witnessed verbal abuse all the time, the threatening and intimidation. Very negative behavior that wasn’t conducive for a child… I saw that all the time.”

McNeal said that for years, her father would often leave voluntarily because of the fighting, or her mother would kick him out. There was a cycle of violence on both ends, she said.

“A lot of people just think of the cycle of violence in terms of the women, but it was a cycle of violence for both of them,” McNeal said.

When she was 5 years old, McNeal and her three sisters went to live with their maternal grandmother after a conflict at her grandparents’ wedding. She never lived with her parents full time again. They were divorced in 1999.

McNeal, the first high school and college graduate in her family, credited her grandmother Deborah, her sisters, teachers and the parents of her friends for getting her through the tough times.

“I’ve had a lot of moms so to speak, I never had the mom that I always longed for, but I had a lot of fill-ins,” she said.

McNeal said helping others understand they’re not alone and they can get through anything is what inspired her to produce the film, but she wasn’t sure how to execute it.

Enter Phipps and Wayne.

Phipps is a 2015 ISU grad, and Wayne was an ISU student before attending film school at the Carolina Film Institute. The pair now run PLVTO Pros Film Professionals. They heard about McNeal’s story through a mutual friend, former ISU running back turned musician Shontrelle Johnson.

Phipps and Wayne were told about McNeal’s story during a collaboration with Johnson on a music video in 2014. 

“Right away with Vanessa’s story, you could see how she came out as a success story,” Phipps said. “She’s going to be able to help people in a way a lot of people might not be able to.”

Wayne said the two filmmakers knew after the first meeting that they wanted to work on the project. He said McNeal’s story and their goals lined up perfectly.

“Our main goal is we want to help people. We want to change the world,” Wayne said.

The only question was funding. Wayne and Phipps said they didn’t want to charge McNeal, who is the sole producer, but “we still had to pay rent.” Much of the filming and editing time was donated at a reduced rate because they thought her story was so important and impactful, Phipps said.

McNeal around age 5 and during filming photo 11214095_1600456450225363_1844970019598763462_n_zpsmvbaybjp.jpg

The hour-long film got off to a rocky start. The crew thought they could just set up, get the lighting right and let McNeal tell her story, but it wasn’t quite that simple.

“She starts and she realizes she doesn’t know what her story is, she obviously knows her story front to back, but she doesn’t know how to tell it,” Phipps said of the first attempt at filming. 

He said they suggested McNeal write her story out on paper.

“It was really about getting the story from Vanessa’s head onto film,” Phipps said.

McNeal said she’s most proud of the feedback she’s already received from other survivors. She said having people step forward and choose her to be the first person to tell they were molested or sexually assaulted, men and women, has been a humbling and awesome experience.

McNeal, who is headed to UNI for graduate school, said she would love to be able to go on a speaking tour to help other survivors. 

“If I could travel and tell my story and just be an advocate I would be the happiest person ever,” she said.

She said she knows what she wants the public to get out of “I am.”

“I would tell them that the greatest lessons that I’ve learned have come from the deepest places of sorrow for me, and the most growth I’ve had is when I’m in the valley,” McNeal said. 

“There’s so much strength that can be found in your obstacles and there’s so much meaning that can be found there too. I tell people to embrace their obstacles and find ways to learn and grow through them. And it gets better. I know that it gets better.” 

The official Ames release party will be held Friday, July 17. If you’re interested in attending please contact [email protected]

More information can be found at www.vanessamcneal.com

The Original Trailer can be seen here.

PLVTO Pros can be reached on Facebook.