By now you’ve likely heard or read something about the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the U.S. women’s Olympics gymnastics team.
Dozens of female athletes were victimized and abused. The perpetrator: Dr. Larry Nassar, the team’s osteopathic physician. Nassar and the heinous crimes he committed are the subjects of a detailed and riveting new documentary titled “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal,” directed by Erin Lee Carr.
The 90-minute movie is slated to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York this week and debut exclusively on HBO at 8 p.m. PDT on Friday, May 3.
The film also has a link to Healdsburg: Dr. Steven Ungerleider, one of the producers, lives here in town.
On a broad scale, the work draws upon experiences that Ungerleider, now 69, had himself as a college gymnast, and it pulls together nearly four decades of his work as a psychologist and three decades of his involvement with the U.S. Olympic Committee.
From a practical perspective, the documentary represents the culmination of three years of research and writing for Ungerleider.
“I’ve done other films, but this was definitely the most challenging and volatile because the national attention on the subject,” he said earlier this spring. “This is an uncomfortable situation, but it’s something we must talk about.”
Merely watching the trailer is unsettling. The narrative reveals a dangerous system that prioritized winning over everything else. Through interviews with dozens of survivors and many others, the film exposes an environment in which young women spent their youth seeking victory on a world stage, and juxtaposes this phenomenon against a culture where abuse was hidden out of fear of losing everything.
Ungerleider and co-producer David Ulich tackle this culture head-on. They made sure the film included an interview with Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who gave Nassar up to a 175-year sentence in prison.
They also wrote into the film a sort of epilogue about what happened after the scandal — how Congress went on to pass legislation enforcing mandatory reporting of sexual abuse in amateur sports, and that one week after Nassar’s sentencing, the entire board of USA Gymnastics resigned.
Both Ulich and Ungerleider say they hope the film is used as an educational tool and incorporated into anti-harassment trainings so coaches, teachers and parents alike know what to look out for down the road.
Ulich, president of the Foundation for Global Sports Development in Los Angeles, adds that the film wouldn’t have been made without Ungerleider’s passion for the truth.
“Steven has a brilliant mind and always likes to think out of the box,” he wrote in a recent email. “Over the years I have learned to listen to his ideas, because more often than not it turns out he is ahead of the curve and is seeing things that others won't realize for a while.”
Ungerleider, who owns and operates a local helicopter tour company and is active in the local philanthropy scene, will fly back to New York with his family this week for the film’s premiere.
At Tribeca, the film will go up against other highly-touted works for a juried award in the documentary competition.
Win or lose, Ungerleider already has done Healdsburg proud.
Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Healdsburg. His column spotlights good people in the community doing great things. Learn more about him at whalehead.com.