SLO Film Festival’s ‘Haze’ depicts horrors of fraternity pledge process

The movie “Haze” screens as part of the SLO Film Festival on Thursday and Friday in San Luis Obispo.
The movie “Haze” screens as part of the SLO Film Festival on Thursday and Friday in San Luis Obispo.

Early in the film “Haze” by director/writer David Burkman, a character pledging a fictional fraternity says, “I’ll do anything it takes to get into this frat, whatever it takes.”

The film, which screens at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival on Thursday and Friday, aims to lift the veil on a fraternity hazing culture designed to instill loyalty that can be secretive and emotionally, physically, and morally challenging.

The quote comes from a member of a pledge group tested to the limits of pain, alcohol consumption and public humiliation in ways that are dangerous, shocking and disturbing.

The film may have special resonance in a college town like San Luis Obispo that has experienced a tragic hazing case of its own — the 2008 death of Cal Poly freshman Carson Starkey — and more recent efforts to curb the practice.

Hazing is against the law in California and Greek organizations at Cal Poly have vowed not to engage in hazing activities.

In the movie, characters are shamed, literally naked in public in one scene, embarrassed with insults, and even subjected to physical violence. Yet they’re offered the opportunity to make friends, meet sorority girls, attend wild parties and have casual sex.

The story is based on the actual experiences of Burkman and others. The idea is to give the audience the impression and sensation of a “torturous” yet “thrilling” experience and the emotional roller coaster that’s central to pledging. Burkman said his goal was to show fraternity life in a way that Hollywood films typically don’t.

“What you tend to get are comedies such as ‘Animal House’ or horror films about fraternities,” Burkman said in a phone interview this week. “Except for documentaries, often with a lot of talking heads, I haven’t seen Hollywood depict Greek life in a more realistic way.

“By watching the film, the audience can identify with the experience, the emotional ride,” Burkman said. “The byproduct is to educate and help build awareness.”

Burkman warns that the film is unrated, but he would describe it as a “hard R.” It contains violence, strong language, sexual misconduct, and unsettling imagery.

Personal experience

Burkman, who drew on some of his experiences as a fraternity member at Indiana University, said scenes in his film have striking similarities to the Starkey story. The Cal Poly freshman died of alcohol poisoning in 2008 during a fraternity hazing party.

The filmmaker said he wasn’t familiar with Starkey’s death until reading news articles about it recently. But the narrative is similar to tragedies that have taken place nationwide through fraternity hazing.

“In my film, the campus is very tense because it’s set in the aftermath of a brutal fraternity hazing death, very much like the one that took place at Cal Poly,” Burkman said. “The older brother of a central character who’s rushing a fraternity is launching an anti-hazing campaign. So, the story has that context of brotherhood, not just fraternity brotherhood but brotherhood within a family.”

Burkman shot the film on a college campus in Maryland. He had been living in the Washington, D.C., area, though he recently moved to Columbus, Ohio. Many of the actors were in fraternities or sororities themselves and were given some freedom to improvise their parts.

By watching the film, the audience can identify with the experience, the emotional ride.

David Burkman, “Haze” director

The film has been entered in eight film festivals and won “Best Film” at three of the four events where it has been screened so far, Burkman said.

Burkman said that his experience as a pledge, and ultimately completing college as a member of a fraternity, was “one of the most profound experiences of my life.”

He said he recalled a divided pledge class that debated over whether to stand up for a fellow member who had been kicked out because he wasn’t “pulling his weight” or proving to the fraternity, through its guided activities, that the pledge deserved to be there. He felt the expulsion was unjustified.

“I went back to my dorm alone thinking that I was done with (the fraternity),” Burkman said. “I’d made friends with some of these guys, and I realized I’d have no friends. It was a terrifying place to be. The entire council of the fraternity came to my room and sat down on the bed. They said, ‘There’s nothing that you can do to bring him back. We really don’t think you should do this.’”

But Burkman, who remained in the fraternity, said it still bothers him that he didn’t stand up for his principles and for his friend.

Though he says pledging is admittedly torturous, Burkman understands the draw of fraternities, which can start out with “light games” and gentler offerings of friendship before ramping up the intensity to extreme tests of loyalty and hazing activities, which he doesn’t condone.

Burkman said he spent years on the film, with a budget of under $1 million, and consulted with Doug Fierberg, one of the few attorneys in the United States who specializes in representing hazing victims and their families.

Despite his strong feelings about the dangers of hazing, Burkman said that even now, he doesn’t reject his Greek experience.

“I can’t say, if given the chance to be 18 again, that I wouldn’t join a fraternity all over again ,” Burkman said. “It was a thrilling experience. ... There’s something about being tested, that fight or flight mechanism, that bonds people. It happens in military, sports, in nations, religion. There’s something about any challenging obstacle that does bring people together.”