Outfest’s ‘Jeannette’ Celebrates Resilience of Queer Single Mother After Pulse Tragedy

The intimate documentary premieres at the festival July 20

Jerry Henry

When director Maris Curran (“Five Nights in Maine”) and Pulse Nightclub shooting survivor Jeannette Feliciano met while working on an anti-discrimination campaign in the wake of the Pulse massacre, the two could not have anticipated the friendship and trust that produced an intimate documentary five years later.

“Jeannette,” which premieres at Outfest in Los Angeles on July 20, tells a story of resilience through Feliciano, a competitive bodybuilder, trainer and queer single mother, who tackles her trauma with determination and love. Composed with voice-over audio-only interviews, the vérité film follows Feliciano’s healing process as a survivor as she navigates relationships with her mother and son, prepares for bodybuilding competitions and returns to Puerto Rico to help her family and community repair their home after Hurricane Maria.

“The film is a very intimate look at the aftermath of violence, of what it takes to survive after experiencing something this tragic,” Curran told TheWrap, “And I was really interested in this place that we don’t explore very often in this country of when the camera trucks pack away and when the news is no longer focused.”

The film opens with Feliciano’s account of the Pulse massacre on June 12, 2016, when Feliciano went to “Latin Night” with her friends. Describing “the rumbling, the heat and the chaos” after the gun shots that followed the bar’s last call, Feliciano recalls her realization that she was a target. “It was a gay club,” Feliciano says in the film, “we were all the targets.”

Following the tragedy, Feliciano turned to her combined passion and work: training. Using the physical release as “a form of therapy,” training enabled Feliciano to let go of negative energy and reset her mindset before returning to the outside world. “I can’t tell you how many times I come into my personal gym, and either I’m crying through my whole workout, or I’m angry,” Feliciano told TheWrap, “But one thing that is for certain is once that session is over, it gives me that opportunity to breathe again.”

Curran immediately recognized Feliciano’s training as both an inward coping mechanism as well as a tool for community building, even focusing on a phrase Feliciano used frequently during training — “What’s your number?” — as the film’s mantra. Similar to how Feliciano returns to fitness as a core part of her life, the mantra becomes a fundamental element of the film to showcase how Feliciano “help[s] others not only find their strength, but to really work through to gain confidence to see their best selves within them,” according to Curran.

Beyond her personal healing and professional pursuits, Feliciano shared that throughout this period, additional challenges were constantly being thrown at her, including a difficult break up and complex familial relationships. “How do I protect my son?” Feliciano asked. “How do I develop this relationship with my mom? How do I help my sister out in Puerto Rico? How do I continue to be this strong positive figure? How do I make sure that I don’t let hate enter into my heart?”

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in Sept. 2017, the film stayed true to its vérité form and production followed Feliciano as she traveled back to her home island to help her sister, her sister-in-law and her community recover from the natural disaster that left more than 3 million people without electricity.

Curran suggested there was a deep connection between Hurricane Maria and Pulse that “hit on a very similar wound,” noting that similar communities were impacted by the events and there was a great deal of neglect in the wake of both tragedies. Feliciano echoed this similarity through her instinct to help out when her community is in need that was activated during both events. “What happened the night of Pulse when I was sticking my hands in people who were bleeding just to stop the bleeding, taking off my shirt to wrap people’s legs and arms,” Feliciano said, “It was no different when it came to my sister having no electricity, no food and things like that.”

Although Curran could not have imagined flying out to Puerto Rico at the film’s start, this tendency toward service reflects the truth of Feliciano’s life. “Not imposing my idea was really important and going with what was actually happening and the emotional energy of her life and of her healing,” Curran said. “That was huge in terms of the trajectory of healing in her life.”

As the film premieres at Outfest next week, Feliciano hopes that audiences will replace “Jeannette” with their name, recognizing their own strength and their commitment to keep fighting. For Curran, the film’s release coincides with “a time of collective trauma” and hopes that the film gives viewers an opportunity to voice what they are going through as well as have conversations about violence and trauma that can become a “bridge to talk about healing, and how we can be better together in community.”

“Jeannette” will premiere at Outfest with an in-person screening on Wednesday, July 20, and will be available to stream online July 21 through July 23 .