Student Spotlight: Speaking Out Against Sexual Violence

Juliana Roth speaks at a screening of “Little Stones,” a documentary by Sophia Kruz.

Juliana Roth is taking a stand against sexual violence this spring using the sharpest weapon she has: her words. The 26-year-old writing teacher is working on a film that explores the challenges of reporting sexual abuse on college campuses. When she’s not writing, Juliana loves to use dance as a creative outlet and to connect with the community at Philly Dance Fitness.

Read on to learn how Juliana hopes to use her movie to encourage more victims to speak out both locally and beyond.


Philly Dance Fitness: Tell us a little about yourself.

Juliana Roth: I live in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood with my dog, who I recently adopted — which has been quite the adventure! In addition to piecing together freelance work, I teach undergraduates as part of a teaching assistantship that funded my Creative Writing MFA degree at Rutgers University in 2018. At first, I was really intimidated by the idea of teaching but grew to love it. I’ve been lucky to work with some really talented and passionate young writers. I’ve always been interested in writing in more than one genre and being able to work with students who are curious about what that means is so fun.

Tell us about your film project, “What We Know.”

The story follows a freshman in college named Abbey. We go with her through the experience of filing a complaint with her university against another student after he sexually assaults her and she is deterred from filing with the city police. The story is fictionalized, but written after years of research and interviews with survivors, trauma therapists, social workers, police officers, administrators and lawyers.

What inspired you to create this movie?

The history of violence against women and discrimination in the university system paired with my love for the power of storytelling to help us find our way out of pain and to take ownership of our own narratives. Plus my own experiences of trauma and those in the communities around me. Complaints are often mishandled by universities and the process can end up being traumatizing for the few survivors who come forward.

I don’t have the solution, but I believe in community driven answers and that we need to hold institutions accountable to Title IX, the civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and mandates access to a safe and equal educational space. My hope is to bring the finished film to college campuses where we can put together local panels to generate conversation around campus culture and beliefs about sexual violence.

Who else is working with you on this project?

V. Prasad, a Michigan-based director, writer and professor who I met at the University of Michigan, is mentoring us through the filmmaking process. Azure Rouet McBride, who has studied under Jonathan Demme and Spike Lee, and worked alongside Prince as a videographer, is our director of photography. And Carly Van Liere will be our lead. She’s acted professionally in the Bay Area and metro Detroit. She sees her performance as an opportunity for the viewer to empathize with those who’ve been through traumatic experiences.

What films do you recommend that everyone watch, and why?

“The Accused” starring Jodie Foster was one of the first films to depict a complex story of sexual assault. I love Jonathan Demme, Spike Lee and Nancy Savoca’s work as they still maintain a strong social consciousness in their films while also telling beautiful stories with compelling characters. They inspire me to try to do the same.

My favorite screenwriters are Diablo Cody and Charlie Kaufman. I’m actually interested in telling comedic stories along with anthology television series (“Big Little Lies” in particular) and love shows written by Tina Fey. If I had my pick, my dream writer’s room would’ve been for “The Office.”

Shifting gears, how did you come across Philly Dance Fitness?

When I first moved to Philadelphia almost three years ago for graduate school, I wanted to find a space I could go that was separate from my academic and work life. I was lucky to learn I was only a few blocks away from one of the studios. Some weeks, attending a class was a true savior. What I love about Philly Dance Fitness is that I am able to visit any of the studios across the city and take classes from hip hop to belly dance, and it’s a real joy. No day in a class feels the same. The anticipation of the songs that are picked and the energy in the room is what I look forward to the most.

How has fitness and dance impacted your life?

As a writer, it can be easy to spend a lot of time alone or in your head — not that these aren’t places I enjoy to be! But when dancing with a group of students, I feel myself both challenged and more in tune with my body in ways I can carry with me all week, and sometimes into a project I’m working on. Mostly, staying active and learning new physical skills just makes me feel happy and centered.

Learn more about Juliana’s film here. If you’d like to support the production, you can donate through this indie film crowdfunding platform.

Interview by social media marketing intern Lily Barnaby, edited for brevity and clarity