“Pray Away” Producer Jessica Devaney on Seeing Further with Fresh Perspectives in Nonfiction Film

When the path to filmmaking wasn’t an obvious one for Jessica Devaney, it’s only natural that she has prized films that have come from a different angle than most. At a career crossroads upon leaving Georgetown’s Graduate School of Foreign Service in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, the future founder of Multitude Films saw a job listing for JustVision, the nonprofit documentary production house for films aimed to make sense of the ongoing turmoil between Palestine and Israel for audiences abroad with the aim of ending the occupation. Having spent some time in Palestine as a part of her studies and picking up some Arabic, it was only the language of cinema that she’d have to learn.

“I just realized what I loved about the process [of filmmaking],” says Devaney now of the formative experience, a combination of activism and education that she was ideally suited for. “I think if you come from a really religious background like I did, and [you’re] going to have conversations with family or the community where I grew up, data and arguments and theories and facts, etc., don’t really penetrate a worldview or disrupt cognitive dissonance in a way that stories can and we need new stories to replace the old stories that we’re structuring the meaning of our lives around.”

In a relatively short amount of time, Devaney has already changed the conversation around a number of pressing social issues with Multitude Films, the company she founded in 2016 and now runs with partners Anya Rous, Sweta Vohra and Ameena Din. Only two years later, the company made a splash at Tribeca with a trio of arresting nonfiction nail biters that surfaced stories that had somehow never received the attention they deserved from the mainstream in spite of how much they impacted the communities they took place in — Nancy Schwartzman’s “Roll Red Roll,” about the rape of a high school student in Steubenville, Ohio at the hands of two football players that involved a trail of evidence on social media that was difficult at the time to use in court, PJ Raval’s “Call Her Ganda,” centering on the murder of Jennifer Laude, a trans woman, by a U.S. Marine stationed in the Philippines who attempted to use jurisdictional issues to prevent a trial from taking place, and Assia Boundaoui’s “The Feeling of Being Watched,” set in the suburbs of Chicago where a Muslim-American community has, without provocation, attracted mass surveillance by the FBI.

This past year, Devaney was set to turn heads once more at Tribeca with the premiere of “Pray Away,” Kristine Stolakis’ sobering history of Exodus International, the ministry responsible for popularizing the widely discredited practice of gay conversion therapy, a story that was particularly close to Devaney’s heart growing up amongst the Evangelical community in Florida. (She herself would co-direct a short “Love the Sinner” in the aftermath of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2017 with Geeta Gandbhir, confronting the homophobia of the church.) However, the moment of triumph, with the film boasting unprecedented access to many in leadership positions at Exodus speaking candidly for the first time, had to be delayed as a result of the coronavirus, which delayed its proper premiere over a year.

In that time, “Pray Away” was assured of an even greater audience when Netflix acquired the film on behalf of Ryan Murphy, an outcome that is indicative of Multitude’s prowess at finding a way to bring such uncompromising depictions of injustice to the screen against all odds. While the individual release of such films as Jacqueline Olive’s “Always in Season” and Geeta Gandbhir’s “Call Center Blues” is something to be deeply proud of, Devaney is laying the foundation for a more sustainable and socially conscientious production model that can bring more diverse perspectives to nonfiction filmmaking. With “Pray Away” recently making its streaming debut, the producer spoke about how Multitude navigated the uncharted territory of finding a distributor for the film when festival launches were out of the question, handling films with sensitive content with the care they deserve and how their work on any of their films continues well past its release.

How did “Pray Away” come about?

Daniel Chalfen, who’s an executive producer that we work with on a number of projects, was connected with Kristine [Stolakis], the director of the film through the Student BAFTA Awards and he saw the initial materials from “Pray Away,” which were basically like some profiles of the different leaders. Because I grew up evangelical and queer in Florida, he knew the topic would be personally of interest to me, and when I saw the access that [Kristine] had, I was just completely blown away because I had grown up reading these books and seeing these people speak. They were household names in the evangelical world I grew up in, and I was also really impressed with Kristine’s approach to the topic, which often is really treated with a kind of sensationalism that makes it seem more marginal than it really is. She brought both the complexity and understanding of how the leaders of the movement who are largely gay themselves are a real example of internalized homophobia moving outward.

It was interesting to hear you say in the Q & A at AFI Docs that this might’ve been a topic that wasn’t getting much traction when you were trying to set it up, which came as a surprise to me, but I wonder if it did to you?

We wanted to take on this project because of the personal connection and because we knew this was an anchor issue in terms of LGBTQ rights and dignity. Conversion therapy is currently the most common response in evangelical and conservative Christian circles to LGBTQ people, and what we discovered was actually a disconnect in terms of mostly liberal or progressive funders and executives not understanding how common and pervasive conversion therapy is. We got a lot of questions around, “Is this the most urgent issue facing the LTGBTQ community?” [Which presumed] A, we can only tell stories about our trauma and B, we need to rank the urgency of issues in order to justify telling stories about them, so I would say that surprised me.

All your films have dealt with sensitive subjects that must be difficult to get people to speak on the record for — has it become any easier to facilitate a process in which they feel safe?

We really want to take a trauma-informed approach both to our filmmaking process and our audience engagement process, so that requires consulting with a lot of folks who are experts. For “Pray Away” specifically, we developed a very in-depth discussion guide and also a viewer resource guide for folks that will largely be watching the film in their home on Netflix and making sure they have the tools to support their mental health in experiencing this. And I’ll also share a story about the process of filmmaking in terms of Jeffrey, the one who identifies as formerly trans and who’s the leader of the freedom march, the contemporary movement that’s unfolding in the present day. We really wanted to reflect him accurately and in his own words and also edit the film in such a way that his point of view and perspective is always commented on through the other participants’ experiences and change of heart over time. That was a really important piece in terms of how we showed up to Jeffrey, who is still actively running a conversion therapy movement organization. We recently went to Tennessee to screen the film for him before it was globally available on Netflix and he really reflected back to us that the care and respect he saw in the filmmaking, that he felt really accurately represented and the Freedom March and that even though our point of view is clearly different from his, we recreated his story with respect.

It’s fascinating to hear equal thought was given to both the filmmaking and the audience engagement after the film when I imagine you’re still very much involved with various organizations and social issues that your films have tackled well after the films have been released. Have you incorporated that into thinking about the films you take on?

It’s definitely a core of our company and we really bring an eye towards impact from the beginning of our involvement in producing films. We’re really interested solely in stories that have something to say about the key issues of our time and can contribute to the work of movements leading on those issues. No film is a silver bullet solution, but we are interested in how different stories along the same themes, whether that’s LGBTQ rights and dignity, disability rights and access, anti-racism, government overreach and Islamophobia, etc, can build impact accumulatively over time, so we really do embed that strategy into our producing model, regardless of whether a film has an in-depth community engagement or impact campaign.

Even though Multitude is often described as an LGBTQ-led company, did the mission start out there and broaden or was making films more generally around underrepresented communities always there?

We were founded and organized around the strategy of supporting emerging, underrepresented directors with a particular eye towards responsible authorship, meaning that the core creative team has a stake in the communities that will be most impacted by the film when it’s complete and out in the world. [There’s] also a particular interest in insiders looking around rather than outsiders looking in. Over time, we’ve grown from a full focus on emerging underrepresented directors to also broadening our slate to working with folks with a lot of films and experience under their belt and we built into the structure of our company a kind of apprenticeship model where the below-the-line team are working across all the films on our slate, seeing films in all the different stages and not siloed into one particular part of the process and go bi-monthly training modules that relate to the work itself. In terms of the LTGBQ stuff, we really just come to this work as a clear women-led company where the three primary producers are queer-identified women, so for us, that is both an identity and also a political orientation and we’re coming to the work with a real intersectional lens.

Of course, “Pray Away” had more challenges than most getting out into the world when it’s premiere at Tribeca 2020 was cancelled as a result of the pandemic. What was it like figuring out the best way forward?

Yeah, that was a real crapshoot [once] we got the news in March, just four to six weeks before the festival is set to kick off and we were just full steam ahead preparing for the launch. We had no idea then how long we would be in lockdown, when festivals would start back up again, what this would mean for film distribution broadly and what it would mean for our particular film. What we did know is the loss of in person festivals will disproportionately impact underrepresented and emerging folks because those serve such an important function in terms of reaching audiences and demonstrating an interest and response to films, so we had to really think strategically about the best way to navigate these super-uncharted waters. Many films were going all in on the online festival landscape and that worked really well for some and we did that with “Call Center Blues,” the short that we had at SXSW that was supposed to be out in that same season because we already had distribution.

For “Pray Away,” we decided not to participate in any of the virtual festivals, but to do an initial round of publicity to get reviews of the film out there that we could use to sell the film and use in our conversations with distributors, and we worked with Cinetic on sales and working with Susan Norget on publicity as well as the team at Blumhouse. In the wake of those reviews, we got connected with Ryan Murphy and the Netflix relationship came to be, so we then held the film completely and launched it this year at Tribeca at an outdoor, in-person screening, followed by DOC10 and AFI Docs.

What was it like to finally get out in the open at Tribeca?

It was incredibly moving to share a film that’s so personal to us with audiences and experience that in person again. Because it is a deeply emotional film that can be hard to watch, getting to show that with a number of people who were close to the film — supporters, funders of the film, and movement leaders who we were working with on our campaign and were survivors of conversion therapy, altogether in a space was really incredible.

“Pray Away” is now streaming on Netflix.