Last year, as rumors of a secret documentary swirled at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, many students taking part in sorority recruitment were on high alert.
There was talk of a film crew on campus. More dramatically, there were unfounded whispers that some potential new sorority members — known, in Greek-speak, as P.N.M.s — were wearing concealed microphones to capture what went on behind closed doors.
It turned out the rumors were only partly true. There was indeed a documentary being made during the recruitment period, better known as rush, but no one who went through it was wearing a hidden device to record secret rituals.
Rush at the University of Alabama became an international sensation in 2021, when TikTok videos gave people from around the world an inside view of the annual event and its hush-hush traditions.
“Bama Rush” was released Tuesday on Max. Directed by Rachel Fleit, it follows four University of Alabama students from their preparations in the summer of 2022 to bid day, when they find out if they have been invited to join a sorority. (Warning: Light spoilers ahead.)
Working with her team, Ms. Fleit, who directed the 2021 documentary “Introducing, Selma Blair,” found her subjects by searching social media for incoming students who planned to rush.
She said she wrote to them and told them: “Listen, I want to make a 360-degree view on the sorority system at the University of Alabama. I really want to center around the experiences of what it means to be a young woman right now. We’re going to tackle all of the big topics that you are up against.”
“That included a lot of the topics that came up in the film,” she said, including “body image, sexual assault, feminism, comparing and competition between young women.”
Ms. Fleit added that no one was paid to participate in the documentary, and the film crew did not record inside sorority houses. She also tried to make sure her presence did not change the usual rush process, she said, as she sought to “make a very quiet, very honest, very intimate portrait.”
The rumors of hidden microphones were “false,” Ms. Fleit said. She added that she “felt for” the students who were caught up in them.
Marina Anderson, 19, was one of the young women whose lives were affected by campus rumors. She said she was dismissed from rush in August after being wrongly accused of wearing a microphone. What caused suspicion, Ms. Anderson said, was a black hair tie she had wrapped around the back of her shirt to make it fit better.
Despite her repeated denials, some of her peers refused to believe she was not participating in the documentary, calling her “HBO girl” for months. (Those accusations came while Max was still known as HBO Max. The platform underwent a rebranding on Tuesday.)
“It was so uncomfortable,” Ms. Anderson said. “I had people recording me in public. It really messed me up my freshman year.” She added that she had come to enjoy her time at college and was excited to return as a sophomore in the fall.
Ms. Anderson, who was not interviewed for “Bama Rush,” watched the documentary shortly after it appeared on Max on Tuesday. Watching it was “bittersweet,” she said. In general, she found the film “anticlimactic,” saying that ultimately it “wasn’t about Alabama rush,” but rather the personal struggles of the women featured in it.
Ms. Anderson added that she had occasionally wondered what she might have missed out on because of the microphone paranoia. “I think the main thing is just that rumors are really dangerous,” she said.
Grant Sikes, another student who rushed in 2022, echoed those sentiments. Ms. Sikes, who became a popular figure on TikTok because of the videos she posted during rush, said she felt “let down” by the film. Compared with the dramatic trailer — which proclaimed, “This documentary could be the end of Greek life as we know it” — the finished product fell short, she said.
“Nothing they talked about wasn’t already known or something you couldn’t Google yourself,” Ms. Sikes, 20, said. “It wasn’t a documentary about Bama Rush whatsoever! It was a documentary about a couple of girls and their life.”
“A lot of people were really hoping this would uncover things so change could happen,” she continued, adding that she wished “Bama Rush” had more deeply explored themes like racism, homophobia, fatphobia and hazing.
During rush, rumors circulated that Ms. Sikes was a “documentary plant,” she said, a falsehood that she believes could have affected her rush chances.
“Why would a chapter want to even speak with me if they thought that I was the plant?” Ms. Sikes, who is nonbinary, said. “I was like, ‘Do you honestly think I was sent here to blend in with a bunch of blond hot chicks? Like, come on.’”
By the end of the process, she was not invited to join any sorority, having been dropped by most houses early on. Ms. Fleit reached out to Ms. Sikes in August about the film, according to DMs reviewed by The New York Times. The pair never spoke, and Ms. Sikes was not involved in the film.
Only two of the people who appear in the film successfully joined a sorority. One of them stopped participating in the film once rush began.
On TikTok, some viewers have criticized Ms. Fleit’s inclusion of her own experience with alopecia and wearing a wig as a plot point in the film. “I really hate how the director of ‘Bama Rush’ made this about her,” one user wrote in a video.
The director defended her decision to make herself part of the story.
“In order for me to express the empathy that I had for what these young women were up against,” Ms. Fleit said, “I needed to stand shoulder to shoulder with them and say, ‘You know what? Me, too. This is what I did to belong.’”
Madison Malone Kircher is a reporter for The Times. She writes about the internet for the Styles desk. @4evrmalone
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