When Shelby Knox was 15, two New York filmmakers visited her hometown of Lubbock, Texas, to document how the Lubbock Youth Commission was working to implement comprehensive sex education in the schools.
Shelby Knox and her parents, Danny and Paula (Incite Pictures)
Filmmakers Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt intended to make a more general documentary about the youth commission's battle over the state's abstinence-based sex education policy. Not long into shooting, however, Knox emerged as a strong commission member who became a face for the issue.
Four years after meeting Knox, the filmmakers have delivered "The Education of Shelby Knox," a 76-minute, coming-of-age story about the young woman who bucks her Southern Baptist surroundings to advocate for more comprehensive sex education.
The documentary won the Excellence in Cinematography Award for documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival, and it will receive its broadcast premiere on PBS's "P.O.V." series June 21. (EthicsDaily.com will carry a review prior to the broadcast.)
Lipschutz told EthicsDaily.com on the phone from New York that then-15-year-old Knox was "articulate, mature, open, obviously facing a conflict." Knox pledged abstinence at a True Love Waits ceremony in her church, but believed that schools should more openly discuss sexual behaviors beyond abstinence. She vowed to work on the commission to fight for a broader policy.
Her struggle, as seen in the documentary, inevitably involves her parents, Danny and Paula Knox. They support their daughter—and even warm to her position on the hot-button issue of sex education.
"My parents both consider themselves conservative Republicans and are big supporters of the Bush presidency," Knox told EthicsDaily.com on the phone from Austin, where she is currently a sophomore political science major at the University of Texas. "They are religious. They go to church. They've always been very supportive of me."
They were also good documentary subjects, according to Lipschutz.
"They were great from the get-go," she said. "They understand her [Shelby] as a leadership kind of kid. And when they saw the opportunity and she wanted to run for mayor of the youth commission, they were supportive."
"They were fascinated with making a documentary and what that was all about," Lipschutz added. "They welcomed us into their homes. They were very gracious, very hospitable, very open. We became friends, as you become often with subjects."
As the documentary shifted away from the youth commission in general to Knox specifically, the filmmakers realized they had more of a coming-of-age story on their hands, and that Knox's parents were interesting characters.
In the film, when Knox's involvement with the youth commission broadens to include a gay-straight alliance, Knox's parents have reservations.
"We were already close enough to the family that we were positioned well to follow this turn and new direction and have access to the emotions, the private stuff," said Lipschutz.
Knox said even if her parents disagreed with conclusions she drew and positions she took, they nevertheless supported her and encouraged her to form her own opinions. She did. Not only does she now call herself a Democrat, but her approach to church has changed.
"I don't really consider myself Southern Baptist anymore," Knox said. "I've decided to stop dealing with denominations and deal with my faith as I want to deal with it. I'm a Christian. I have a relationship with Jesus Christ and consider him my Lord and savior."
She doesn't attend church anymore, though, saying the institution is mostly hypocritical and gets in the way of following Jesus.
Knox said she hopes when the documentary airs on PBS, she'll be with Lipschutz and Rosenblatt.
"They're wonderful filmmakers," Knox said. "They are so talented. This is not their first film. They've been doing this a long time."
Lipschutz and Rosenblatt have made several films about parenthood, reproductive rights, sexual activity and other socially significant themes.
"As people, they're wonderful. I'm so glad I got to meet them when I was 15," said Knox, who was trailed by the filmmakers for about three years. "We always had so much fun when we were filming."
Lipschutz and Rosenblatt traveled from New York to Lubbock about a dozen times, gathering roughly 150 hours of footage in Beta SP and mini-DV formats.
The Conversion Attempt
When Knox met Lipschutz and Rosenblatt, however, filmmaking wasn't on her mind. Conversion was.
"At first it was a big issue for me that they were Jewish," she told EthicsDaily.com. "I had always been taught that Jewish people were going to hell."
Knox said "people from church" told her it was her Christian duty to try to convert them.
"You're going to hell," Knox remembered telling Lipschutz and Rosenblatt—but she failed to convert her filmmaking friends.
Rosenblatt remembered the conversion incident, recalling how Knox told them they were going to hell, but also crying because she had connected with them.
Rosenblatt assured Knox she and Lipschutz weren't going to hell.
"Don't try to convert a Jewish woman from New York," said Knox, laughing. "That's not a good idea." Knox said she hasn't tried to convert anyone since that incident.
"I feel like God is the only one who has the right to judge," said Knox. "I wholeheartedly believe in my religion, but I don't have the right to judge anyone else. And I certainly can't go around telling people who's going to go to hell and who's going to go to heaven."
Rosenblatt also said several gentlemen at a Christian radio station in Lubbock tried to convert them while shooting the documentary.
"I guess this is what they do in Lubbock," Rosenblatt remembered telling herself at the time. "I was pretty put off by that, but it was amusing."
One of the documentary's storylines involves Ed Ainsworth, then a pastor at Lubbock's Church on the Rock. Ainsworth, now a full-time speaker based in Lubbock, travels the country speaking on various topics, but mostly about "abstinence education." He is sometimes called "Sex Ed."
Knox attended Ainsworth's church, and they have several conversations in the documentary, most of them focused on her shifting belief system and Ainsworth's insistence that she read the Bible and make decisions based on what it says.
Knox and Ainsworth last saw each other in August 2004, as Ainsworth was witnessing in a parking lot (the scene is in the film). Knox was unsure if Ainsworth had seen the documentary, but she was eager to know what he thought about it.
"I haven't seen it," Ainsworth told EthicsDaily.com, adding that he would like to. "I can't even comment intelligently on what it's about."
Rosenblatt said Ainsworth initially resisted participating in the documentary.
"He knew this was about the Lubbock Youth Commission," Rosenblatt said. "But he knew what the kids were doing, and he openly and quickly disagreed with what they were doing. So he agreed to be interviewed."
"We convinced him that he should share his side of things," said Rosenblatt. "We knew he didn't agree with Shelby and didn't agree with the youth commission."
Even though he hasn't seen the finished product, Ainsworth is bothered by the title.
"The end result, by the title of it, I was a little disappointed," he said, "because when they started three or four years ago, that wasn't what it was about."
Ainsworth said he participated thinking the project was focused more on different sex education approaches, not necessarily on Knox.
"They somewhere changed their focus and never told me about it," Ainsworth continued. "But that's life. I'm not mad about it. The word I would put on it would be, I am disappointed."
Knox said the information Ainsworth shares in his seminars is biased and incomplete.
"It's coming from a point of view of trying to scare kids away from having sex," Knox said.
"Well, I'm giving facts," countered Ainsworth. "And if the facts are scary, maybe you need to be scared." However, "Fear is not my goal," he said. "The facts are my goal."
As for the facts, Knox also questioned Ainsworth's background and training for communicating medical information, suggesting that the kinds of seminars he gave and gives need someone highly qualified to speak about such matters.
"My information that I give is right straight out of information you can get on the Internet," said Ainsworth, citing information from the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, based in Austin.
"I ain't got a doctor's degree," he said, "but I can read." Ainsworth said he wasn't nervous about Knox's or anyone else's concerns for two reasons: He doesn't need their approval, and he speaks at the request of parents and administrators who are concerned about the mental, physical, emotional, spiritual and financial well-being of children.
Nevertheless, Rosenblatt characterized Ainsworth as "a motivational speaker" who shares some good information along with some misinformation. "The bottom line is it's motivational more than a science-based or public health-based, straight information approach."
"He's preaching morality, not science," Lipschutz added.
The bottom line for Ainsworth: "We live in America. They're entitled to their opinion."
Lipschutz and Rosenblatt caught Knox's True Love Waits ceremony on tape and included it in the final cut.
"In watching the ceremony, these kinds of things bring up complicated emotions," said Lipschutz. "We're pretty familiar with research and the abstract issues that go around abstinence pledges."
Yet, "When you're dealing with the thing itself in front of you, it's different," she continued. "It's not a statistic."
Knox took the pledge voluntarily and continues to say she did it for herself—but she doesn't think "abstinence education" alone is adequate.
"I don't think pledges are enough to protect teens from STDs and teen pregnancy," said Knox, adding that an abstinence component to sex education is good, but that teens don't need to take a pledge and receive no other sex education. She said it's simply too difficult for them to then go out into the world and face sex.
Lipschutz said she saw kids from a variety of backgrounds take the pledge. She thought the pledge would stick for some kids and not others.
"It's as individual as the kids," she said of the pledge's effectiveness. "They work for some kids." She recalled meeting one especially troubled 14-year-old and concluding that "a kid like that's going to need a lot more than a pledge."
"People have been talking about the film as inspiring dialogue between red and blue," said Rosenblatt, referring to the increasingly common way of referring to Republican (red) ideologies and Democratic (blue) ones.
"Everyone I've talked to is really wrestling with this," said Rosenblatt. "Are there really two Americas? Is there really a secular and religious America?"
Well, there really is an Ed Ainsworth and Shelby Knox, and though Ainsworth disagrees fundamentally with Knox about sex education approaches, he believes in today's youth.
"I believe in this generation," he said. "I believe that kids today are looking for answers, with all my heart." He includes Knox in that group, though he thinks she's taken a wrong turn.
"She's got the truth inside of her," said Ainsworth. "Someday that truth will rise to the surface again." He quoted a verse from the Old Testament book of Proverbs, about the importance of training children properly so they will not lose their grounding.
"The truth is in her. It's there. It's on the inside of her," Ainsworth reiterated. "She's got great parents. Her parents love her to death."
Now that's something everyone agrees on.
Rosenblatt praised the Knoxes. Even though the parents disagreed with the daughter, they still made room for dialogue and found ways to support her. The importance of that negotiation has never been lost on Knox.
"It's so important for teenagers, especially, to decide what their own point of view is—if it's the same as their parents or different and for what reasons," said Knox. If it's different, it's up to teens to find out what they believe and why they believe it.
"Most people are willing to compromise on how the family will deal with it," said Knox, adding that no one has to compromise a belief, but rather develop a strategy for managing the difference.
"I think that's very important," she said.
Whether it's family communication, sex education or church-state separation, the documentary's topics concern all Americans.
As Knox said, "The issues that are discussed in 'The Education of Shelby Knox' are not central to Lubbock."
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The movie's official Web site is here. You can also contact Incite Pictures for more information about the availability of the DVD and resource study guide.
A sneak preview is available here.