ENTERTAINMENT

The Best Thing About HBO’s Larry Nassar Doc Is That It's Not About Larry Nassar

Erin Lee Carr's "At The Heart Of Gold" centers survivors instead of the disgraced former USA Gymnastics team doctor.
Gymnast and survivor Chelsea Zerfas who is featured in HBO's "At The Heart Of Gold."
Gymnast and survivor Chelsea Zerfas who is featured in HBO's "At The Heart Of Gold."

NEW YORK ― Erin Lee Carr’s upcoming HBO documentary, “At The Heart Of Gold: Inside The USA Gymnastics Scandal,” tells the story of the sex abuse scandal that’s rocked the gymnastics world. But instead of focusing on perpetrator Larry Nassar, it focuses on the survivors.

“I want to be clear about something: This is not Larry’s film. It belongs to the survivors,” Carr said to viewers after the film premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in New York City last week. 

The documentary, directed by Carr and premiering on HBO this Friday, gives a wholistic rundown of every wheel that’s fallen off the proverbial USA Gymnastics wagon since the first woman — former gymnast Rachael Denhollander — publicly accused Nassar in 2016. The film also looks at the people and institutions who enabled Nassar for so long: USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

But at the center of it all are the women who fought back ― the survivors who anchor the story through their experiences, perspectives and eventual healing. 

“I only make films with the perpetrator at the center. But I couldn’t do that here,” Carr, who’s known for true crime documentaries like “Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop” and “Mommy Dead and Dearest,” told HuffPost by phone last week. 

“This was not going to be Larry Nassar’s film,” she added defiantly. “I was not going to allow him to once again take center stage.” 

I want to be clear about something: This is not Larry’s film. It belongs to the survivors. Erin Lee Carr, director of "At The Heart Of Gold"

Nassar, who’s currently serving three concurrent life sentences, is accused of serially sexually abusing over 500 athletes (nearly all of whom were young women) under the guise of medical treatment over the course of his 30-year tenure as a famed sports physician for USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University and Twistars, a local gym in East Lansing, Michigan.

Instead of simply discussing how Nassar abused these women, Carr tells the story of how Nassar’s abuse affected them and how that trauma has shaped their lives. Through interviews with survivors and some parents, as well as clips of impact statements from Nassar’s seven-day sentence hearing in January 2018, Carr paints the full, harrowing picture of abuse these women endured.

These women weren’t just abused by Nassar; they were nearly swallowed whole by a system meant to silence them at all costs, from USA Gymnastics coaches like John Geddert to former MSU gymnastics coach Kathie Klages. 

“This is not for the faint of heart,” Carr said. 

“At The Heart Of Gold” also tackles the complicated journey of coming to terms with the fact that your family friend is really your abuser. 

“I find it hard to look at him as a criminal, aside from all the things he did,” former gymnast and survivor Trinea Gonczar, who has known Nassar for almost her entire life, says in the documentary. “He was so good at being who he was on the other side of [being a predator]. He was awesome. I hate even saying that because it’s like counterintuitive of what the heck is happening to us, but he was awesome. That’s why we all loved him.”

Gonczar, who also attended the Tribeca Film Festival premiere, estimates in the film that she was abused by Nassar around 846 times. 

The documentary carefully poses the question of justice: What does it look like? And can it even exist in a case as sprawling as this one? 

Michigan Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina told HuffPost she thinks justice looks a lot like those historic seven days in January 2018 where 169 survivors and family members read impact statements in her East Lansing, Michigan, courtroom. 

“Those survivors got to say, ‘You hurt me.’ And that’s their restitution from him so that they can start healing,” Aquilina said. “They needed that closure so that they could move on ... knowing that the blame is solely on his shoulders.”

“I’m not a therapist, but that’s part of justice. There should be a healing part of justice,” she added. 

For now, the army of survivors who live at the heart of this story refuse to rest. As survivor Amanda Thomashow said at the documentary’s premiere: “This film sends a message to any predator or enabler out there that their days are numbered.” 

“At The Heart Of Gold: Inside The USA Gymnastics Scandal” premieres on Friday, May 3 at 8 p.m. Eastern on HBO.

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