Almost a billion viewers across the planet know him as the Star Wars Kid, but they’ve never heard him speak, until now.
Ghyslain Raza was a normal high-school student in small-town Quebec back in 2002, a shy 14-year-old who liked to make videos. In 2003, classmates posted one of those videos on the Internet without his knowledge–in it, Raza wields a makeshift light saber, clumsily imitating a Star Wars Jedi knight.
The video went viral, and the Trois-Rivières teen became one of the earliest and highest-profile victims of a massive cyberbullying attack, one that played out among classmates and strangers online.
“What I saw was mean. It was violent. People were telling me to commit suicide,” the now-25-year-old recalls.
After a 10-year silence, Raza speaks out for the first time in an exclusive interview with award-winning French-Canadian journalist Jonathan Trudel (L’actualité magazine). The full interview also appears in English in the latest issue of Maclean’s.
Recorded while Raza was “goofing around” alone at his school’s TV club studio — the group had been working on a Star Wars parody — the video had soon been seen by tens of millions, all the more remarkable in a pre-YouTube world.
Raza said he lost what few friends he had in the fallout, and had to change schools. “In the common room, students climbed onto tabletops to insult me,” he told L’actualité.
It was “a very dark period,” he said. “No matter how hard I tried to ignore people telling me to commit suicide, I couldn’t help but feel worthless, like my life wasn’t worth living.”
Raza, now a law-school graduate from McGill, said he was driven to speak out by the recent spate of high-profile cases of cyberbullying, some of which have pushed their victims to commit suicide. If the same situation were to happen today, he said he hopes school authorities would help him through it.
Raza said he hopes talking about his experience will help others to deal with cyberbullying, and urged other young victims to “overcome (their) shame” and seek help.
“You’ll survive. You’ll get through it,” he said. “And you’re not alone. You are surrounded by people who love you.”
The documentary began when Fournier and Jonathan Trudel approached Raza about using his story as a starting point of their project that goes well beyond Raza or his family’s story.
“I would not have been interested in a documentary strictly focused on what happened to me or take a melodramatic tone,” said Raza, who was never a Star Wars fan. “To go beyond the story, to go into reflection, to make something useful out of it, that’s what convinced me that it would be a good project to be a part of.”
In the documentary, Fournier wanted to show the man Gaza has become who the director described as curious and sensible with a great sense of humour.
“From the start, it seemed crucial to me that the documentary would allow us to bring to the forefront the man he has become today,” he said. “He gave himself up with humanity and truth. In a very natural way, he got involved humanly and intellectually in all the meetings we had with him, in Canada and in the United States.”
The documentary examines how the video wound up on the Internet, became the first viral video and what effect it has had on Raza and his family. At the same time, it examines the broader online culture, social media and the world ruled by the geeks.
In the documentary, Raza speaks to teens at his former school, who talk about constantly being on or near their phones and on social media well aware of their online presence.
“To hear them talk about it surprised me,” said Raza, adding that he was hopeful to see that they have a much greater awareness of themselves and their online shadow.
“That’s something that brings hope for the future that they already have such an awareness of consent, perhaps even empathy. I think that’s a very good thing to be able to see,” he said.
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