It Was Rape. Directed by Jennifer Baumgardner. 2013. 60 minutes.
Let’s Talk About It. Directed by Deepa Mehta. Toronto: Filmblanc, 2006. 45 minutes.
Kismet: How Turkish Soap Operas Changed the World. Directed by Nina Maria Paschalidou. New York: Women Make Movies, 2013. 52 minutes.
These three films, across a range of spaces and topics, deal at their core with presence and voice, against silence and inaction. They trace the ways in which women, and particularly survivors of violence, find discourses, symbols, and resources that allow them to name their fears and desires. If, as Katarzyna Marciniak suggests in “Pedagogy of Anxiety,” empathetic identification carries the potential tension of forging connections at the cost of blurring difference, these films may overwhelm by their affective power.1 They are, however, very useful for their analytical insights, opening up discussions of structural constraints, celebrating resistances big and small, and demonstrating that global practices may travel and take new life in local cultures.
Jennifer Baumgardner’s It Was Rape tracks an undocumented epidemic of rape in the United States. Eight interviews lay out the scripts of shame around sexual activity and the shortcomings of legal process that discourage rape survivors from naming their experiences to family or friends, or in public venues. The women are regionally and socioeconomically diverse, of various ethnicities within white, black, and Native American racial categories, lesbian and straight, and cover a range of ages and occupations. The rapists are acquaintances, hookups, boyfriends, husbands, and fathers. But the women also repeatedly indict their communities in schools and neighborhoods, as well as their relatives, for the silencing and shaming that magnifies the wounds of rape. Notable are some chilling moments in which casual sociality, humor, and candor intensify corporeal violence: a tape sent back to the victim with the mocking grotesque ribaldry of young men, including the rapist and an incestuous father’s ready admissions juxtaposed with his nostalgic home movies.
Late in the film, the director’s voice intervenes to identify the personal motivations that drove her film and to characterize it as a project initially about “speaking out” that became a film about “learning to listen.” Indeed, I would recommend the film above all for the brilliant interviews: the wistful recollection of the women’s throwaway remarks that come to haunt their silences, their fierce survival through poetry and religion and activist work, through self-reflective smiles and living well (as the quirky closing credits signal). If we want to diminish the power of sexual violence by showing that it cannot after all annihilate us, here is a film that furthers the case.
Deepa Mehta’s Let’s Talk about It similarly draws its primary strength from poignant, starkly honest, difficult interviews around domestic violence in Canada. Three women and a man (including a Latina woman and a South Asian man and woman) speak directly to the camera about their experiences with violence—including the effect of male unemployment, alcoholism, depression, and so-called dowry harassment—and their eventual survival. Other interview subjects include a police officer and a South Asian community organizer, both of whom eloquently argue against relying primarily on arrest and prosecution and advocate for institutional help with housing or shelters and social support built up through sensitizing communities.
The heart of the film is a documentary project in which those involved with violence are in conversation with their own children, co-survivors of these violent homes. They ask the very questions we imagine children having but being forbidden to articulate, for shame or awkwardness or cultural silence: How did you meet him? When did you start to fight? How did you feel when he hit you while you were pregnant? Did dad try to get help? What were the challenges (after leaving)? Did you ever get lonely? A daughter asks her father: Why do you regret hitting her? Did you love her? Mothers and fathers protest mildly at the tough questions, then respond candidly despite their obvious difficulties. I am left, most of all, with the heartbreaking sagacity of the children’s understanding and compassion: to a father one says, “when we put you in jail we just wanted time away from you, we didn’t want you in jail.” And a daughter tells her mother that she loves her and doesn’t blame her but feels hurt when her mother continues to blame herself; another has a message for children that if the parents don’t stop “fighting,” they should ask their mothers to separate and not be scared, because trying to get them back together wastes everyone’s time. Here, too, we come to understand where the wounds lie and how they might be surmounted.
These two films carry exemplary feminist messages about the constraints against speaking out about violence and the empowerment of overcoming these obstacles, and they are welcome additions to classes on violence, family, or feminist methodology. But the third one, Nina Maria Paschalidou’s Kismet, would be my favorite pick for any classroom because it messes up the ideal trajectory of feminist conversion. It complicates the sources from which women draw strength and draws attention to the subversive effects of popular culture texts, making for conversations that unsettle a range of assumptions. The film traces the transnational effects of wildly popular Turkish soap operas by looking at their reception by women in Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. Women describe being drawn to all kinds of things they see, from exquisite rings, to exotic locales, to the Greek-Turkish extended family, to the independence and dedication to true romance exhibited by the heroines. That is, their attachments are both feminist and traditionalist. Some interviewees cite the shows’ roles in transforming their lives, from leaving abusive husbands to pursuing child custody, to the inspiring example of a young Egyptian woman who successfully campaigns to have virginity checks by police banned. In a murkier instance, a Bulgarian woman feels motivated to keep a difficult relationship with a married colleague going because she deduces love to be challenging and complex.
The female writers and actors who are interviewed insist that they carefully build characters and work with NGOs to incorporate realistic issues so that the audience can “be wiser and more conscious.” However, it would be hard to ignore that soap operas are deeply mired in ideologies of consumer excess and heteronormative bliss, and it is these ironies that make for rich teaching moments. Kismet could be juxtaposed with films, such as Killing Us Softly, that assume that people passively imbibe popular media, and can be read alongside feminist scholars who trace the ways in which audiences actively negotiate the meanings of texts in terms of their own lives, such as Tania Modleski on soaps and Janice Radway on romance novels.2 By presenting diverse subjectivities that are historically and culturally grounded, albeit inflected by global trends, the film’s transnational lens effectively disproves the soap writers’ own contention that women have the same issues everywhere.
1 Katarzyna Marciniak, “Pedagogy of Anxiety,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 35, no. 4 (2010): 869-92.
2 Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women, directed by Jean Kilbourne (Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2010); Tania Modleski, Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women (New York: Routledge, 1990); Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).