After the Rape: The Mukhtar Mai Story. Directed by Catherine Ulmer. New York: Women Make Movies, 2008. 58 minutes.
The Rape of Recy Taylor. Directed by Nancy Buirski. Durham, NC: Augusta Films, 2017. 91 minutes.
Learning about Cultures of Violence against Women
Both After the Rape: The Mukhtar Mai Story and The Rape of Recy Taylor provide accounts of systemic cultures of sexual violence, which they present through stories of heroic single female survivors. Mukhtar Mai opened a school for girls and a crisis center in remote Pakistan, and Recy Taylor fought to have her rape recognized in law as an African American woman in a segregated state of the United States of America. To consider the documentaries as potential teaching materials I focus on implicit lessons they provide about the cultures and survivors they represent.
Both documentaries explore a circumscribed culture of violence. After the Rape focuses on endemic violence against women in rural Pakistan. It presents an “other” culture, one that is separate, distinct, and foreign to the assumed Western audience. Its otherness is emphasised by the film’s ethnographic genre, which indulges in lengthy, unedited footage of women sweeping earthen floors, chopping strange fruit with hatchets (on earthen floors), and travelling in dilapidated buses without ostensible purpose. Consequently, the many accounts of sexual violence told almost incidentally through this “realist” footage appear to exist in an internally destructive, ahistorical world. The rich and complex history of the territory is erased; the violence of colonialism, independence, and partition is absent; and more recent episodes of political instability, terrorism, corruption, and Western interference are not explored as possibly contributing to the systemic violence. In these ways, this documentary repeats a long-practiced trope of orientalism that has justified past colonialism and more recent interventions in the name of humanitarianism and democracy.1 Students are thus taught that violence against women happens “over there” and that women in the developing world (particularly the Muslim world) need to be saved from their own culture.
The demarcations of the culture represented in Recy Taylor are temporal, sociopolitical, and geographic. Although the assault perpetrated against Taylor was intertwined with white supremacy in the American South, the violence is made relevant to the assumed American audience. The film does this through its use of historical and contemporary imagery and its analytical depth. Historical images in black and white show Black women in action: scenes of supremacist violence and photos of women in the civil rights movement are interwoven with contemporary images in color of Alabama and of Black women protesting with placards in front of police. These representations converge with voices of historians, Taylor’s family, and academics, which helps analyze sexual violence as a political method of dehumanizing people—as a tool to control, oppress, and destroy a cultural group. Sexual violence is thus critiqued. It not limited to a place “other” to its viewer, but just as racism and discrimination persist across contemporary America, so too does sexual violence.
The representation of the survivors is significantly different in these two films, too. The story arc of After the Rape begins with European news covering Mai’s rape. The filmmaker, a European woman, continues the story, narrating Mai’s creation of two schools in her village and the crisis center for women who have experienced abuse. Interviews with girls who dream of medical careers offer hope; however, that hope is dashed in the final sequence depicting the wedding of one of those girls. The voiceover emphasises a particular narrative journey, describing Mai as an angel with “broken wing” and concluding with a rhetorical question that speculates if the bride will achieve her dream of becoming a doctor. Consequently, cumulatively across the documentary Mai’s agency to tell her own story is denied, and the capacity of Pakistani people to end the systemic violence is expunged.
In contrast, Taylor narrates the story of her own assault. Her voice carries across contemporary footage evocative of reenactment. As such, Taylor is granted the acousmatic power of a traditionally disembodied male narrator.2 Moreover, the documentary ends with very recent images of Taylor in an aged care facility, so although Taylor died in 2017, the viewer is left with a memory of Taylor’s longevity. Such representational strategies mean that despite the failure of law to achieve justice, the audience is shown that Taylor overcame. Discernible throughout this documentary is Taylor’s agency, strength, and survival as well as the powerful ways that African American women tell their own stories, fight, and make change.
The lessons I identify in these documentaries are not overt themes. However, they are undercurrents that shape student perceptions of different cultures, practices of sexual violence, and survivors. These themes, therefore, have implications for how students understand their own experiences of sexual violence, the politics of race and racism. While After the Rape reinscribes the orientalizing practices of colonial knowledge production, Recy Taylor privileges the voice of a survivor of violence and offers a more empowered and critical understanding of cultural difference, race and violence.
1 See for example Anne Orford, ed., Reading Humanitarian Intervention: Human Rights and the Use of Force in International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Sahar Ghumkhor and Juliet Rogers, “The Spectacle of the Veiled Woman and the Mutilated Child,” Australian Feminist Law Journal 40, no. 2 (2014): 199-213; Kirsty Duncanson and Nesam McMillan, “‘This is Africa’: Filmic Negotiations of Crime, Justice and Global Responsibility,” in ANZCCC: The Australian and New Zealand Critical Criminology Conference 2010, Proceedings, ed. Murray Lee, Gail Mason, and Sanja Milivojevic (Sydney: Institute of Criminology, 2011).
2 Michel Chion explains the power and agency of the disembodied narrator, which he argues is traditionally masculine, and the contrasting practice of embodying female voices in cinema, which undermines patriarchal power, and Amanda Greer presents an interesting discussion about the implications of disembodied female narration. See Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Amanda Greer, “Murder, She Spoke: The Female Voice’s Ethics of Evocation and Spatialisation in the True Crime Podcast,” Sound Studies 3, no. 2 (2017): 152-64.