TRIGGER WARNING: RAPE, SEXUAL VIOLENCE, SELF HARM
“No mercy.” This is the cannon throughout the documentary Brave Miss World, which follows Israeli Miss World 1998 Linor Abargil as she revisits her traumatic past–after being brutally raped and almost killed by her travel agent, she won the Miss World crown six weeks later and decided to dedicate her life to helping survivors of sexual violence heal. Directed by Cecilia Peck (daughter of famous actor Gregory Peck), the film examines justice and the judicial system, silence, healing, and the power of storytelling to powerfully unite survivors. It was shown on October 20th as part of the United Nations Association Film Festival (UNAFF). The festival was conceived by Stanford professor Jasmina Boljic on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The festival rakes in documentary submissions from all over the world. This year, from over 600 submissions, 70 documentaries were chosen, including nine from Stanford alums. The theme was “Bridging the Gap”–creating understanding across barriers.
I interviewed the director of Brave Miss World, Cecilia Peck, to ask what she wants people to remember about the film and what it can teach us about achieving justice for survivors on college campuses.
Stanford Arts Review: How did you come upon this story and how did you decide to make this film?
Cecilia Peck: Linor came to Los Angeles to meet with directors in 2008. She was looking for a director to help tell her story. I met with Linor and her friend Motty Reif in a café in West Hollywood. Our editor and producer Inbal Lessner came to the first meeting. Linor was riveting. She had no shame in talking about rape. “Why should I be ashamed?” she said. “The fault was his, not mine.” She wanted to make a film about her fight for justice, and she was getting ready to meet with other survivors of rape around the world. She felt a responsibility to encourage other women not to stay silent about rape. We thought her message was very powerful and she had qualities you look for as a filmmaker in a central character. She was complex, willing to fight to make a difference, and very compelling.
How does the film grapple with shame and healing?
The film takes on the difficult concept of shame. Rape is very hard to prove. Even if you were attacked by a stranger and have all the DNA evidence, the rapist’s lawyer will argue that it was consensual. The chances of a conviction are slim to none, and women know that they will be forced to talk about private, humiliating things in public, and be attacked in the courtroom. So they don’t press charges. Consequently they try to bury it and become ashamed to speak about it. Rape is shrouded in shame. But that’s beginning to change. There is more reporting about rape, and there are more victims willing to come forward than ever before. Linor credits her mother’s reaction as what enabled her to heal and move forward–in the film she is a role model for all mothers whose daughters have been raped. When Linor called her in trauma, her mom told her it was going to be ok, not to take a shower, to go straight to the police and the hospital. She reassured her daughter. She didn’t make her feel that it was her fault or tell her to keep quiet.
What about hearing other people’s stories creates power? Why do you think stories are powerful?
Every time we screen the film, women and men stand up afterwards and tell their own stories, many for the first time. They say they never had a safe space to speak about it before, never felt that they would be believed. They feel the burden of shame being lifted. Our website [http://www.bravemissworld.com] has nearly 500,000 visitors. Survivors from all over the world use it as a place to connect, share experiences, find resources, and support each other. Once you know that you’re not alone, you start to feel empowered, and you can reach out for help, or to press charges if you’re ready. The global community that has formed around Linor’s message of saying no to shame and silence is growing very quickly.
What do you hope the take-away message of the film is? What do you want people to remember?
For boys and men, the message is to be respectful of women’s bodies, and not to touch anyone in a way they don’t want or intimidate or force anyone into sex. For those who may have been a victim: call someone you trust, and get help right away. For family members and friends: the right way of offering support is to say “I believe you and I’m going to help you.” The wrong thing to say is “What were you doing in his room? or “Why were you dressed like that?” For police officers, college administrators, and DA’s: get the proper training in how to respond to reports of rape.
Did you consider stopping filming permanently after Linor’s PTSD symptoms returned?
We waited in the hopes that she would return to finish the project, but we never pushed her. I didn’t want to start principal photography on another film, because I felt that it was very important to finish this one. The footage we had shot was so powerful, and we felt it could really reach an audience and make an impact. But Linor’s trauma had been triggered by the making the film and speaking out about rape, and she needed a long break to feel strong enough to finish it. We waited for six months. Then she called and said “Let’s keep going.”
The religious aspect of this movie is fascinating to me. What do you think Linor’s conversion to Judaism says about healing/coping with trauma?
It was her way of coping, her source of strength during the very difficult process of listening to the stories of so many survivors. Her faith helped her. The reason it’s in the film is because the process of healing, or surviving, doesn’t always look the way you expect. It can take very strange, unexpected forms, but every survivor is entitled to do whatever helps them to heal. That was her process, and I think it makes her story universal, because everyone has a process. Rape doesn’t go away. You don’t have to be religious to relate to what Linor is going through. When Linor became religious, her mother felt like she was losing a daughter. But as her mother says in the film, “It’s better than anorexia, bulimia, alcohol, or so many things that happen to survivors of rape.” So many of the survivors we interviewed cut themselves. Linor turned religious. All survivors will be coping, one way or another, for the rest of their lives.
The scenes at Princeton/Santa Barbara were reminiscent of the Stand With Leah protests that happened here at Stanford last spring. What do you think is the most important thing that has to change to make college campuses safer?
At UCSB the entire community turned against the victim. They were protesting in support of the rapist, even though he had been convicted, based upon conclusive DNA evidence. At Stanford, the community came out to support Leah. That’s a huge change in just 5 years. I think Brave Miss World, recent stories in the news, and the work of activists like Annie E. Clark and Andrea Pino (founders of Keep Your Campus Safe) have changed the conversation. A bill is coming before the Senate shortly that will guarantee greater accountability on the part of University administrations. For the first time, the President of the United States has addressed the issue of campus rape and the need for schools to be more accountable and guarantee greater safety.
Brave Miss World is streaming on Netflix.
DISCLAIMER AND NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: The film only profiles the heteronormative experiences of women who were raped by men. There’s also privilege in this movie–Linor has supportive parents and she has the funds to afford a therapist and a lawyer. Additionally, I take issue with Linor pushing women to be public about their trauma. Not all survivors can afford, emotionally or physically, to “come out” about their rape experiences for a multitude of reasons. However, it’s still worth a watch.
For more information on the film and to join the Brave Miss World community, visit http://www.bravemissworld.com.
Photos courtesy of http://www.bravemissworld.com