by Darren Kerr and Donna Peberdy, Solent University, UK
During an introduction to a City Eye Southampton Film Week screening of The Rape of Recy Taylor (Nancy Buirski 2017) at Solent University in November 2018, a brief exchange ensued about how we overcome the difficulty of starting conversations that address challenging topics. This was not about how we actively tackle issues of sexual violence, racism and abuse but how do we even begin to talk about them in a way that is not divisive, insensitive or biased by our own cultural identities?
This was seemingly less #WhatICanDo and more #HowDoIStart? We deferred to the screening of the documentary, a film form that speaks with the voices of those at the centre of experience, gives shape to those directly affected, presents those with familial ties who also suffered, witnessed, reported and supported until the people on the margins could confidently join in, speak up, be heard and contribute.
In the case of Recy Taylor, a racially motivated rape and its impact is the basis of a film presenting first-hand testimonials, which informed a long-standing protest that then went on to shape the activism demanding change that resonates across 70 years. From the intervention of a largely unknown Rosa Parks challenging the authorities to the film’s director Nancy Buirski being ‘compelled by empathy and responsibility’, the desire remains: to distribute marginalised stories – as Modern Films does – in order to engage people, to raise awareness and effect change. Empathy and responsibility are appropriate ambitions if you want to start or join the conversation.
We should recognise that conversations we struggle to begin can start on the screen and should continue with the audience who then take it out of the cinema or living room and extend it into social lives, social media and social reality. But is this enough? Once the conversation begins then confidence, empathy and responsibility can follow and inform future action. It is something film can do alongside the wider arts that have to be appropriately supported by cultural, educational and political organisations. If the topic is sexual violence, then discomforting, harrowing and confrontational stories must be told and spoken about to confront the collective responsibility that we, along with organisations, institutions and policy-makers, have in shaping a fair society and progressive culture.
In looking for an answer to #WhatICanDo we might begin by considering what we are willing to do. To start, we offer a five-point provocation to film culture:
- Filmmakers: will you challenge myths, avoid and challenge stereotypes and standard generic tropes in addressing sexual violence and abuse on screen even if it risks compromising your funding?
- Distributors: will you openly contest the mainstream and actively pursue alternative platforms to reach an audience?
- Exhibitors: do you respect audiences enough to create a regular space for the screening of films whose message and importance exceeds its potential revenue?
- Audiences: are you willing to engage with and discuss uncomfortable films that intentionally move marginal voices to the centre?
- To all: are you willing to support public engagement activities in creating spaces for debate, which can then be documented, reported and followed-up on?
Two days before the Recy Taylor film screening, Safe Space (Ben S. Hyland 2018) was announced as the Best Short Fiction Film at Southampton Film Week. The drama focuses on safe house key worker Sarah (Rebecca Grant) and client Amne (Marlene Madenge), a victim of sex trafficking, who is seeking refuge. Amne remains off-screen for the duration.
It is a bold choice; apparently sidelining the victim while the film stays framed on Sarah. With the focus on what Sarah does, can do and can say to support someone else, the film quietly establishes her action through her job, her responsibility through engagement and finally her empathy as she breaks down at the end. A new client is then introduced and her support commences once again. The film offers no clear resolution but, with an invitation to further the conversation through positive and productive action, it does gives us something to talk about.
Darren Kerr and Donna Peberdy lead the Screening Sex project. They are both senior lecturers in film and television at Solent University, Southampton and have published research on the screen’s approach to sexual violence, masculinity and culture and taboo sex. Their most recent publication is Tainted Love: Screening Sexual Perversion (2017).