Rape in Film — What I learned producing a film centering around abuse
Can you make a survival thriller from a female filmmaker’s point of view?
I spent a lot of time researching the portrayal of rape in movies during the development and pre-production of my film ‘3 Lives’. I personally have been in situations of sexual violence two times in my life. After a few years, I had the urge to put my experience into film, to tackle the trauma through art. Up until this point, I hadn’t been able to watch films that depicted rape. It was just too disturbing. After doing 3 Lives, watching films that show sexual abuse doesn’t hurt me as much. The process of making the film eventually helped me to identify whether the depiction of sexual violence might serve the story of a film, or whether it might not.
During the #MeToo Movement, it was argued whether or not rape should be a topic in films and books at all, and I totally agree with Elena Lazic who wrote for the Guardian, that all too often the depiction of rape in a film only focuses on the “experience of men close to and around female victims, turning stories of female physical violation into narratives of hurt male pride and temporary disruption of the patriarchal order.” She also writes, “Auteurs from Bertolucci and Polanski to Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke have built their careers around making films dealing with sexual violence, particularly against women.”
I don’t believe I should be the one to judge whether or not it was necessary or appropriate for those directors to build their films and careers around themes of sexual violence against women. After all, I don’t know what they’ve been through or how they cope with their traumas. That said, I’m strictly against the usage of sexual abuse as a ‘cheap’ set-up to justify a cruel and violent revenge scenario without also exploring the psyche of the protagonist. Because after all, who doesn’t agree that rape is an awful crime justifying retribution by all means?
By the same token, I believe that I, as a female filmmaker, should be able to use my experience in my films as I see fit. However, very early on in the development of ‘3 Lives’ I encountered a few very strange reactions to my film. Whilst pitching ‘3 Lives’ at the European Film Market prior to production, one particular (white, older, male) buyer got into a real fit. It wasn’t enough for him just to tell me that my film — which centers around Emma, a woman who wakes up in a bunker with two men saving her, one of them being her rapist from fifteen years ago, and she then has to make the choice to either go with them or stay locked up in the bunker — is not a film for him. No, he slowly worked himself into a rant, where he yelled at me that nobody, I mean nobody (!!!), will want to see this film and that it wasn’t worth 50,000, no, not even 10,000. Actually not even 5,000 dollars. Finally, he concluded that I should instead make a film about a woman coping with the trauma of being raped by herself, like Reese Witherspoon in ‘Wild’ which had just been released at the time. I thanked him for his time and moved on.
However, I continued to ponder the incident and what had been at play. From a male buyer’s perspective it seemed, a film about abuse should either be a violent killing spree for retribution, about hurt male pride or alternatively be made with an appropriately sexy protagonist who goes on her killing spree wearing little enough? Or if you’re coming purely from a female angle, have a woman cope with the trauma by herself. Why involve men in this painful process?
We eventually got into production and didn’t err from our path. This shows there are financiers out there who do support a fresh approach.
When it came time to think about the actual visual depiction of the rape scene in my film, I realized how much baggage I brought with me myself. Rape scenes almost always focus on the woman, showing her skin, her suffering from an outside perspective, almost never showing what she sees or feels. To summarize, we are used to seeing rapes put on screen through the male gaze.
Jennifer Kent, a female director, recently tackled the topic in her film ‘The Nightingale’. The film depicts several rape situations. She said in an interview at Sundance, “I don’t see those scenes as rape scenes … it’s a scene of someone’s soul being destroyed. If you look at any rape scene in cinema, you will see women’s naked bodies. That, for example, for me was a no go. I didn’t want to look at it from the male gaze.”
Angelica Jade Bastién made some solid points in her article on Vulture about rape scenes in film: “It isn’t that such scenes of brutality have no place in cinema. But I often struggle to sit through scenes like this; they only bring back memories. It would behoove filmmakers to ask themselves what they want audiences to feel in these moments. What am I trying to say about rape beyond the fact that it is a vicious, soul-crushing act? How can I visually communicate trauma in ways that don’t revel in brutality for brutality’s sake? Are these scenes better served by inventive metaphor?”
In her article she also references some very good examples from film history where sexual abuse is depicted a lot more artistically, using metaphors and/or only hinting at the act itself. Have a look, it’s a good read.
I pondered whether I really wanted to see my protagonist getting raped? Or did I want to depict what she sees? Or show a metaphor instead? To make things a bit more complicated, we had to film the scene in a way that we wouldn’t see the perpetrator clearly. In the end, we settled on a mix of her point of view and her facial expressions, so we could see her emotions and the horror she would remember. We didn’t use a metaphor, because some of the actual memories are integral to the plot. We stay with the protagonist, avoiding being too blunt and too violent, as I don’t see the point in reveling in violence for no other purpose other than to shock the audience. The portrayal of violence is not what the film is about. ’3 Lives’ is a movie about the effects of rape on the victim psychologically, packaged as a survival thriller.
Meanwhile, the film has completed post-production and has been released, but we made the grave mistake of not insisting that our distributor actually discuss their marketing plan with us. We delivered them a full package of assets (poster, trailer, stills, behind the scenes) and wrongly assumed they’d use that marketing package. Why shouldn’t they? After all, we know best who we made this film for. Well, we were wrong.
In test screenings, we had surprising feedback. Women came to me, some even crying, falling around my neck, and thanking me for giving them a voice. The male audience was shocked, numbed, I’ve never heard a man saying he felt good after seeing ‘3 Lives.’ Instead, I’ve heard comments like ‘films like this are necessary,’ ‘thanks for doing this film,’ or ‘I never knew.’
After developing your film and being able to bring it through production, marketing the film in the right way is a whole new facet of building a career as a filmmaker.
I believe we faced problems in our case for the following reasons: Audiences are used to seeing sexual violence either from the perspective of the male gaze or from the perspective of a female protagonist who deals with the trauma alone. Therefore, most distributors don’t have a sense of how and where to release a film if it doesn’t fit one of these tropes.
‘3 Lives’ got a new poster and new trailer from our distributor in the US, targeting a male audience with an interest in survival slasher’s films. A lot of the almost entirely male reviews didn’t take too kindly to the film, and who could blame them, they had to watch something totally different from what they’d expected to see. Comments got nasty. One even suggested: “I’m going to say that rape is a horrible crime. Beyond the criminal justice aspect, dealing with its emotional turmoil can be a lifelong process. […] here are a few resources for those of you who might be suffering. It took me one minute to Yahoo that s**t. One. Minute. And the best they [author’s note: the filmmakers] could come up with in their big cathartic message ending was just “Yup a lot of women get raped.” And then roll the credits.”
The reviewer got nasty enough that I’d say this topic must be personal to him. Which means I struck a chord. Good. I didn’t intend to polarise people when I created the film, but that the movie had that effect shows me that we need this discussion. Until we have a movie landscape that shows our society and the struggles we face as humans in all facets from all perspectives, we need to fight to achieve just that. Under this requisite, rape and sexual abuse do have a place in movies. We will continue to promote ‘3 Lives’ and work to reverse the damage done by our distributor.
We will try to reach our intended audience, one who appreciates a female protagonist and a story of sexual trauma told from her perspective. A protagonist who is not the scarcely dressed angel of revenge, turning a story of sexual violence into yet another male fantasy. A protagonist who does not sit at home coping with this all by herself, heaven forbid she should waste the precious time of her male friends.
Because sexual abuse is not a female problem.
We need to support female filmmakers and encourage them to show us their perspectives. Films should show us the world we live in from all viewpoints.
Angelica Jade Bastién, Vulture, Aug. 9, 2019, What Does It Mean for a Rape Scene to Be ‘Done Well’? [last seen on June, 30th 2020]
Lazic, Elena, The Guardian, Film depictions of sexual violence are increasingly alarming. It has to stop. [last seen on June, 30th 2020]
Thanks to Georgie Fisher who really helped me edit the article.