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Fragmented testimonies: Shattering the rape taboo

One after another, incident after incident, no two of which are alike, yet all linked by a painful silence, film director Michál Aviád shares the stories told to her by women after viewing her film ‘Invisible,’ and explains why it’s important to pass on these stories.

By Michal Aviad (Translated from Hebrew by Miriam Erez)

Anti-rape protests in New Dehli, India. (photo: Nilroy (Nilanjana Roy)/CC BY-SA)

The premiere screening of Invisible took place in 2011 as part of the Panorama section at the Berlin International Film Festival. Invisible is about two women, Lily (Ronìt Elkabetz) and Nira (Evgenya Dodina), who discover they were both raped by the same serial rapist 20 years earlier. Each of them alone and together they must confront the past and finally integrate their long-repressed trauma into their lives

During the premiere, I ran back and forth between the cinema theater and the lobby. I couldn’t relax. I worried that the screen was too dark, the picture too blue, the sound too muffled, the spectators too bored. When the film ended, there was lots of applause. The cast, the crew and myself went up on stage. I felt a suppressed excitement in the theater, which was my cue that I could finally relax.

When you make a film, you’re preoccupied for a long time with professional concerns: the cinematography, the actors, the editing, the sound. At that moment the film had finally been screened, the discussion with the audience had begun and suddenly I was required to speak about my film. The first question I was asked had to do with the relationship in Invisible between documentary and fiction. Words emerged from a cluster of thoughts about the film that lay somewhere inside me. I began to get enthused.

After I responded, a woman of about 40 asked to speak. She stood up and said, “The film touched me with a force that I’ll never be able to express in words. It helped me. My rapists were my father and his friend. It happened in Canada. I truly hope that the film will help others too.” She sat down. Her words brought a charged silence to the room. Panorama Director Wieland Speck broke the silence with an excellent question about the final scene. On the stage, Evgenya whispered to me that she’d recalled something amazing during the screening. When Speck turned to her, she told the audience about the glinting knife in the hand of the man who’d tried to rape her when she was 16. A day before she was set to go to Moscow to study acting, she took a walk with a girlfriend around her hometown in Belarus. Someone she knew from the neighborhood, who had always been a little strange, was walking around in a field not far from where they lived. At this point, there was a gap in her memory, because the next thing she recalled was her running home and suddenly noticing that her bra and shirt were unbuttoned. During the screening, for the first time, she had a fleeting memory of the cutter he used to threaten her with that day.

The Q&A continued with aesthetic, psychological and political questions from the audience. In one of my answers, I said that I too had been raped. The Q&A lasted 40 minutes and was underlaid with the constant echo of the Canadian woman’s words.

The memory of the premiere blurred with the excitement and daily dramas of the film’s release. In Israel and abroad, discussions were taking place with various audiences. I learned to connect words to the film’s meanings: to explain, to be precise, to entertain. After screenings there were questions and remarks that came up again and again, and nearly every time, there were and still are new comments that clarify for me parts of the film that I hadn’t thought about. Only now, over two years after the first screening, have I slowed down and contemplated what has become a phenomenon: After every screening, somebody tells me, either explicitly or obliquely, her story, either in the presence of the audience, or after the discussion.

During a screening in the fall of 2011, in Haifa, there was an intermission. As usual, I was sitting outside the screening hall reading, and when I went in to see what had happened, a tearful young woman grabbed me and said that she had something she wanted to tell me afterwards. At the end, many hands were raised to ask questions. We talked about the absence of a visual depiction of a rape scene in the film and about the relationship between speech and silence. When it was the young woman’s turn to speak, she told us, crying, that when she was six years old, she was raped by a neighbor. She ran to tell her mother, who advised her — just as Lily’s mother in the film had — to forget about it. She and her mother never spoke of it again. At age 20, she went to California to work and study. At a bar in Los Angeles one night, a man she knew raped her. The rape shook her to her core and shot down all her plans. She returned home to Israel to recover. The earlier rape took over her consciousness, and she became furious at her mother, who had failed to support her all those years. When she told her mother about getting raped while abroad, she confronted her with having been raped as a girl, to which her mother had never attributed any importance. Surprised, her mother said, “What do you mean, I didn’t relate to it? Immediately afterwards, we put up a fence around our house, with a gate and a lock.” While the woman recalled the fence and the gate, she’d never connected them with the rape; all she’d remembered was her mother’s betrayal.

“Invisible” trailer [Hebrew]:

At that same screening, a woman of about 50 waved her hand wildly to be called on. She wanted to tell us how not only her mother, but also her entire family abandoned her in her most difficult moment. The woman was a hospital nurse. One day she went down to the basement storeroom to look for an oxygen mask. While she was groping around the shelves deep in the storeroom, one of the maintenance employees, a guy she knew, came in. He joked around with her and tried to help her find the mask, but soon came onto her aggressively: “Come on. Let’s do it. No one will know.” She resisted, gave up looking for the mask, and turned to leave, but he grabbed her, threw her to the ground, and tried to undress her. She panicked. At that moment, she decided to save herself come what may. She gathered her strength and gave him a sharp kick. He doubled over in pain, and she escaped. When she got home, she told her partner and teenage sons what had happened. To her surprise, their reaction was: “Poor guy. No doubt you kicked him in the balls, which is excruciating.” She told us, “I’ll never forgive my husband or my sons for taking pity on him and forgetting me.”

During most of the discussions after screenings, I didn’t tell of my own rape. On the few occasions when I did, I felt that the discussion lost its critical edge, and a tone of pity was added to it. There were Q&A’s wherein the facilitator, who knew my personal story, wanted me to tell it, whether because s/he believed that it was appropriate to the discussion, or because s/he wanted to give the audience a “juicy” experience. Most of the time, I chose not to talk about myself out of lack of desire to relive the experience, as well as out of a sense that the film stimulates deeper discussion on its own. The absence of my own story has never had a halting effect on the waves of testimonies heard in so many cinemas. Indeed, Invisible has pushed more and more viewers to entrust me with their stories.

Following a screening in Rosh Piná, a viewer approached me wanting to share her story. She’d realized only at age 40, during therapy, that she had been raped as a teen by her boyfriend. She was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home and at age 16 started seeing a boy she knew from her youth group. One Friday night her parents went out and her boyfriend forced her to have sex. She didn’t scream, She just cried. That night put an end to their relationship, but years later she was still blaming herself and defending him: She shouldn’t have had him over when her parents weren’t home. “In that situation, it was just natural that he couldn’t restrain himself,” she recalled, telling herself. Only in recent years had she come to realize that her pain, her anger and her self-rejection, which she’d felt for years, were part of the trauma of rape, and that she hadn’t known to give them words.

At a film festival in Rio de Janeiro, a volunteer asked if she could tell me her story, which she’d never told anyone. When she was living in London, she met a handsome, fascinating man at the local cinematheque bar. They talked about books and movies, and at closing time he invited her to his place so they could continue their conversation. She was lonesome in London, and wanted to continue talking. When they arrived at his place, even before she managed to take off her coat, he attacked her and had sex with her on the sofa. He was big and strong, and she couldn’t push him off her. While he gleefully raped her, he panted that no one’s sexier than a Brazilian. She told me, “I say ‘had sex with me’ because I’m sure that’s how he would’ve described it.” While he was aroused by her and let her know it, at no time did he show any interest in whether or not she wanted sex. After he finished, he kept on telling her how much she excited him. It was late and all public transportation had stopped, so she had to stay over. She stayed awake all night, trembling, listening to his rhythmic breathing, worrying he might wake up and rape her again. Early the next morning she slipped out. Years later she still blamed herself for going back to his place.

At Cinema City Rìshon Lezion, a woman approached me, shaking. She asked me when exactly the rapes in the film had been committed. Calculating in her head, she told me that she’s a single mother to a son (now 26) who was conceived as a result of a rape by a stranger. Could the rapist in the film be “her” rapist? Her son knows the circumstances of his conception, and is determined to find his father. She was very apprehensive about such a meeting. We calculated the dates together and figured out that the rapist in the film was already in prison by the time she was raped. She asked me to calculate again. I promised her that her son’s father was not the “Polite Rapist” from the movie. Her son would not be going on his journey of vengeance. We both breathed a sigh of relief.

At a screening in Creteil, France, an older woman told me that only in the past few months had she come to realize that she’d been raped years before. The rapist was a friend, a member of her social circle. One evening, he forced himself on her. A few years later she got married, as did the rapist. Her husband was friendly with him, and the two couples saw each other often. Only in the past year, when the rapist took ill, did she notice that she had no desire to visit him in the hospital or to assist him. When he lay on his deathbed suffering, she felt no sadness. When he died, she felt relief. Only after his death did she manage to tell herself that he’d raped her. Recently she’d told her husband.

From screening to screening, I heard more and more stories. I listened, occasionally sharing them with my companion or friends, just as I’d shared with them other interesting issues that arose in Q&As or anecdotes emerging from my film tour travels. Initially it saddened me that both in Israel and abroad, most of the audience members were women. Women even complained that they hadn’t managed to convince the men in their lives to come and see the movie. “They think it’s for women,” they told me. My heart ached: Rape happens mostly between men and women, so why aren’t men coming to see my movie? Women came with their female friends, mothers and daughters. There was always a tiny minority of men in the audience, and they always joined in the discussion. Ultimately I got used to it and was pleased with my audiences.

At home, in the backyards, in the neighborhoods

At the end of 2011, I was screening at three festivals in India: in Trivandrum, Bangalore and Mumbai. Well before going, I knew I would be meeting only middle-class India, the population that consumes film festivals. At each festival, my film was screened in gigantic halls…filled with men. Here and there a few women stood out. I thought it was strange. I asked a festival organizer where all the women were. He was taken aback. He’d never thought about the fact that cinema audiences were mostly made up of men. “Here in India,” he explained, “the women are very busy at home. They don’t have time to go see movies.” He was so resolute that I didn’t dare challenge him, and just accepted it as a fact of “Indian culture.”

At the screenings that were accompanied by Q&A’s and press conferences, viewers and journalists remarked that while in the West every fifth woman is raped or survives a rape attempt, “here in India, there’s no way that those figures apply.” They even hypothesized why the phenomenon is so much “rarer” in India than it is in the West. On the other hand, I was asked again and again if I believe that rapists deserve the death penalty, or if the problem should be solved by cutting off rapists’ sex organs. I answered to the best of my ability, saying that the dimensions of the phenomenon in India seem much larger than those reported, and that in any case many women are raped, and many men are rapists. We can’t execute them all. We have to first of all start talking about the phenomenon so that women can start to complain.

Before and after these Q&A’s, the few women in the audience would approach me and silently shake my hand. One woman whispered hastily, “The worst is in the villages, where the women are raped by their uncles, their brothers and by their neighbors. Perhaps not every woman, but definitely every second woman is raped. I come from a small village. I know.” At another screening, a woman shook my hand and told me, “I had surgery to sew up my hymen after my grandfather did it to me, when I was a girl. My mother told me that the surgery would make me forget what he did to me, but I can’t stop thinking about it.”

A scene from Michal Aviad’s “Invisible.”

More recently, after the gang rape of the young woman on the bus in New Delhi and the mass protests it sparked in 2012, I listened to the shouting protestors demanding the death penalty for rapists. It seemed to me that on the one hand, the cries for the death penalty stem from the yearning for the rule of law; but on the other hand, they distance Indian women from the fact that “even in India,” rape is not committed only by violent, dangerous criminals, and that even if all of the violent criminals were locked up, the atrocity of rape and the cruelty therein would continue to haunt Indian women’s neighborhoods, schoolyards and homes. Fortunately, Indian women demanding ownership over their own bodies were no less vocal than those calling for the death penalty.

After I screened the film in New York, a viewer asked me if I was willing to hear a story that she’d never told anyone: It happened when she was nine years old. After school, she and her brothers would go to her father’s jewelry store, where they’d sit in a back room and do their homework. Off that room was the bathroom. One day she was alone in the back room doing her homework, when a friend of her father passed through on his way to the bathroom, from which he emerged with his penis hanging out, and demanded that she perform oral sex on him. She didn’t dare refuse and hoped that her father would come in and stop it. But her father didn’t come in; she recalls hearing him chatting with customers out front. From that day, she refused to do her homework at the store and asked for a house key so she could do it at home. She never told her parents why. The man continued to visit the family, and when no one was looking, he would wink at her as if they shared a secret. She’d never told a soul about the incident. She knows it doesn’t make sense, but to this day she’s never forgiven her father for not protecting her.

At a screening in Jerusalem, a woman my age introduced herself as having attended my elementary school. She told me that the film had a powerful impact on her: Her anger at her parents erupted within her once again, anger that she’d been struggling with for years. One Saturday morning, when she was 11, her older brother laid her down on a bed, groped her entire body and moaned. She ran to tell her parents, who were reading the weekend paper in their bed, but they refused to intervene and demanded that the kids “work it out themselves.” For three years her brother groped her, squeezed her breasts and stuck pencils into her vagina. She complained to her parents a few more times, but ultimately stopped. Since then and to this day, she is unable to be alone in a room with her brother.

In 2012, in Goteborg, Sweden, I met up with an Italian director whom I’d known for years. I was thrilled to see her at my screening. Afterwards, I saw her drinking whiskey at the bar, and I approached her. I was hoping to hear what she thought of Invisible, but she turned away from me and didn’t acknowledge me. It was strange. I asked her if something was wrong. She turned to me angrily and said that she’d had no idea what my movie was about when she’d entered the theater, and that I should have warned her. It turned out that the movie had brought back a terrible memory that she didn’t want to talk about. She got up and left the bar. I didn’t see her again at that festival. When I got home, I wrote her apologizing. I reminded her that in the film, Lily tells Nira that it’s unethical to bring up someone’s demons from the past without first warning them. I told her that I’d had no idea that the movie would have this effect on her. I haven’t heard from her since.

A few months ago, after a screening in Tel Aviv, a man who’d come alone shook my hand. He told me that his wife of ten years was a rape victim. She couldn’t bring herself to come, but he was glad to have seen the movie by himself, as it gave him a chance to think. His wife was the most precious thing in the world to him, and the movie gave him new keys to understanding who she is.

When Invisible opened in theaters in France in 2013, an older woman invited me for coffee. She told me that at the end of World War II, the French liberation forces (La Résistance Française entered her town in the west of France. During the war, her aunt had fed her children with the help of a German soldier. On a crusade of vengeance against the Nazi collaborators, the liberation forces came to her grandmother’s house and demanded to seize her aunt. They were going to shave her head and lead her through the streets with the other women traitors. Her mother refused to hand over her sister, and made a deal with the Rèsistance: She let them rape her in exchange for not shaving her sister’s head and humiliating her in public. The woman I was having coffee with was conceived as a result of that rape. Only after her mother died 10 years before, did her aunt tell her the circumstances of her conception.

After a screening the following day, a young woman stood up and said in a shaking voice, “Thank you for this movie. Those women [in the film] are so independent, strong, overcoming their traumas.” I and the rest of the audience froze: It was obvious that this woman had been raped and was afraid of never getting over it. In order to break the tension, I hurried to remind the audience that here in this room, as everywhere, we can assume that every fifth woman has been raped. I suggested that they find others to talk to about it, just as Lily and Nira found each other. I tried to move smoothly into discussing the movie, to tell about the meticulous work of Ronìt Elkabetz and Evgenya Dodina. We tried so hard to depict women whose reactions to their rapes differed from one another. Each of them were wounded and both their lives affected 20 years after the fact, yet both, like most rape victims, I reminded the audience, are just ordinary women about whom you can’t tell what they suffered by looking at them. Their wound is invisible.

Waiting for a sign of understanding

That same week, left-wing French politician Clémentine Autain saw Invisible and asked me to meet her for lunch. Autain was raped when she was 22 and tells about it in her biography by Anne Delabre, Clémentine Autain. Portrait. While Autain does not engage publicly about the implications of the incident on  her private life, she is relentless about breaking the conspiracy of silence that serves rapists. In France, a woman is raped every eight minutes.

After the uproar following the Strauss-Kahn affair in 2011, after which Dominique Strauss-Kahn was removed from office as Candidate for presidency, in 2012, Autain published a manifesto signed by 313 women that begins with this sentence: “I hereby declare that I was raped”. The manifesto, which was accompanied by testimonies on prime-time television, inspired a new round of discussion on and awareness of rape. Autain told me that since its publication, hundreds of women have sent her detailed testimonies, which she is preparing to publish in a book (since published) with hundreds having since signed the manifesto. During our lunch, I mentioned the many women who had told me of being raped. Autain was not surprised; she knew that my movie would inspire discussion. “Women remain silent for decades after the event,” she said, “waiting for a sign of understanding.”

At that same lunch with Autain, I was able for the first time to articulate what I’d felt and known both during the making of Invisible and after the various screenings: The scarcity of rape victims’ complaints and the small number of convictions will not change as the result of better laws and enforcement only. Nor will reality change as a result of movies and books whose protagonists bring rapists to justice. Only a flood of words by us — women — can shatter the taboo that shames and humiliates us, that stains families, that perpetuates the stereotype of a rapist not as the guy next door but as some salivating wild beast poised to attack.

Words and more words are the only path to change: Flood us all with our stories, infuse the facts of our lives, internalize that rape is common — these will create openness and a layer of a priori understanding that will enable more women to understand that they were raped and encourage them to complain. Only such openness and understanding will crack men’s strange way of  defending their masculinity by saying, “rape talk is a woman thing,” and instead encourage cooperation between men and women in the struggle against rape. In fact, it was only at that lunch that I realized that it was my duty to publish the stories told to me.

One evening after a screening, a gray-haired woman took the floor. She said that she hadn’t realized what she’d come to see. She’d decided to watch the film because she likes movies with female protagonists. Now, after seeing it, she wanted to tell us that her brother raped her for years, and that Lily and Nira’s descriptions were accurate in their details. She’d felt the same way for her entire life since. I wasn’t certain what she was getting at. When it was over, she stopped me and talked to me for a long time, describing scene after scene in Invisible and the similarities between them and her own life.

These conversations, with women who stay after screenings and want to tell me about themselves, are always a little tense. I try to end the conversation with one and then turn to another, feeling bad about those waiting to talk as the time gets late. Jewish viewers occasionally wish to expand on the disparity between our political views, protesting scenes in Invisible that describe the Israeli occupation. While a few get very angry, others compliment me for mentioning in some discussions that only in Israel is the president imprisoned on a rape charge. There are viewers who insist on understanding the meaning of specific scenes: “Why is a naked man there? It was disturbing.” I listen and respond, try to explain and elucidate my worldview.

I stood there trying to understand the gray-haired woman who sought to compare rapes committed by her brother and the film protagonists’ experiences. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw others waiting less and less patiently to speak to me. Between me and myself, I wondered how the reactions of the protagonists to a one-time rape by a stranger were comparable to those of a woman, who as a girl had been raped repeatedly by her brother. But this emotional woman described reactions so similar to those of Nira and Lily that I couldn’t stop thinking that there is something that all rapes have in common, and perhaps the key to understanding victims’ testimonies lies in the years-long trauma described in “Invisible.”

Difficult reactions to Invisible reach me from time to time. Last month, an acquaintance told me that she’d gone to see it two years ago, alone. All she could think of upon exiting the theater was not wanting to think about it. She wanted to forget it. But in the two years since, the movie wouldn’t leave her, and she began to realize more and more that she had to face her own past.

My co-worker, who saw Invisible recently, had a similar reaction. While it both amazed and had a strong impact on her, she was unwilling to talk about it with me. I tried to humor her and get her talking out of both curiosity and fondness for her, but she refused, saying, “No matter what you do, you won’t get me to tell you what that movie did to me and where it touched me. It’s too painful.”

This month I was at a screening in Belfort, France. Between questions concerning the relationship between Israeli and universal issues raised in Invisible, one spectator remarked that Nira and Lily are a specific type of rape victims: “They could go to the police, they could tell each other what they’d gone through and they were depicted as independent women, but…” And here her voice broke, and she asked me, shakily, “Have you ever thought about women who feel horrible shame, who can’t tell their stories because their own husbands rape them?”

***

These fragmented testimonies represent just a few of the dozens I’ve heard over the past two years. While the stories don’t replace the post-screening discussions, the political debates and the social discourse surrounding Invisible, they’ve opened up an entire world to me. They’ve deepened my understanding that every rape occurs within complex relationships between rapist and victim, whether the rapist is a stranger or a family member. Every rape differs, and each is unique. The testimonies have hit me over the head over and over regarding the dimensions of the phenomenon, and confirmed for me the conspiracy of silence adhered to by both women and men continues.

In a society wherein rape shames, humiliates and blames not only rapists but also, and sometimes, especially, their victims, women and men collaborate on hiding it. The silence protects the victims and their families, as they are not labeled by society and can continue living their lives. Yet like the cases of Nira and Lily, and as in every rape, the victims are violently attacked from the inside, and experience severe pain for years after. Therefore, despite society’s directive to hide the occurrences of rape, to “forget,” and the terrible fear of the shameful secret emerging and marking the victims forever, the need to share the incident, to rebel against the silence, and to listen to the words spoken aloud, is powerful. Words erupt from women, who in some cases tell me for the first time what happened to them, with tremendous power and emotion.

I believe that those who have shared fragments of their lives with me want me to pass on their words, as we can only drown these dark secrets with a powerful deluge of testimonies that will transform rape from a rare and terrible crime to something that is part of the lives of a huge number of women and men.

Related:
The paralyzing rage of sexual harassment

Michal Aviád’s film Invisible, 2011, Israel, 90 min. has won prizes at the Berlin Film Festival; Best Film and Best Actress at the Haifa Film Festival; and Grand Prize at the French Women’s Film Festival.

This post was first published in Hebrew on Haokets

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    1. I want to see your film, but simultaneously I don’t want to see it. This article was relentless. Every time I thought you must be nearly finished writing there was another story. It’s like being punched successively in the gut, which I suppose is the point.

      I had so many thoughts when I read the piece and I don’t know which to share, so here goes. For me personally, telling my story as a form of catharsis would not be helpful. Every time I’ve tried I’ve just ended up feeling frustrated, as I can’t make the words fit what happened and I don’t think I could ever get across what I felt. I also don’t think I need to. I do not believe in the old chestnut that you should talk through trauma in order to recover from it. For me, the solution lies in activism and politics, not in telling my own personal story – just strong fierce action against rape culture. That could mean fighting to get better legal protections in place for victims, campaigning for the introduction of the Nordic model on prostitution, improving education so that young boys actually realise what rape is, and so on. Through my involvement in this, I keep crashing into appalling attitudes (often held by people whom I love and value) that are far harder to cope with than the assault itself. This is another reason why I don’t talk about personal experience. To hear things like ‘Men need sex and they can’t keep taking no for an answer, it’s normal’ – from a supposed friend! – after recounting my experience would be even less fun than hearing it after discussing rape in the abstract.

      Finally, regarding what you wrote about reactions in India, I’ve noticed a connection between a belief that rape is rare and the demand for brutal punishment. “It hardly happens here, but when it does, we should castrate them and make them eat their own genitalia.” That kind of thinking. Demanding such punishment both stems from and reinforces the idea that rape is rare, that only a few men do it, monstrous men, to be punished in an equally monstrous way. That argument makes me angry. It’s not about justice for women, it’s about putting rape out of sight. Thank you for doing your part to make it visible, even if it made uncomfortable reading.

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