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At Sundance 2015, Filmmakers Break The Silence Of Sexual Trauma

At Sundance 2015, Filmmakers Break The Silence Of Sexual Trauma

“What are these films telling us?” 

According to Sundance Senior Programmer Caroline Libresco,
that’s what festival programmers asked when they realized they’d
chosen five films about sexual
for their 2015 lineup. Although this came on the heels of what The Guardian called a “watershed year”
for women breaking their silence about abuse, these films were probably already
in post by the time the 25th Cosby accuser stepped forward.

At the “Breaking the Silence, Breaking the Cycle”
panel that Sundance organized to unpack this trend, executive producer Regina Scully
(The Hunting Ground, The Invisible War) explained the timing
this way: “Collective consciousness is catching up to our storytellers,
giving them permission to share their stories.” She
should know. No one would touch her 2007 doc, Boyhood Shadows, until the abuses at Penn State and in the Catholic
Church came to light.

But how do you divine meaning from five such different films? The Hunting Ground’s
exposé of campus sexual assault is all about the survivors, while Pervert Park’s intimate window into
a community of sex offenders focuses on the perpetrators. Dreamcatcher follows one woman’s mission to end the
cycle of exploitation in inner-city Chicago, while Prophet’s
explores how religious indoctrination enabled sexual abuse in Warren
Jeff’s rogue sect of the Mormon Church. Call Me Lucky profiles a comedian whose dark past fuels his
courageous present. And talk about synchronicity. At New Frontier, the virtual-reality installation, Perspective;
Chapter 1: The Party
 simulates a college rape first from the male, then the female perspective.

What these films do share, Libresco noted, is that the “story
structures themselves allow for transformation.” In
other words, they’re about trauma, but also about recovery.
Indeed, although The Hunting Ground
follows undergraduate rape survivors betrayed by their universities, it also
captures those who became activists who refuse to remain silent. Pervert Park bears witness to healing as
offenders confront their own pasts as abuse survivors. Dreamcatcher follows a former prostitute working to get women off the street. Prophets Prey reveals a
world of pedophilia that makes the twisted machinations of Big Love look like an episode of Little House on the Prairie, yet ends with Jeffs in prison. “To
stand up in front of everybody and tell them my story and have justice be
served,” exclaims one male survivor, “was the most liberating… experience
Ive ever had.”

In all cases, the filmmaking itself helps survivors to heal.
Scully explained why: “The first step of recovery is voicing
your story.” Perhaps that’s what distinguishes these films from, say, an episode of The Newsroom, where
a survivor of campus rape is convinced to NOT speak her truth by a
well-intentioned, “sensible” white guy. The blowback, most notably from The New Yorker’s
Emily Nussbaum
, spoke volumes.

As Scully explained, the healing needs to be two-fold: “[When] we hear them… we advance as a culture in our consciousness.” For
Kirby Dick (The Hunting Ground,) the
goal is more tangible: “The first thing we want… is
awareness. Secondly, we want outrage. And from that outrage, we want to hold
these institutions accountable.”

Scully illuminated another purpose: “It’s… imperative
that every one of us learns about trauma and recovery, because if recovery
doesn’t happen, it’s perpetuated.” Kim Longinotto (Dreamcatcher)
referred to “the secrets and lies that get passed down through generations,” while
her protagonist, Brenda, admits, “You become the victimizer ‘cause
its the only way to survive.”
In Prophet’s Prey, an insider illuminates Jeff’s childhood: “The
incest… was going on in the home.” And
in a visceral confession in Pervert Park, a woman named Tracy describes how being raped by her father and then her mother’s
boyfriend “caused my body to want those same feelings, and I didnt know how to make myself feel those
feelings except for to act the same thing on someone else… my
cousins.” Her counselor confirms, “Treating one offender might prevent ten
more victims from being created.”

In the end, these films remove the shame associated with
sexual assault for both survivors and perpetrators. Scully put it best: “The
beauty of all the storytelling is that it gets everyone to start talking about
it. More than that, it gets everyone to start talking about it without judgment.
That’s really the key.” 

Sarah Tuft is a playwright and filmmaker who has just completed
the screen adaptation of her play
Stories, which weaves first-person accounts of trauma and recovery in the
aftermath of 9/11.
110 Stories has been performed at the Vineyard and Public
Theaters and The Geffen Playhouse with actors including Billy Crudup, Edie
Falco, Neil Patrick Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Melissa Leo, Cynthia Nixon,
Susan Sarandon, and Kathleen Turner. Short films include
Tide (IFC, Hamptons Film Festival, LA Shorts Fest, Lake Placid) and
Closing Time (Clermont-Ferrand.) For
more details and a secret art career, check out

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