When Mariska Hargitay landed the role of Detective Olivia Benson on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” she had no idea that it would turn her into an activist for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse. But in 2017, almost two decades after the long-running show began, she’s helped spearhead a mission to eliminate the rape-kit backlog in the U.S. — and has produced a documentary with HBO and her former SVU coworker Trish Adlesic called “I Am Evidence” that helps bring the issue to light.
“What ‘SVU’ has done is really started a conversation,” Hargitay said after a screening of the film at the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series. “Half of my fan mail says, ‘I wish you are the cop on my case,'” the actress confessed, tearing up.
That’s why she started her Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004, and why, when she found out in 2009 that there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits just sitting in storage rooms across the country, she made the elimination of that backlog her main mission.
“I’ve seen this film many times and each time I’m so humbled,” she said at the Q&A. “I feel so incredibly privileged, especially at this moment in history, to have a part of igniting change [and] sparking the conversation [and] continuing the conversation and hopefully being a part of how society responds to sexual assault and domestic violence. That’s what we sought to do here.”
Rape is the only crime in which collected evidence isn’t investigated — and the attitude toward victims is generally unhelpful, Hargitay and Adlesic said. Not only are they angling to eliminate the testing backlog, they’re also hoping police and medical professionals are better trained on how to treat victims.
“The rape-kit backlog is just a perfect microcosm for how women and these crimes are regarded, and so through excavating and digging you really see those victim-blaming attitudes,” Hargitay said. “It’s painful to watch, but it’s something that needs to be uncovered and a big, bright, bright light needs to be shined on it, so that’s what we’re hoping to do. In this watershed moment we’re hoping that the tides turn.”
The film follows several women whose rape kits went untested for years, and Adlesic, who directed the film alongside Geeta Gandbhir, said that’s why it took three years to make.
“It took a long time to build trust,” she said. “I think after people have been so horrifically let down by the very entities that are in place and paid for by our tax dollars — to trust anyone isn’t easy after sexual assault, but then to trust a filmmaker where you don’t even know what’s the intention, are they really going to get it right?”
Even just speaking about their experiences, however, seemed to help the women process what had happened to them, said Hargitay.
“One of the things that people underestimate is the power of bearing witness…and it’s been incredibly powerful for survivors to have their voices matter,” she said. “The healing power in being heard, having someone listen to you, believe you…that cannot be underestimated.”
Watch clips from the Q&A below:
“I Am Evidence” will premiere on Dec. 8 at LA’s Laemmle Playhouse, and will be broadcast on HBO in 2018.
The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.