It’s been over 25 years since Lorena Bobbitt – now Lorena Gallo – severed John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis, a singular act of violence that sparked a media firestorm. Overnight, the pair were transformed into household names, as well as late-night punchlines, but lost amongst the jokes and innuendo was the opportunity to honestly engage with the serious issues that predicated Gallo’s actions: a documented history of domestic abuse and accusations of marital rape.
But times change, and in the aftermath of #MeToo and #TimesUp Gallo’s story is ripe for reassessment, as evidenced by Joshua Rofé’s stellar Amazon four-part docuseries “Lorena,” which strips the signal from the noise and contextualizes both the incident, as well as the media circus that followed.
For as unique as Gallo’s tale is, Rofé was almost uniquely qualified to tell it. The director’s two previous documentaries explore similar stories, explorations of individuals scarred by abuse and neglect and ultimately lash out in destructive fashion.
In 2013’s “Lost for Life,” Rofé revealed the lives of juvenile offenders serving life sentences in prison, their lives over before they began in earnest, while 2016’s “Swift Current” explored the life and volatile career of Canadian hockey player Sheldon Kennedy, who rocked the sports world when he went public as a sexual abuse survivor, who had suffered for years at the hands of his former youth hockey coach.
“Nobody ever asked, ‘Well, what happened to this person that made them behave this way?'” Rofé said of his documentary subjects in an interview with IndieWire. “It was just, ‘I can’t believe what they did.'”
“I get mad when people are treated unfairly,” he explained. His parents were immigrants, and Rofé grew up with their tales of survival, of scrounging furniture from the dumpster, but only in the dark of night, for fear of humiliation.
Through speaking with him, it becomes apparent that what underlies all his work is a tremendous sense of empathy, particularly for people who may have found themselves on the wrong side of the cultural conversation. And Gallo is nothing if not that.
“It’s December 22nd, 2016. I scroll through Facebook and I see this Huffington Post article by Melissa Jeltsen – who’s in the series – and the headline is, ‘Lorena Bobbitt Is Done Being Your Punchline,'” Rofé recalled. “It says something to the effect of how we as a society missed this opportunity to have a national conversation about domestic violence and instead it turned into a series of dick jokes. And just right away, I just thought, ‘My god, this is the most well-known story of the very thing that I’ve been examining over the last 10 years of my life.’ And I knew I was dying to tell it.”
After decades spent as mainstream media’s punching bag, Gallo had built up a natural suspicion of journalists, who too often promised to tell the real story, only to get side-tracked into sensationalism. Rofé had a difficult task at hand in trying to persuade her to speak with him, but eventually, it was his previous documentaries that spoke for him.
“They were very sensitive films,” Gallo said of Rofé documentaries, which he sent as an entreaty that he could tell her story in the way it deserved to be told. “He had really taken into consideration the human spirit and was not sensationalistic. It really felt like he understands.”
Once Gallo was on board, things quickly began falling into place for the filmmaker, including the acquisition of a newly minted Hollywood power player as executive producer.
Rofé and Jordan Peele had been friends since the pair met at a screening of “Lost for Life” at the Arclight in 2013, regularly trekking into the Valley for Chinese food and swapping stories about their latest projects. According to Rofé, Peele was intrigued about his friend’s project with Gallo. So intrigued, in fact, that in February 2017, during the opening weekend for Peele’s Academy Award-winning “Get Out,” he called Rofé and said he’d love to be a part of the project.
“Lorena” found a home at Amazon, but the series still had to get made, which means that Rofé and his team would need to set about opening up wounds that had haphazardly healed in the decades since the original traumas. And it wasn’t easy.
“You’re basically asking somebody to, step by step, walk you through the worst things that have ever happened in their life,” Rofé said. “Walk you through the thing that destroyed their family, caused them so much pain and trauma. And so it’s heartbreaking.”
But Gallo was no shrinking violet. Twenty-three years removed from the incident that thrust her into the public eye, she has remade herself as a domestic violence advocate, in addition to founding Lorena’s Red Wagon, a charity to help domestic violence victims and their children.
“She wanted to give it all,” Rofé recalled of his interviews with Gallo. “She understood this was the platform where people would finally understand. And so she was willing to go to those places.”
But she also knew what she was getting into and the toll that the project would take on her own mental health.
“I said, ‘This is going to be tough for me, I know,’ but I feel an urge to do this for the new generations,” Gallo said. “I have a daughter who is 13 years old and going to eventually go to college. I want my daughter to be walking to campus and say, ‘You know what? It’s night. It’s dark. But I feel safe.’ I know that she’s going to eventually be a woman and I want her to know she has freedom and rights as a woman.”
“In order for me to tell this story again, I had to look at [what I wanted for my daughter] and it ignited in my brain the strength to say, ‘You know what? Let’s do this again,'” she continued. “Because I should. For the sake of women. Even for the sake of myself. It’s therapeutic in a way, because once a woman starts telling the story of what happened, the healing process can start.”
Now on the other side of his most successful endeavor to date, Rofé had time to reflect on the heart of documentary filmmaking, and perhaps what makes it a more vital storytelling method than ever.
“For all of the lack of humanity that we’re currently seeing in the world, there’s a tidal wave that I think is equally, if not more, powerful that is pushing back that is full of empathy,” he remarked.
“Empathy is just such a part of being human. And if you’re a doc filmmaker especially, you realize that leaning into it even more is actually a great thing. It’s exciting to connect with people in that way and not just be guarded. Being cool is the lamest fucking thing on earth. You know what I mean?”