"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

It Was Rape: New Documentary by Jennifer Baumgardner

First off:  I am well aware that as a man, "reviewing" a documentary film about specific stories of rape is something of an "iffy" premise--so I'm aiming at just talking about the film, how it made me feel, and why I think the feminist and pro-feminist readers of this blog would be interested in seeing it, with a nod to what a film like this means for feminist and pro-feminist men.  That said, I do feel the need to mention that this is a film with high production values (although there is one interviewee for which the sound seems to be a bit off).  Oftentimes films that have amazing content are also difficult to watch (for me!) because of poor sound/film quality, or poor editing--not this one.  This film is rock-solid. 

It Was Rape - Trailer from Jennifer Baumgardner on Vimeo.

A new film is (hopefully) coming to a film festival (or campus) near you:  Jennifer Baumgardner's It Was Rape.  Before I heard of this film, Baumgardner was already known to me as the author of one of my favorite books:  Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics.  (And I really do mean it's one of my favorites--I reread it again from time to time, even though it's from 1997.)  Come to find out she was already famous way before that--as both a filmmaker and an author--you can see a 15-minute preview of her film I Had an Abortion, here on her site.  Baumgardner continues her streak of powerful, personal, intelligent work with It Was Rape.

Diverse Stories

One of the most fantastic things about this film is the incredible diversity that Baumgardner achieves within a one-hour running time, while still managing to give us deep details about the lives of the survivors she interviews, and weaving in (through creative film making and editing) a subtext of the sort of things we all should be talking about as regards rape.    At the same time, the film does convey very particular stories, all of which are about rape, but also very different from each other; Baumgardner includes not only straight-identified white women (whose stories are more often told), but also queer folks, people of various ages, people of color (including, and this group of folks is so often overlooked, an indigenous woman), and people from different class and educational backgrounds.  There are a few exceptions--these folks all seem to be all cis-gendered women (though I could be wrong), so we don't hear any stories from trans women, or from cis- or trans men; also the film centers on folks in the United States.  But given these limits, we have to admit that no set number of stories in an hour will convey all stories, and acknowledge that Baumgardner has clearly made a strong attempt at inclusion and diversity.


I have had conversations with friends (too many friends) about them having been raped.  The conversation is never the same, though they often hit some of the same notes.  And that's one of this movie's strengths:  It allows us to be part of the beginnings of conversations with women who have been raped, and to be encouraged to have conversations with others.  These interviews are the beginnings of conversations that we all should be having with people in our lives--friends, sisters (and, I'd argue, brothers) and parents should all be talking about and listening to these sorts of stories.  The intimate nature of the interviews, including Baumgardner's questions being heard off-camera from time to time, makes the film difficult to watch, but of course at the same time that is what makes it so powerful.  Something in the way the film allows us to enter into these stories.  A mix of straight-up just listening to these women as well as short shots of visualizations from time to time made me feel like these women could be friends of mine, and I'm listening to them tell their stories.  As Baumgardner says toward the end of the film, this started as a film about speaking out, and ended up being a film about learning to listen. 

For Allies

Which brings me to the "allies" part of what I felt during the film.  While hearing any stories about rape can help feminist allies to begin to understand and dismantle rape culture, there are specific messages for men to be had in this film.  As a man who acknowledges and fights against rape culture, it's difficult to watch a film about rape without feeling really shitty about men in general.  I don't think this is an unhealthy reaction, though it's likely not healthy for this to be the only emotional reaction;  such a reaction perhaps indicates a deeper understanding of rape culture, and how men perpetuate it.  It can sometimes be difficult not to empathize so much with these women that I begin to lament if there are any men who really "get it", including me.  (Of course, men who have been raped understand more than most.)  Rape culture has deep, deep roots, and this movie digs down deep to expose some of them in a way that all men, and allies in particular can learn a lot from.

For instance, one of the women interviewed said something that resonated deeply with me:  She said that, if she could, she would ask her rapist to be strong enough to share his story, to help end the cycles of violence, to talk about what he felt during the time, and after, he raped her, because, hopefully, he would want things to be better for women and for men.  And, while I know that this film will reach out to so many women to help them feel less isolated in their pain, anger and suffering after having been raped, I also deeply hope that all the men who see this will begin conversations with their inner selves, and with other men (and women, and folks of all genders)--I think men need to do the work to dismantle rape culture, and I think listening to these stories is one step toward that.  

I'm not a film critic or a film maker, but I put the call out to male film makers out there who want to do some work in dismantling rape culture:  Please, please, please make more movies where men talk about how traditional masculinity, growing up in rape culture, and other factors have helped to create rapists.  (This is not taking away responsibility for being rapists, but instead is an attempt to look at all the causes.)  Or, if she felt like a sequel of sorts, I would welcome Baumgardner herself to take a shot at such a film:  Even though I think more men need to do more work in this regard, I'm certain the world could handle two such documentaries!   

There are, luckily, some films which do touch on rape culture with an audience of men in mind:  The Men's Story Project documentaries include stories about ending cycles of violence (full disclosure--I took part in this project).  Galen Peterson's piece, The Violence of Masculinity, is a strong call out for an end to violence by men, for instance: 

And perhaps there are many more films about rape than I know about aimed at men, attempting to work at eliminating rape culture! Names/links to such films would be more than welcome in the comments.

I applaud Baumgardner's film, and am very grateful for the strength and bravery of all of the women in it for telling their stories. 

Notes and Pleasant Surprises

Some related links, including links to sites by folks interviewed in the documentary:
Can a Film About Rape Have a Great Soundtrack? YES I also want to say:  How does a film about rape come off having such a great "soundtrack"? It's fabulous. It did feel a bit odd enjoying Amy Ray's Let It Ring as the credits rolled, after hearing so many stories that are difficult to hear.  I wonder if the soundtrack might be sold for fundraising?

 Also:  Mercy Bell!

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