In their new documentary, “She Stole My Voice: A Documentary about Lesbian Rape”, filmmakers Justine Chang and Armand Kaye attempt change that with multi-perspective portrayals of lesbian rape, and community and expert responses. The documentary will be available on DVD in early fall, 2007.
RMD interviewed Justine Chang and Armand Kaye, about “She Stole My Voice: A Documentary about Lesbian Rape” shortly after a private screening of their director’s cut.
RMD: First, let me say that the film is incredible, and the style is something I definitely haven't seen before. The scene that examines community views, in particular, seems to say something interesting about what feminist theorists have to say about lesbian rape.
JC: When you talk about women in the workplace, most feminist theorists are in agreement. When you talk about political and social equality, most feminist theorists are in agreement. But when it comes to lesbian rape, you begin to see a lot of contradictory elements. You’ll even see the same theorists saying opposite things about lesbian rape at different times. That’s important, because it shows that we aren’t just dealing with average people being insufficiently educated. The ambiguities and incomplete understanding runs all the way from the average person to the most important feminist theorists of the last fifty years. Its something that a lot of people, including the gender deconstructivists that, in retrospect, should have seen it, completely missed.
AK: So we tried to show that this wasn’t just a “Joe Shmoe” problem. This is something that even the leading feminist theorists totally missed. So we tried to interweave what the theorists were saying with what the people on the street were saying, so you can see the differences and parallels. We used a lot of overlays to do that, so that the viewer can compare the views actually simultaneously.
RMD: You use a lot of short visual depictions combined with interviews and analysis. But you also use some longer visual depictions, which have a really unnerving quality. How important are these visual depictions to the message of the film?
JC: I would say that they are absolutely essential. See, what you have now is a crime that no one knows how to react to, because no one has any real image or understanding of what it is. There are almost no depictions of it anywhere. The only video versions of lesbian rape that exist right now are found in pornography, in which the “victim” invariably starts to enjoy the rape. With a social understanding based on something that ludicrous, it is no surprise that police and prosecutors don’t take it seriously. For people to know how to react, they have to first be able to picture what they are dealing with, and that it is real, and devastating, and horrific.
We originally planned to use only stills, rather than longer video. The problem is that lesbian rape has psychological elements that is just as important as the physical elements. It is a process that a snapshot, or even series of snapshots, can’t really capture. It is situational, it is dependent on the circumstances, and it can be very subtle.
AK: It’s like Justine says in the film intro – female sexuality is more complicated than male sexuality, and female rape is more complicated than heterosexual rape. We spent just hours and hours trying to find a way to bring stills together in a way that could show that psychological element, like a collage or montage, and it just doesn’t work. To have any level of accuracy, to have any serious discussion, you have to show the whole thing, with all the complexities and subtleties. You can’t just show parts.
JC: To add to that, the longer depictions really show just how destructive female sexuality can be. Society views male sexual organs as penetrating and destructive, and female sexual organs as receptive and nourishing, respectively. With the right context, female sexual organs can be just as destructive, or even more destructive, than male sexual organs. So the scenes are graphic and explicit, rather than made safe or medical, because they have to be. Lesbian rape is not a safe, clean act. And a safe clean depiction would do just massive amounts of injustice to the understanding of the phenomenon, and, in a real way, cheapen the experiences of victims of this phenomenon.
AK: And the same extends to female sexuality.
RMD: One of the most intense parts of the films has two screens running simultaneously, plus a background scene, and finally a text interview. Can you tell us about the evolution of that scene?
JC: A major difference between lesbian rape and heterosexual rape is that heterosexual rape is a very specific, clear cut act, while lesbian rape has many possible angles and facets. That is significant because since it is less easy to grasp as a totality, lesbian rape is often not seen to be as horrifying as heterosexual rape. Understanding it requires more than a definition or image to be associated with the phrase “lesbian rape”. It requires a simultaneous grasp of many different things. So that scene tries to create a more holistic, instantaneous understanding of what lesbian rape actually is.
AK: We tried a lot of different methods. We tried layering scenes on top of each other, using transparencies, but that made the whole thing purely visual, and sort of sapped the emotional content. The interview portion was originally part of a later scene, but interweaving the interview and the video depictions just made the scene much more powerful.
RMD: There is something haunting about the last scene. And there seems to be a lot of symbolism embedded in that scene in particular.
JC: Socioeconomic issues are particularly important when it comes to lesbian rape and abuse. For example, victims of domestic abuse who are financially dependent on their significant others often have nowhere to turn, especially when so many are turned away from battered women’s shelters.
But it’s more than that. Any group that is socially disempowered is at risk for being used and taken advantage of. Whether you are talking about poor people in the third world financially pressured to give up their organs, or are talking about victims of lesbian rape who are unable to find social support or prosecution, you are dealing with people who have no recourse. And the powerful will always be able to prey on the desparate.
AK: We tried to present that scene in a matter-of-fact style, rather than a dramatic style, to show the indifference and practical-mindedness that accompanies these kinds of crimes. The lesbian rapist, at least up until now, can be almost certain that she will not get caught or punished. It’s not a risk taken by a crazy person, or an angry person; it is a practical, considered, and virtually unpunished act.
We removed the music from that scene for that reason. To show that this isn’t, for the perpetrator, high drama. For the lesbian rapist, it is an easy crime that is almost certain to go unpunished.
RMD: The violent incest scene, between the two sisters, was particularly difficult to watch. I would say it is one of the two most painful scenes in the movie. I don’t want to spoil it for the viewers, but it is obvious why that scene is important to the film. Hearing you talk about it, that matter-of-factness is something that makes it so painful. But is that matter-of-factness fair when dealing with something like incest?
JC: That’s a really good question, and one we thought about for a long time. We had that scene in a different style originally, but a more dramatic rendering somehow took away the emotional impact. Yes, the scene is driven by anger, and by rage. But it also takes place with the understanding that because of the nature of the circumstances, there will be no external repercussions.
AK: And we wanted to show that these are events that happen in everyday locations and situations. These aren’t things that happen in some highly unusual circumstances. They happen, they occur, and they are almost never reported or punished.
JC: One thing about that scene, is that it is important to see where the sexual violence actually begins. It seems that the older sister initiates the sexual violence, but if you watch closely, and think about it, it isn’t the older sister who starts the cycle of sexual violence.
RMD: The idea of violence being cyclical seems to be a major theme.
JC: I wouldn’t say that it is a theme that we brought to the film, but a real aspect about the actual crime. And it is a cycle that we hope to break with this particular documentary.
AK: It’s a cycle that will continue, unless we really bring it powerfully to everyone’s attention. And that’s what this film is trying to do.