I Will Not Be Silenced

25 / 05 / 2015

We’re delighted to welcome back the talented Karen Pickering to our ‘Culture Club’ section as a regular contributor. Very exciting! This month, Karen is talking about the impact film has on social change, in particular Judi Rymer’s new film, I Will Not Be Silenced about the extraordinary Charlotte Campbell Stephen. You can view the trailer here.

Content Warning: reference to sexual violence

Film is such an evocative and immersive medium, with a long history of precipitating, guiding and reflecting social change. Whether it’s making films, screening them for engaged audiences, or agreeing to be subjects, women are using cinema to develop and strengthen feminist consciousness. For instance, the idea for Girls On Film Festival was to highlight the positive power of strong female protagonists on screen. Last year GOFF featured a selection of movies designed to make feminists feel good about their identity and contribution to the world. This is because we, the creators of GOFF, think that when women engage with the stories of other women it builds solidarity, confidence and hope.

Documentary can take this engagement one step further by introducing us to real women who are effecting change in the world, often at great cost. One such woman is Charlotte Campbell Stephen, the subject of Judi Rymer’s stunning film, I Will Not Be Silenced. I Will Not Be Silenced is currently setting the festival circuit alight and was the Opening Night film at the Human Rights and Arts Film Festival in Melbourne, where it won the HRAFF Impact Award for Best Feature.

In the most literal terms, I Will Not Be Silenced is about an Australian woman who is gang raped in Kenya, before refusing to let the crime go unpunished and unacknowledged before the law. The journey from the brutal assault to the final legal outcome is one of extreme difficulty, for both the subject and for the audience, and a graphic description of the crime is contained within the film’s dramatic opening scenes. It’s indisputably punishing content, but forgivable in the context of truth-telling and bearing witness to Charlotte’s experience. By contrast, the sexual assault of women is so often used in popular culture narratives to no real end besides titillation and shock value. But in this story, we instantly identify with Charlotte (through Judi’s perspective), in that we believe her and we want her to have justice; as an audience, we know this might not be possible, but we know it is right and we immediately share this goal.

Her story is extraordinary enough, but the astonishing thing about Charlotte is not only her determination and courage, but her ironclad commitment to making sure that her case will ultimately help Kenyan women and pave the way for future prosecutions in a culture of silence around rape and sexual assault. We see the long and slow engagement with local groups on the ground, and discover that feminist activists are already working hard in communities to build an awareness that sexual assault is not acceptable, not the victim’s fault, and not a shame that should be borne by survivors. It’s a powerful glimpse into the grassroots networks that women in every society build in order to protect and support each other, and the relationship between these women – black, white, poor, rich, old, young – provides the necessary counterpoint of hope and joy the story needs to bring the audience from desperation and despair to strength and focus.

This is not only testament to the extraordinary personality of Charlotte but also the directorship of Judi Rymer. A documentary veteran with a social justice bent, Rymer has created a powerful record of one woman’s struggle against a backdrop of broader structural inequality and ingrained misogyny, by creating the space for Kenyan women to share their stories alongside Charlotte. While Rymer accurately conveys the chaos and inconsistency of the Kenyan legal system, it’s never a judgment on the individuals working hard to prosecute the case, nor on the country itself.

Watching the trial unfold, I was painfully aware that many of the defence tactics and judicial processes that became barriers to justice for Charlotte are equally problematic in the Australian context. I had the strongest feeling that, in fact, all sexual assault prosecutions have a lot in common – an emphasis on the victim as some kind of collaborator, an unreliable narrator, a lightning rod for every kind of dysfunction in the broader society. And as many feminist activists have pointed out in the past, and more recently within movements like SlutWalk, rape seems to be the only crime where part of the defence is to argue that the perpetrator was tempted into committing the offence.

It’s both infuriating and irrationally comforting to know that we are fighting a global battle against rape culture, side by side with women who share our belief that we can beat it, and who have come to believe in the power of standing together against abuse. Rymer’s film, and Charlotte’s battle against unbelievable odds, is part of a bigger process of taking on these insidious ideas and dismantling them. I believe that film, and this one in particular, has the power to break open people’s minds and instill the kind of passion and dedication we need to keep fighting this fight.

More information about the film, as well as how to view and purchase it, can be found here.

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