No justice, no peace: A Day, 365 Hours and The Silence of Reason

TRAUMA / Two Sarajevo Film Festival-premiered films take a justice-seeking women's journey, revealing the resilience of rape survivors.

Eylem Kaftan’s A Day, 365 Hours follows Reyhan, Asya and Leyla, a trio of young (pseudonymous) women in Turkey attempting to come to terms with – and to seek justice for – the horrific abuse they suffered growing up, a victimisation made all the more monstrous by the fact that each knew her perpetrator not only intimately but genetically. As Reyhan so eloquently puts it in the third «chapter» of the film (titled «Can You Change Your DNA?»), «You want to tear yourself apart and recreate yourself.» Not an overblown sentiment coming from a brave survivor who’d experienced sexual abuse at the hands of her own father – and thus will never escape the traits of her perpetrator no matter how far she flees. Even a glance in the mirror might read as a threat to this band of sisters.

A Day, 365 Hours Eylem Kaftan
A Day, 365 Hours, a film by Eylem Kaftan

A Day, 365 Hours

But «losing has its own beauty if done for freedom», Reyhan also posits to the camera before going on to urge victims everywhere to come forward, even if it means losing their family (or even legal case) in the process. Though she then jarringly adds that «you have nothing to lose but your life.» Which is where things become, well, uncomfortable. While these women’s stories are undeniably heartfelt and incredibly inspiring, that can-do spirit too often masks the gritty, life-threatening nuts and bolts of actually extricating oneself from abuse. Despite her mother’s warnings that her father would kill her if she didn’t stay put and keep her mouth shut, Reyhan seems to have easily up and left just fine. But is that really the norm?

Not according to cold hard statistics – that have long shown that walking away is likewise the most dangerous thing any victim can do (since abuse is about absolute control over the abused, of course). It’s the point when women like Reyhan, Asya and Leyla actually do lose their lives – a reality left unacknowledged in the doc. Which, in turn, however unintentionally, I fear, does a disservice to victims everywhere.

Even a glance in the mirror might read as a threat to this band of sisters.

In fact, even while Kaftan’s character study is a lovingly crafted testament to the truth that victims can indeed lead happy and fulfilling lives post-abuse, this is certainly not the outcome for everyone (especially when it comes to those living under strict patriarchal regimes). Tactically, the director’s approach often hews unnervingly close to those old «just say no» anti-drug PSAs (and going cold turkey, no pun intended, is also unsafe), which ultimately risks stigmatising women who are not «strong enough» to leave. In the end, we’re left with cinematic yet oddly empty kumbaya reenactments, slo-mo «you go girl» camerawork, and a plaintive soundtrack trumpeting an aspirational (false) promise that leaving an abusive situation will inevitably result in a Hollywood ending. Unfortunately, sugarcoating sometimes has the potential to do more harm than good, and lack of painstaking nuance poses a latent threat.

The Silence of Reason, a film by Kumjana Novakova
The Silence of Reason, a film by Kumjana Novakova

The Silence of Reason

«We have to combat all impulses to mythologise the horrible», announces the opening quote on the screen, a mission statement by way of Arendt, who serves as a sort of grounding touchstone throughout Kumjana Novakova’s expertly conjured video essay The Silence of Reason. Indeed (unlike A Day, 365 Hours), the banality of evil is firmly prioritised over any sensationalistic tropes. Instead, we get an ambient nature-infused (birdsong-heavy) soundtrack set against archival images of rural houses and pastoral villages – innocuous locations where the use of rape and sexual enslavement as weapons of war indiscriminately occurred.

And also across the screen scroll the chilling testimonies, powerful in both specificity and humanity, from the many anonymous characters this «performative research into the court archive of the Kunarac et al. case known as the ‘Foca Rape Camp Trial'” before the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia) is centred on – women reduced to spoils during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. «I remember that he was wounded or injured… I wondered how an individual wounded or injured could do something like that», recounts one still-stunned survivor in a (distorted) voiceover. Though we learn from another that these acts of inhumanity were actually authorised via certificates handed out like candies – as sex was deemed necessary to boost morale on the battlefield. The banality of evil never ceases to amaze.

The banality of evil never ceases to amaze.

Nor, for that matter, does the cinematic talent of the Yugoslavia-born Novakova, who manages to alchemise «forensic evidence, 132 prosecution exhibits, court findings, court transcripts, court testimonies of the women witnesses, and the few available for the public audio and video recordings from the trial» into a riveting 63-minute work of political art. In fact, as those camouflaged voices of victims chime in every so often, breaking the quietude to recount the traumatic events of the past (and potential prologue), we learn incrementally more about how the surreal system of genocide actually functions on the ground – from tales of forced baptisms to produce instant Christian Serbs, to accounts of Serbian insignia placed on attire before being taken out for some «fun» at a local cafe or bar. Once bought and sold like weapons on the black market, these scarred survivors are now using words and truth to shoot back. (And it’s a truth that can’t be denied, as the women’s recollections are rife with other important admissions such as, «I can’t quite remember exactly», the nuanced uncertainty only adding credence to such unbelievably horrific claims. The banality of trauma is likewise front and centre.)

“The absence of mass rape both in history and collective memory is a carefully constructed and perpetually nurtured process. The use of rape and sex slavery is normalised and considered a natural element of every war and an «inevitable» consequence of an armed conflict» are the parting words we’re given onscreen towards the end, along with the filmmaker’s own thanks for the women’s «breaking the silence» to make possible «the first time in history an international tribunal to prosecute sexual slavery» as a crime against humanity. Indeed, we should all be grateful for their – and Novakova’s – service as well.

The essay is written by:
Lauren Wissot
Lauren Wissot
A US-based film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer.

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