«People don’t understand it’s not just a one-day, or one-month, event,» a survivor says in filmmaker Danijela Stajnfeld’s documentary on the aftermath and impact of sexual assault, Hold Me Right. Stajnfeld’s initial motivation for making the feature was highly personal, as she had abruptly ended a promising theatre career in Serbia and fled to the United States after a very well-known figure had raped her. Feeling his celebrity made it too dangerous to speak out against him, she sought another way to gain agency over the traumatic event that was quietly eating away at her. Her testimony-based gathering of the experiences from a wide range of sexual assault survivors in the States creates a resonant sense of solidarity. No two stories are the same, but all grapple with trauma as a burden that must be continually negotiated. The film emphasises that this power abuse is structurally entrenched — and widespread.
At any time
Men are raped as well as women: a fact often minimised or treated as taboo, but one which Stajnfeld makes sure not to marginalise. And rape is, most of the time, carried out by someone the victim knows. A Philadelphia police officer tells of how a higher-up she had respected, an inspector leaving for an FBI post, assaulted her after his going-away party. A black, gay teen in Indianapolis, the designated driver at a college party, recalls being ambushed coming out of the bathroom. A 17-year-old describes how he joined the Navy, but was discharged for going off the rails after he was subjected to repeated gang rapes. A nurse says her husband had not been physically abusive — until one night when he raped her at knifepoint. The threat of an unsafe world implicit in the recognition that sexual assault can happen at any time, to anyone, can prompt survivors to seek a sense of control by denying the gravity of what happened, or blaming themselves — but the trauma often stays in the body. Stajnfeld remembers a sense of euphoric relief that she had survived and it was «in her past» — before later becoming suicidal (eating disorders and substance abuse are also prevalent with survivors.) It took her one year of counseling to realise she hadn’t done anything to warrant the attack.
What’s more, a culture around rape that tends to side with perpetrators perpetuates conspiracies of silence. A montage of clips from fashion advertising and classic movies (including the ‘80s scene from John Hughes teen romantic comedy Sixteen Candles, in which a nerd is encouraged to take advantage of a passed-out drunk beauty queen) emphasises just how normalised, even glamourised, sexual power abuse has been in popular culture. Despite the MeToo movement, which has sought to reveal and dismantle this normalisation of toxic behaviour, nothing has really changed, says one young survivor in Indiana. She was shamed and disbelieved by her town, including her then-boyfriend, after being raped at fifteen by a local, whose family’s hiring of an expensive lawyer has thwarted prosecution chances. Some survivors have been able to achieve a measure of justice years later. The police officer whose colleagues refused to back her up and denigrated her character as sexually promiscuous (a common refrain in victim-blaming) is able to testify in support of another woman the inspector assaulted.
Hold Me Right takes as a guiding principle the belief that the value of telling one’s story is as much in the catharsis it enables, as a means to incorporate the event into one’s own history on one’s own terms, as it is about achieving justice, in terms of consequences for the perpetrator. Several of the survivors Stajnfeld connects with have navigated a personal journey from devastated careers and personal lives to empowerment through public speaking and activism roles. «I started talking and I haven’t shut up since — the speaking was my healing,» says Karen, who hopes to empower other women of colour through her work.
Not only survivors but also perpetrators are given a platform to discuss their views of what they did and the consequences, in a potentially controversial directorial decision, including a convicted pedophile, who was himself abused as a child. Some are more repentant than others. A student who raped a woman under the heavy influence of alcohol directs his regret at having attended that party (as if it was simply a matter of bad luck), and accused the victim of «ruining his life.» Stajnfeld argues that coming to an understanding of perpetrators as regular people enables forgiveness that frees oneself to heal. A nerve-wracking segment sees her confront her own rapist after four years, meeting in a bar and secretly recording it (his voice is disguised to protect his identity, and one can only imagine frenzied conjecture among Serbian audiences as to who it might be.) She should have felt «honoured, not jeopardised» by the assault he narcissistically contends since he is so famous. It seems clear he will learn nothing from the encounter by which he will modify his predatory behaviour — but in taking power over the situation and framing it through a survivor’s lens, Stajnfeld has found in filmmaking a way to take charge of her own narrative and the reality of her trauma, and offer a point of identification for others going through the same struggle.