Look what you made me do (2022) by Coco Schrijber is a feministic provocation, an aesthetic critique highlighting the systematic oppression of women, and a statement for women’s rights to defend themselves. The director follows three protagonists who have killed their abusive partners. Schrijber does not judge the murderers – on the contrary, she invites the spectator to hear their story, identify with them, and understand their decision.
Violence against women seems to be universal. Current-day news is filled with images of women joining in creative protests against the rape and abuse of Ukrainian girls and women perpetrated by the Russian soldiers. Images of tens, sometimes hundreds of women dressed in red-stained underpants make the world aware of the brutality women are experiencing in the barbaric war.
However, abuse is not limited to conflict zones. Paradoxically, women are most often hurt by their closest ones – their lovers, partners, husbands, as well as ex-partners. Look what you made me do focuses on private violence, the violence which sometimes results in so-called intimate femicide – men killing their current or former partners. The spectator sees different men reacting to a paper note given to them: «Every year about 30,000 women worldwide are killed by their partners». In her artist’s statement, the female director confesses that one of her leading motivations for making this movie was anger. Women have the right to be angry about the fact that we live in a society in which, despite all its progress, women are still systematically abused. The prologue text demonstrates this very well: «When I told my mother that a boy is hitting me on the playground, she said: «That’s because he likes you». In their everyday life, women are forced to experience tons of these seemingly innocent situations, jokes, and humiliations, which normalize their systematic oppression.
In some Islamic countries, domestic violence against women is not even considered a crime and is treated as a private issue, a family matter. The man is often justified and allowed to beat the wife who has misbehaved. According to surveys in Egypt, Palestine, Israel, and Tunisia, one out of three women is beaten by her husband . However, also in countries where women’s rights have a long history and women, like the protagonists of the documentary, are theoretically protected by the law, abuse takes place surprisingly often. Four waves of feminism, the MeToo movement, thousands of academic articles, and numerous media campaigns have not been enough to completely change the patriarchal heritage where women are treated as objects.
«Every year about 30, 000 women worldwide are killed by their partners»
The violence is red
Schrijber’s images of violence are hypnotizing and bold. Two naked lovers fighting in the snow, fully equipped professionals cleaning blood spits at a crime scene, the image of an anonymous victim hidden behind a red filter. Red is the color of passion and love, and red is also the color of violence.
The director uses the historical painting «Judith Slaying Holofernes» by the Italian early Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi to exemplify a women’s revenge. The picture depicts an episode in the Old Testament where the heroine Judith assassinates an Assyrian general. The artist Artemisia herself was also a victim of abuse. She was raped by a male painter Agostino Tassi, who stole her virginity, which was important at the time. An entire history could be written about violence against women, and only some, like the film’s three protagonists, have managed to rebel against it.
An alternative ending
The director does not judge the murderers. She just lets them speak. The question is – could there have been an alternative ending in the three women’s biographies? An ending where they did not need to become aggressors themselves?
One of the most impressive films demonstrating how a woman is trapped in the cycle of abuse is the fictional short Listen (2014, dir. Hamy Ramezan, Rungano Nyoni). The film portrays a foreign woman in a burqa who does not speak the local language. She tries to file a report about her abusive husband with the police officers in Copenhagen but faces an unexpected obstacle – a Muslim interpreter is mistranslating her words. Obviously, the interpreter is motivated by a belief that speaking up against her husband is not what «a good wife» should do. The victim is left alone, speechless, and most likely exposed to the next cycle of abuse after her unsuccessful scream for help.
The three protagonists of Schrijber’s documentary live in quite a different setting. They are part of the current-day European society’s well-established criminal justice system. The Italian protagonist Rosalba explains that leaving was never an option. But wasn’t it? The psychological analysis of these women’s motivations could have been a bit more elaborated. Why did they ignore the first signs of abuse? Why did they forgive and continue the relationship? There is another protagonist whose identity is not revealed – a woman still living in a toxic relationship with a controlling and jealous husband. Is leaving really not an option?
Probably there are complex psychological mechanisms at work, including co-dependence, shame, fear of stigmatization, financial dependence, and fear of the ex-partner’s revenge, which keep the toxic bonds so hard to break. At the end of the film, we read: «5.2 women have been killed by their ex-partners while you were watching this film.» The numbers speak for themselves – regardless of what society has done to protect females so far, there is still a lot to do for every one of us.
_ Douki S., Nacef F., Belhadj A., Bouasker A., Ghachem R. (2003) Violence against women in Arab and Islamic countries. Archives of Women’s Mental Health. Aug; 6(3): 165-71. doi: 10.1007/s00737-003-0170-x.