Alexe Poukine tackles challenging subjects in her films. Her first feature documentary (Dormir, dormir dans les pierres) focused on the harsh lives of the homeless. In her second full-length documentary That Which Does Not Kill, rape is her subject.
This is a difficult film to watch for both women and men, but Poukine’s approach – to use the (presumably true) story of Ada, a young woman subjected to rape and sexual violence by her boyfriend, as told by other women who have suffered similar experiences – allows a space to explore a subject around which so much fear, taboo, and myth have been constructed.
She seeks to expose the bitter truth of rape – that the cartoon monster we all imagine a rapist to be is often not the case at all. And she includes two men among the cast retelling Ada’s story, both of whom candidly admit that they have forced their desires on partners without consent.
The power of Alexe’s approach is that it takes some while to realise that the women recounting a story of a naïve young college student who finds herself subject to the aggressive approach of a boyfriend she barely knows are acting out roles. The dawning realisation that, though this story is not theirs, they too have been raped, pulls down the curtain of distance between the viewer and the protagonist, forcing self-reflection of the truths of our own lives.
Researchers estimate that as many as 30% of women have been subjected to sexual violence or rape by the time they reach young adulthood, a horrific statistic reflected in official figures of reported rapes. And given the lack of clarity so often found in rape cases, and the ambiguities of sexual relations this is hardly surprising.
She seeks to expose the bitter truth of rape – that the cartoon monster we all imagine a rapist to be is often not the case at all.
Ada’s story is one that initially can appear ambiguous. Her first sexual encounter appears consensual, although she does not quite recall how she moved from a kiss to being naked on a couch as her boyfriend puts on a condom. When she tells him she is a virgin he quickly removes the condom and forces himself on her, thrusting hard into her pelvis despite her protestations that he is hurting her. Confused, she meets him again and – despite not being ready for sex – is subjected to a violent rape that leaves her fearing she will be physically torn inside. Determined to somehow take control, there is a third encounter, where she somehow shames the young man who leaves after failing to perform, telling her he feels «ugly».
Only later does she tell her mother what happened and seeks counselling. She tries to blackout the incident, but though she can fence off the memory, her body carries the assault in its physical memory and it is only many years later that she is able to exorcise the ghost.
Poukine allows nagging thoughts among her viewers – male viewers mainly, one suspects – to ferment before introducing the first of her male characters to answer questions such as: to what extent did Ada’s boyfriend understand that he had committed rape? Did he ever suffer remorse? Was his life also affected and if so, how?
We gain some idea of this after the first male character has elated part of Ada’s story – and then recalls a relationship with a young woman after he forced himself on her, despite her wish no to have sex that night.
«I always considered myself a feminist,» he ruefully recalls. «But I also considered that any time I slept with a woman we should have sex.»
Poukine digs deeply into the psychodynamics of sexual relations as her characters open up about their own true-life experiences. One woman defines the difference between guilt and shame as regret over an action compared with how one feels after it. The notion that every rapist is a monster from our nightmares is exposed in those stories of the two men – one a homosexual former heroin addict who relates with discomforting candour the force he used on his partner. It has taken working in the sex industry for him to define his boundaries and know when to stop, he says.
A black woman gang-raped by a group of men where the racist overtone was all too evident, takes comfort from the fact that these men exist in another world; when she attends a rape survivors group session and hears two young children tell of their rapes at the hands of their father, she says that her experience pales in comparison. But when she relates that she burned the doctor’s report on her rape after reading it once, the depth of pain she suffered is evident.
Poukine digs deeply into the psychodynamics of sexual relations as her characters open up about their own true-life experiences.
Poukine’s film, with its formal structure of individuals retelling one story and relating another from the security of their own homes, proves the power of narrative to heal that which does not kill us.
That Which Does Not is currently screening at DocsBarcelona Online 2020.
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