Helping rape survivors feel stronger, not weaker, through video, film & news media

Jessica Buchleitner – WNN Features

Filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman at Sundance Film Festival
Filmmaker, author and women’s safety advocate Nancy Schwartzman talks in 2011 at a Sundance Film Festival event. Image:

(WNN) San Francisco, California, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: Film director, award winning producer and activist Nancy Schwartzman, who’s work has been featured on PBS television show POV – Point of View in 2013, as well as the BBC news and numerous other media networks, wasn’t sure that what happened to her at a coworker’s home one evening constituted rape.

She never thought that night would take a turn for the worst. But if she spoke about what happened would anyone believe her? If she reported her attacker to the police, would she just be ‘the girl who cried rape’, or worse, would she be blamed for the violence that is part of what we know as rape?

Schwartzman’s confusion over that life altering night led to the creation of an award winning 2011 documentary film called The Line that explores the cultural stigma and today’s lingering misconceptions about rape and sexual assault. The 24 minute documentary did so by asking one important question: Where do we draw the line in cases of rape?

Placed into production back in 2009, Schwartzman sets her own personal rape case in contrast with another case that appears to be more ‘clear cut’. as it follows the experience of a young woman named Netanya who was attacked and assaulted by an unknown assailant in New York City. Although Schwartzman took a risk to expose her own personal date rape story to the public in presentations and talks, she learned quickly her audience responded more deeply within the context of documentary and film.

“I felt like The Line was something I had to do [to] take my experience and examine it by intellectualizing the scenario and making it a political investigation about why we don’t understand what consent is and why victims are generally blamed,” outlined Schwartzman in a recent interview with WNN. “After it started being shown, I realized people related their lives to it and many saw themselves in my own story. It sparked a lot of conversation,” she continued.

Today the documentary short continues to be used in stop-violence training and rape awareness events on college campuses throughout the U.S.

According to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), every two minutes someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. Assault crimes also affect predominately younger individuals, as 44 percent of assault victims are under the age of 18 and 80 percent are under the age of 40. 73 percent of all sexual assaults are committed by someone known by the survivor and 60 percent of these crimes remain unreported to law enforcement.

Schwartzman’s experience as not only a rape survivor, but also a filmmaker, revealed many issues journalists as well as others in the media face in interviewing victims of sexual and gender based violence. Certain considerations that must be made and conditions that must be met before, during and after the interview process are important for both interviewee and interviewer.

Freedom from fear and a sense of safety is key for women who have survived this type of violence, especially with interviews.

Why Use Video and Film Media to Document Gender Based Violence?

WITNESS, an international nonprofit organization that has been using video and media storytelling for 20 years to reveal global human rights abuses. The organization has a long history of stop GBV – Gender Based Violence work with grassroots partners in places as diverse as the former Yugoslavia, Republic of Macedonia, Mexico, Yemen, Zimbabwe and more.

On the international front WITNESS began working with the Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice in 2012 along with grassroots partners in CAR- Central African Republic, the DRC – Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Uganda. This campaign continues now to focus on ending GBV in armed conflict and post conflict situations. Increasing access to justice for survivors in countries that are under investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) is also a focus.  By gathering footage of gender-based violence from survivors in the CAR region that can be used as evidence to be submitted to the International Criminal Court at The Hague for inclusion in its investigations and indictments it is hoped that justice for rape survivors can prevail.

Video has a unique power to convey personal stories and catalyze change. Through this process women can emerge stronger and empowered by their collective voice to empower their lives, outlines WITNESS. Although gathering video testimony is useful on a variety of fronts, there are many ethical, legal and safety considerations that must be made when compiling footage and conducting interviews. Film, like video, can bring global issues of sexual consent, assault and violence against women to the public with a strong argument for change.

In his award winning documentary film The Invisible War, exposing the widespread epidemic of rape crimes within the U.S. military forces, filmmaker Kirby Dick outlined in February 2013 that when men see his film it can be a “…real game changer.” Not only can it help men inside and outside the military understand what some women service members have gone through, it makes their stories ‘personal’.

“…I think the film, not only on a policy level but on a cultural level, [is changing] the military. What people would joke about, you see this film and you don’t joke about it anymore,” said Dick.

But a terrible truth since the movie’s release refuses to go away. Military rapes have actually increased by 35 percent since the film was in production in 2011. This increased percentage has now been added as an informative fact to the final text at the end of the film. With searing interviews of both women rape survivors and family members of those who have been raped, the full-length documentary was nominated for an Academy award in 2013.

Are women helped or hurt by sharing their rape experience publicly?

There’s one important question in this process though that cannot be skipped: were women survivors of rape in The Invisible War helped or hurt by sharing their stories in the film?

“I was scared and they gave me back my voice,” said Kori Cioca describing how it felt to be interviewed for The Invisible War. At the time of her brutal attack in 2005, Cioca was only 20-years-old. She was also a young member of the U.S. Coast Guard when she was sexually assaulted by who she has identified as an ‘intimidating’ superior officer. Hit so hard by this same officer during an attack that her jaw was completely dislocated, a condition that remained untreated by the Veterans Affairs Administration even after she went to the agency for medical help, Cioca later did gather the support of the public to help get the treatment she needed to repair her jaw.

In April 2014 Cioca received a Clinton County [Ohio] Outstanding Hero of the Year award sponsored by the American Red Cross because of her courage to speak out.

With a speaker’s bureau of over 1,200 survivors of sexual violence in the United States, the organization for RAINN is also helping women speak out. The organization not only works with survivors in areas of recovery through their national sexual assault hotline, but is also working closely with lawmakers to pass more laws that extend protections to survivors as they focus on local and regional protection efforts. RAINN also works with public education programs to carry the goal of changing the way U.S. Americans respond to rape crime.

Often these programs do include an extensive amount of educational outreach work with entertainment and news media industries.

“We work with reporters on a daily basis to connect survivors to be used as sources in stories every day. We are working with the reporter too on best practices and on how to be respectful to these sources. It is a very sensitive topic and we want to train the media to take it seriously and to respect victims. Part of this means leveraging social media to continue the educational dialogue. Since these issues go beyond the United States too and in serious capacities” said RAINN VP of Communications and media spokesperson Katherine Hull.

Whether it’s women who live inside the United States or women who live outside the U.S., rape survivors often face the highest risks and obstacles if they decide to report the crimes perpetrated against them. They also face flaws in the law, as well as hurtles within their own culture, religion and communities when coming forward to speak about the gender based violence perpetrated against them.

Activists, citizen and pro-freelance or media staff journalists who are hoping to collect testimony from a rape survivor may also encounter opposition from women who are realistically afraid to speak out.

“There are risks associated with the video documentation of sexual and gender-based violence, at difference stages including before filming, when filming and after filming,” outlined  WITNESS Senior Program Manager for Africa and the Middle East Bukeni T. Waruzi.

In regions where global conflict produces rape being used specifically as a ‘weapon of war’ even the topic of rape can place the safety for both women survivors and those reporting about these crimes on the line.

Rape survivor and award winning hero Kori Cioca
U.S. military rape survivor Kori Cioca, who’s story was featured in the Academy Award nominated documentary film “The Invisible War,” stands on stage as she receives a Clinton County [Ohio] Outstanding Hero of the Year Award from the American Red Cross in April 2014. Image: Publicus
“These risks [can] include: arrests, confiscation of materials or equipment, destruction of footage, or even risk of harm to the person filming- [including] torture, beating or even murder. Those at risk [also] include the documenter or persons filming and the person being filmed,” said  Waruzi, who is also the Lead for WITNESS’s Global Campaign on Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. In his work to support women’s rights activists and gender justice Waruzi believes that video and other media technologies should be used regardless of the dangers.

One of the most important considerations is confidentiality. Oftentimes, exposing a person’s identity adversely exposes them to ridicule in their community, can bring shame shame to their families and even more serious consequences such as arrest and detainment.

Going beyond fear: Use of media to empower rape survivors and victims

In November 2013 WITNESS, along with selected partners, released “Conducting Safe and Effective Interviews with Survivors of Gender Based Violence.” Accompanying this report WITNESS also included an instructional video series for members of the media including journalists, filmmakers and videographers that outlines specific and important guidelines to consider when interviewing survivors of gender based violence.

Each of the six videos in the series focus on the particular issues that arise when gathering testimony from a gender based violence survivor, complementing key points discussed in the written guide. Issues include decisions regarding safety and security, asking appropriate questions, and having an awareness of the effects of trauma on the interviewee. Featuring activists, survivors, NGO workers, filmmakers and others working to end sexual and gender based violence globally, the videos discuss these issues through their perspectives and provide practical techniques and tips.

“Assault and gender based violence are a reality in our society – this is a crime that is happening every two minutes and there is coverage of this crime on all levels: local, national, and international. It is our job and the job of organizations that work to protect victims to help the media get it right and to make sure that when they are reporting on this topic that they are doing so accurately and respectfully” said Katherine Hull, vice president of Communications, RAINN.

Speaking out about an experience, or the fear of personal violence, is important for women who hope that protective services can be made for them. Protection is actually crucial for women who are facing possible lethal danger that too often can occur without proper justice. Music producer, women’s advocate and filmmaker Deeyah Khan knows well about the dangers for women who are not taken seriously when they report their fears to police authorities.

For three years Deeyah worked on her Emmy award winning film, Banaz: A Love Story, that documented the ‘so-called’ honor violence death of Banaz Mahmod. Key to the story is the fact that Banaz did go numerous times to London’s Scotland Yard police to report her fears: that she might face deathly violence at the hands of her family if she went against their wishes. Unfortunately proper protection for Banaz was never given. She died after an uncle killed her for leaving her husband, a fact her family would not accept.

After Banaz’s murder Scotland Yard has now revised their protection response for women who report violence, including their fear of a ‘possible’ future violent act made against them.

Women who report rape to security authorities also face fear that is large and clearly tangible, especially if their rapist goes without punishment or has been punished in an obviously lenient way, giving them court sentences that enable them to face short or no incarceration time.

Defining rape, consent and violence against women in the courtroom

Recent March 2014 cases involving high ranking officials in both the United States Navy and the Army, have resulted in cases that includes no jail time. In Brigadier General Jeffrey A. Sinclair’s case he was fined, but given no time in prison for a case where a subordinate female Army Captain conveyed the General forced her twice to perform oral sex on him against her will during a three year affair.

Instead of recognizing offenses that also follow expert opinions on the definitions for rape, the judge in the case fined the General and charged him instead with adultery. The Navy case, involving three midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy of gang raping an intoxicated fellow female student had her prosecuting case dropped because she could not remember the details of her gang rape, in spite of the fact she did find out later the incident did happen from the accused men themselves.

These and other cases outline the intensified need for judicial reform and education on cases of rape within the U.S. military system and outside the military in civil courtrooms where women survivors are interviewed too often in demeaning court procedures and questioning. Exposing their story on film or video also can place women in a vulnerable place.

But using media for justice can also empower women survivors.

“It can always be more intimidating for a subject to go on video because they run the risk of full exposure,” outlined Nancy Schwartzman on her documentary depiction of rape survivors. “That is why it is important for you to establish what they [women rape survivors] are comfortable revealing in advance. You may have to change their voice or blur their face to protect their integrity. In featuring my perpetrator in the film, I had to blur out his face because of legal liability reasons. I did not want to be vengeful so I, ironically, had to protect his identity too.”

While interviewing rape survivors Schwartzman says she is most interested in two main interview questions:  Who do you feel you were you before the rape incident, and how did your life change after it happened?

In her work to protect women, Schwartzman has also created a mobile app called the Circle of 6. As one of the winners of the White House Apps Against Abuse Technology Challenge. Circle of 6 is designed to help users stay connected with up to six friends that can provide emergency assistance whenever the threat of assault or violence is present.

Schwartzman is working today on a film that will cover, using documentary style filmmaking, the highly publicized assault case in Steubenville, Ohio. She ponders these days how those incredible survivors can find the courage to come forward about their personal stories.

“Honestly as a filmmaker, I can’t fathom why a person would agree to be in someone else’s film. You are handing over your story to someone else and that is huge. As a filmmaker you should treat that as an honor. That is why it’s important to understand how vulnerable your subject is.  Collecting that testimony is a lot of responsibility and as a filmmaker and you’d better get it right.”

Interviewing tips for journalists, activists and media members

According the WITNESS, special attention to the needs of women who have survived violence, including rape, is something media members and journalists must attend to. Here are some of WITNESS’s expert suggestions in conducting interviews:

–          Do your homework before you are about to conduct the interview. Find out about the person’s story and understand their perspective. It is a tremendous undertaking for a survivor to open up.

–          Check in advance to see if there are any legal considerations. Some media outlets require that there be a conviction in the survivor’s piece in order to feature that survivor. Another consideration is whether or not that survivor has restrictions on what they can or can’t say because of a pending civil case.

–          Let the survivor know the specifics of the piece and what extent their testimony will fit into the overall product.

–          Share the amount of editorial control that you have with any subject. Sometimes a lot of an interview can get left on the cutting room floor and be taken out of context. Let your subject know what their testimony will be used for.

–          Be clear and transparent about where the interview will go. Will it live on the internet for some time or be televised in the country where a victim’s perpetrator lives? Are they going to be identifiable in the video?

–          Be clear that they are in control of their story and they have the right to strike anything from the record anytime they want. Never enter a murky area in terms of consent. Always be clear.


Winner of the HHS/White House Apps Against Abuse Technology Challenge and the Institute of Medicine and Avon Foundation for Women Safety  at Home Challenge, the Circle of 6 mobile app is a project of Tech for Good, Inc, a start-up non-profit dedicated to violence prevention in vulnerable populations through the use of mobile technology and harm-reduction education principles. “We are a lean, global team bringing our experience with storytelling, code and design to develop engaging tools and campaigns to support a culture of connectivity and accountability,” say the team of  Tech for Good, Inc that includes Executive Director Nancy Schwartzman, Engineer Christine Corbett Moran and Creative Director Thomas Cabus. This video is a production by Isaac Mathes with titles by Thomas Cabus.


THE INVISIBLE WAR is a groundbreaking investigative documentary about one of our country’s most shameful and best kept secrets: the epidemic of rape within our US military. Today, a female soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire with the number of assaults in the last decade alone in the hundreds of thousands. Focusing on the powerfully emotional stories of several young women, the film reveals the systemic cover up of the crimes against them and follows their struggles to rebuild their lives and fight for justice. THE INVISIBLE WAR features hard-hitting interviews with high-ranking military officials and members of Congress that reveal the perfect storm conditions that exist for rape in the military, its history of cover-up, and what can be done to bring about much needed change. For more information on the film link HERE. 

For more information on this topic:

 Cases,” International Justice Clinic UCLA School of Law with AIDS-Free World, May 2011;

Date Rape: The Myths–The Truth,” New York City Police Troopers, December 2011;

Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action,” The White House Council on Women and Girls, February 2014.


An avid community organizer and author, WNN – Women News Network human rights and advocacy journalist Jessica Buchleitner has a strong desire to change the world starting at the local regional community level. As an advocate for global women’s rights in 2009, Buchleitner began to gather material for her latest book,”50 Women” for The 50 Women Project which includes interviews with fifty women from thirty different countries. “The book covers stories of women’s strength and perseverance,”  Jessica outlines. In addition to publishing on WNN, Buchleitner has also been a contributor to The Western Edition San Francisco and The San Francisco Chronicle. “I have always believed the heart of all global communities lie with women,” she shares.

Additional research and material for this story has been provided by the editors at WNN – Women News Network.


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