As women face the ongoing threat of sexual violence, some are harnessing technology to face it.
- Judge Who Said 'Some Girls Enjoy Rape' Is Resigning His Post
- Breaking Israel's ultra-Orthodox Taboo on Discussing Sexual Abuse
- Israeli Rape Victim Not Humiliated in Court, Ombudsman Rules
“So here is my situation,” says U.S. filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman, whose own experience of being sexually assaulted in Jerusalem has led her to develop a White House-recognized app that allows users to avoid potentially dangerous situations. “I already went home with this guy. Part was consensual, part was not, part of it was a terrible, awful rape that I was screaming through. So where is the line, at what point do I have my rights, my autonomy?”
Schwartzman, a 35-year-old Pennsylvania native, has been exploring these questions through “The Line Campaign” against sexual assault, which has been going strong since the release of her 2009 documentary "The Line." In the film, she returns to Jerusalem to confront her perpetrator, recording the meeting with a hidden camera.
The app, "Circle of 6," which was launched last year, drew on conversations she had with the audience at screenings of the film. Through it, users can text their circle of friends their location via GPS, ask to be interrupted with a phone call in an uncomfortable situation - “the bad date button” - or ask to be picked up in a time of need. The app also connects users to an emergency hotline.
Initially aimed at college students in the U.S., today the White House award-winning app is used by nearly 100,000 people in 32 countries, including Israel. A localized version for India launched in April this year. In November, Schwartzman plans to announce a partnership with the Mexican health ministry for another localized version.
“Circle of 6” is about empowerment, she explains, and localizing it means fine-tuning it to a country’s cultural and societal norms, as well as linking users to relevant local resources. In India, the “bad date button” makes no sense, says Schwartzman, because people don’t go on dates. “It’s more like ‘I wish my phone would ring right now, somebody is staring at me on the bus, please call me,’” she explains via Skype from Copenhagen, where she is attending a film festival and hackathon.
An Israeli version would also work, she says. “It’s a country that has tons of cell-phones, it’s a very saturated market. What always interested me is what’s the culture of a place, how would they want to use it? In Israel, 18-year-olds are in the army, people don’t go to college at the same time (as they do in the United States). It would be interesting to work it out.”
Individual but not institutional support
Schwartzman's assault occurred 11 months after she moved to Jerusalem in 2000 to work on her first film, which looked at American kids who moved to the city, also investigating the sexual behaviors of young people there.
After she was raped, a film investigating the sexual choices of other young people in Jerusalem didn’t make sense anymore, she explains. She wanted to “investigate my own experience and then bring that out to a larger context.”
One month after the assault, Schwartzman returned to the States, not visiting Israel again until she shot the film, in which she confronts the perpetrator while protecting his identity. Back in the States, her project received mixed reactions.
“In 2008, I went out there and said I am making this, I want to have this conversation - and they had no interest. Individuals within the (American Jewish) community were supportive, but it was institutions and foundations that did not want to touch the project, they were very protective of Israel,” she says.
When “The Line” premiered at the 2009 International Women’s Film Festival in Rehovot, the New Yorker was “terrified to show it. I had no idea how it would play to an Israeli audience.” But the response was positive.
“My film was really trying to overturn that conversation,” Schwartzman says. “There’s no smart way to ‘not get raped,’ it’s about someone choosing not to sexually assault you.”
A key factor is to educate men and boys, she says. “A lot of men say to me: ‘What can I do to help? What can I do to change this?’” Many have responded positively to the app, the film, and the campaign. “A lot of men feel overwhelmed, and they are so relieved that this is the story of a victim of sexual violence who isn’t a victim.“
Four years on, the film is in 1,200 university libraries around the States. Schwartzman holds screenings at colleges, women’s centers, with the U.S. military, and with anti-violence coalitions, where she addresses the difficult question of where “the line” is.
Schwartzman’s second documentary short “xoxosms,” which aired on PBS in July, is a real departure from ”The Line.” It is “a sweet film about two people that meet online and treat each other well,” she says. She is also working on a series of fiction shorts for this coming winter.
But Schwartzman, a founder of the hip Jewish publication Heeb Magazine, doesn’t just want to make films; she wants to see how people respond to them, and how they understand the issues they raise. In the works is an interactive documentary about the Steubenville rape case, in which high school football players sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl, documenting and talking about it on social media. The story shocked America when it broke in August last year.
The Steubenville film will be an additional tool in her campaign toolkit. When it comes to boundaries and consent, Schwartzman intends to keep up the challenging conversation. “As much as possible, I’m always going to be interested in combatting gender-based violence,” she says. “Its endemic, its everywhere and it is something we can alleviate.”