A Beauty Queen With More Guts Than Glitter

Galia Licht
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Galia Licht

LOS ANGELES -- In November 1998, Linor Abargil, an 18-year-old Miss Israel, won the Miss World pageant. A tall, glittery crown perched precariously on her auburn curls, Abargil smiled wanly at the cameras, seemingly bewildered by her victory. If she looked more exhausted than ebullient, there was a harrowing reason: six weeks earlier she had been viciously raped by an Israeli travel agent on her way home from a modeling assignment in Italy.

Ten years later, Abargil was ready to speak out about her ordeal, in the hope of helping other victims of rape. The result is “Brave Miss World," a documentary directed by Cecilia Peck and edited by Inbal Lessner, which follows Abargil over a period of several years, as she travels from Israel to the United States, Europe and South Africa, giving speeches and speaking to other rape victims, including Joan Collins (“Dynasty”) and Fran Drescher (“The Nanny”), who reveal their horrifying experiences.

Praised for its thoughtful, quiet tone and its poignant interviews, “Brave Miss World” chronicles Abargil’s journey toward self-empowerment as she finds and develops her voice as an activist. It also delves into her relationship with her parents and her marriage, as she embraces the tenets of Orthodox Judaism and becomes devout.

The film opened last week for a limited run in Los Angeles, and had its New York premiere at the NYCDOC festival this week. It will be screened at the Quad Cinema in New York, beginning December 13. And given the media attention it is attracting, “Brave Miss World” might very well be nominated for an Academy Award, even though it has yet to find a commercial distributor.

Cecilia Peck, the daughter of Gregory Peck, co-directed the 2006 award-winning Dixie Chicks documentary, “Shut Up and Sing.” Inbal Lessner co-produced and edited the 2007 documentary about Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, “I Have Never Forgotten You." In a wide-ranging interview with Haaretz, Peck and Lessner, who produced the film together with Motty Reif, discuss Abargil’s mission, the plight of rape victims around the world, the trials and tribulations of making an ambitious film with very little secure funding and the support they received along the way.

How did you come to this project?

Cecilia Peck: Linor sought me out as a director, after she saw “Shut Up and Sing." At the same time, Inbal and I were looking to work together on a project, so I invited her to join me. Initially, Linor wanted to focus on interviews with other rape survivors, telling their stories without shame. But when Inbal and I sat down with her, we quickly realized that Linor is the story: her inspiring journey from beauty queen and aspiring actress to law student and budding activist.

Did you plan to film for several years?

Inbal Lessner: We began filming at the end of 2008, ten years after Linor was crowned Miss World, and initially, we were fully funded to film for a year. But the funding fell through, and we already had some incredible footage that we couldn’t bear to walk away from. So we edited some of it to show to potential investors, and raised some money, and shot some more, and so it went on for longer than anyone of us had expected. But these difficulties were a blessing in disguise, because the film’s narrative and its themes revealed themselves as time went by.

Cecilia Peck: Somehow, because of the setbacks, this project became something bigger, a mission. Not only does it show rape victims from all over the world summoning the courage to share their stories, many for the first time, but because we spent so many years with Linor and her family, ultimately the film became a guide how to love and support someone who has gone through a traumatic event, and how victims can begin to heal – you cannot heal without speaking – and to accept love again. In the years that we spent with her, Linor found love, married and had children.

Abargil praises her mother for giving her the courage to report the crime and fight for the conviction of her assailant, a serial rapist.

Inbal Lessner: Linor was urged by her mother (by telephone from Israel) to go to the police in Italy. The rapist, Uri Shlomo Nur, was apprehended in Tel Aviv, tried and convicted in 1999. Ten years later, in the film, we see her successfully appeal to the authorities not to grant him parole. (Nur is set to be released in 2014, after having served a 16-year sentence).

Cecilia Peck: Like many rape victims, Linor knew her assailant. All over the world, the majority of rape is acquaintance rape – date rape, rape by a family member, rape in the workplace. And only 20 percent of these are reported, because when the victim knows the assailant it is very difficult to seek justice, and often the system, directly or indirectly, discourages the victim from pressing charges.

Were you surprised that Abargil turned to religion?

Cecilia Peck: Initially I was surprised, but I came to understand that it was her way of coping. As her mother, Aliza, says in the film, the trauma of rape lingers, and victims often look for a coping mechanism. Some turn to alcohol, others become anorexic or bulimic. Linor found religion, and her transformation was riveting. We did not want to have an agenda about this transformation, and hopefully we chronicle it respectfully. You must understand that with each interview that she did, Linor relived her own ordeal, she was re-traumatized. In religion, she found strength, a way to pick up the pieces and go on.

How did you finance the film?

Inbal Lessner: Friends and family, crowd-sourcing, angels, grants from foundations – some people gave 50 dollars, a few generous souls gave tens of thousands of dollars. And the Foreign Ministry of Israel has been very supportive, co-sponsoring Linor’s trips to South Africa and Italy.

Cecilia Peck: When we were in dire straits, Regina Skulik Scully, the Academy Award nominated executive producer of the documentary “Invisible War” (about the rape epidemic in the U.S. military), gave us a grant, through the Artemis Rising Foundation, to finish the film. Later, we were lucky enough to be joined by Lati Grobman and Irving Bauman, as executive producers, who took care of the additional funding we needed. .

Inbal Lessner: And now, Sharon Stone has joined us as co-executive producer, to help secure distribution.

You’ve garnered impressive support from the music community.

Inbal Lessner: Hans Zimmer, who composed the scores for films such as “The Lion King” and “Inception," saw a rough cut of “Brave Miss World” and offered to score it for free. So we have his wonderful music. And Natalie Maines (of the Dixie Chicks) together with music producer Ben Harper, produced and recorded the film’s song “Forgiveness," which was written by Linor. We’re thinking of submitting it for a Best Song Oscar.

What’s next for “Brave Miss World”?

Cecilia Peck: We have two strong broadcast offers in the U.S. for 2014, and we’ve had thousands of requests to screen the film in high schools and colleges.

Inbal Lessner: So in January 2014, we’ll be launching the educational screening campaign #IamBrave, and hopefully the film will help more and more victims of rape and the people around them to speak out and begin the process of healing.

Linor Abergil. From beauty queen to anti-rape activist. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

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