Rape is...

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Margaret Lazarus Documents Human Rights Violations


Video clip of "Rape Is ..." a new half-hour documentary video, which explores the meaning and consequences of rape. This documentary looks at rape from a global and historical perspective, but focuses mainly on the domestic cultural conditions that make this human rights violation the most underreported crime in America.

Margaret Lazarus has been confronting issues and encouraging social consciousness in documentary films for over 25 years. Margaret and her partner Renner Wunderlich founded Cambridge Documentary Films in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1974. Margaret Lazarus has documented such diverse topics as alcohol in advertising, the power of trauma and recovery, the threat of nuclear weapons, media literacy, homophobia, the labor movement, gender roles, reproductive health hazards, the women's health movement, gay and lesbian parenting, and how women are perceived and perceive themselves in society. She received an Academy Award for "Defending Our Lives," a powerful film about eight women in Framingham Prison incarcerated for murdering their abusive husbands.

Her film "Rape is..." has also received praise and much attention, appearing in festivals, selected for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and UCLA/Film Department series of "outstanding documentaries" and honored as winner of the 2003 PASS Award from the National Council on Crime.

I met Margaret Lazarus recently in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she was a presenter in a panel discussion about Documentary Filmmaking at the Women, Action and the Media Conference put together by The Center for New Words and co-sponsored by the MIT Program in Women's Studies. I talked with Margaret about what she does and how she confronts social issues in filmmaking.

Cate Woodruff: Margaret, what inspired you to choose documentary film as way to communicate?

Margaret Lazarus: My interest began when I was just out of college and was interested in visual arts as well as social activism. I thought that all you had to do was show people injustice and things would change. I thought documentary was the perfect way to do that. Over the years, I have seen that it is not that simple. Documentary can be an important tool in social change, but it needs to be used in very specific ways.

Woodruff: "Rape is..." is your second piece about rape. You first explored this topic in a film called "Rape Culture" about 20 years ago. Was the film "Rape is..." a way to expand the perspective of the issue of rape?

Lazarus: "Rape Culture" (1974-5) explored how myths and media contributed to a culture that tolerated acquaintance rape and found ways to blame the victim for stranger rape. We came up with the term "rape culture," and the phrase and the ideas became widely spread throughout community organizations, universities and health institutions. It was an eye-opening concept then, but it was clear that we needed to revisit the subject with new ideas and respond to new developments in the struggle against sexual violence. We thought it was important to expand how we think about rape; to show the relationship between the rape of children, rape of men in prison, rape of prostitutes, rape of trafficked women and children, rape of civilians during war, and the more "traditional" concepts of rape.

An important part of our work as filmmakers is that we also do the work to distribute our films. In this way we are in contact with the people who actually use and screen our films. We had been hearing from many of them that what was needed was a new film on rape that went beyond what was out there. We responded by making "Rape is..." and hope that we were able to create something that helps the educators and organizers working to end sexual violence.

Woodruff: "Rape is..." explores the meaning and consequences of rape and also looks at rape from a global and historical perspective. What domestic cultural conditions make this human rights violation the most underreported crime in America?

Lazarus: I am so glad you described rape as a human rights violation. When we produced our film, "Defending Our Lives," about domestic violence, one of the most important things we wanted to show, was that domestic violence is a human rights violation. In fact, at the very beginning, a former DA, who was a battered woman, describes domestic violence and then says, "Am I talking about something that Amnesty International is asking you to write about? No, I am talking about domestic violence as it exists in America." When we decided to make a new film on rape, the idea that rape is a human rights violation became the underlying organizational theme.

There are many reasons why rape is so vastly underreported. In the first place, anything to do with sexuality in our society is surrounded with secrecy and shame. There is also a great unwillingness to be perceived as a victim, and that happens when one comes forward to report a rape, but perhaps the most powerful disincentive to reporting is what happens to someone who does report a rape. In our legal system, in order to avoid prosecution, the defendant must attack the credibility of the accuser. She is not believed and is described as complicit in the act or as someone who is exacting some unjustified retribution against the defendant. After experiencing the horrible trauma of being raped, it is difficult to contemplate the trauma of a legal proceeding. If we think about how many children have been raped, how many young people are raped on the streets, how many women are raped on dates, how many are raped in marriages, it is very difficult to comprehend how much rape is occurring in our society. Data from the '90s indicated that only 16 percent of rapes were reported, making it the most underreported violent crime.

Woodruff: So, many types of sexual assault are not considered a serious crime by the legal system and our society refuses to see the true cost of this brutal denial of basic rights. Rape is not a sporadic and rare occurrence, but a cultural and criminal outrage that affects millions of women, children and men all over the world. How does "Rape is..." expand the narrow ways we think of sexual violence?

Lazarus: Many human rights agencies are collecting data about rape from around the world, and this is a growing movement. Information about sex trafficking is also rising in our awareness. We know that this is a massive human rights problem and one that not just affects the person who is raped, but one's entire family and community. Recognizing the magnitude and severity of this problem requires an adjustment of one's world view, and in many cases a relinquishing of power that one group has over another. This is not an easy change. It is in many ways a revolution. "Rape is..." tries to show how big the problem is, how what we term child abuse is rape, how what goes on in prisons removes the gender issues and exposes rape as the power crime that it is, how rape and prostitution are related, how rape is finally being recognized as a war crime and a form of genocide - all things that expand our vision of rape from something that happens when a stranger jumps out of the bushes.

Woodruff: What did you hope for when you set out to make "Defending Our Lives" and "Rape is..."?

Lazarus: A revolution.

Woodruff: You are a filmmaker who makes strong contributions to social justice and social change. Would you like to see more responsibility for social justice and change taken by filmmakers and the media in general?

Lazarus: Yes, I always say when I am asked to speak about filmmaking and media - you are what you produce. We all contribute to the cultural climate of our society, and we need to take responsibility for what we say and do. Media makers need to be held accountable for work that contributes to inequity, injustice, maintaining a destructive status quo.

Woodruff: What kind of changes would you like to see in the media?

Lazarus: This is such a big question. We need transparency - it must be perfectly clear who pays for it and who benefits ... we need diversity - the gateways and portals of information are controlled by a very small number of corporations ... we need accountability - when journalists and other media makers fall into stereotyping a situation, not investigating and reducing real complexity to fit a time slot or entertainment purpose, they need to be held accountable ... we need to acknowledge that the culture we create has real impact on people's lives, and we need to be more active consumers of media - not passive, not accepting - challenging perspectives and seeking information.

Woodruff: What do you think needs to be accomplished to set these standards in the media today?

Lazarus: It clearly is not a question of censorship or legislation. It is a question of educating media consumers and supporting their ability and efforts to challenge inequity and injustice.

Woodruff: How do you think a strong women's media and a media for social justice can affect young people?

Lazarus: A strong women's media and a media for social justice can be a model to everyone, especially young people. It can show that there are alternative points of view from what they see in mainstream media. It can be an inspiration.

Woodruff: You mentioned earlier that it is important to use documentary films in very specific ways. You are managing to reach into our culture and create change in the way we view and define rape as a human rights issue. An example of this is the way your film "Rape is..." is being used. The US military has recently begun showing "Rape is..." as a training film to educate cadets, is that right? How did that come about?

Lazarus: Yes. It came about in an interesting way. The Air Force academy and the military in general have a problem with sexual assault. They acknowledged it and looked to find people to help with raising awareness, training, counseling, and developing protocols to handle the situation. Anti-violence activists, advocates, therapists, medical personnel and others who had been working in the rape crisis movement were the available authorities in this arena, and they were aware of our work. They suggested it be used in training and in curriculums. The film has been sold to the Army, Navy, Air Force and National Guard. In some cases, recruits view the film as part of their basic training.

Woodruff: You teach documentary filmmaking at Tufts University. Do you think our educational system can do more to support social justice?

Lazarus: I am extremely fortunate to be part of a program developed by the Tufts University Communications and Media Studies Department and the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service that offers an intensive course, "Producing Films for Social Change." The course not only teaches the rudiments of nonfiction filmmaking, but also explores how to create media that supports social justice. I don't think that there is anything like this anywhere else, and this is exactly what we need. We need more courses like this. I recognize that this is a demanding and labor-intensive course, but Tufts recognizes the critical component that the media play in shaping our culture and importance of working with young people to give them the tools to be active citizens in this media-driven world.

Woodruff: What changes do you think are needed most urgently in the world right now?

Lazarus: You do ask hard questions. At this moment I am horrified that the United States is engaged in a preemptive war with unclear aims and thousands are dying. I am horrified at the situation in the Sudan and in other parts of Africa. I feel a looming sense of crisis about burning of carbon fuels and the impact on our environment. I see a growing gap between the rich and poor, both in the US and throughout the world. I see human rights violations against women, immigrants, children, gays and lesbians, and people with less power. I know that there are other areas needing urgent change, but I can't think of them right now.

Woodruff: Do you see the movements for social change, justice, minorities, immigrants, gender equality, gay and lesbian rights, labor, peace and the environment as interconnected, and do you think it is important for the media to support this connection?

Lazarus: There is a profound connection, and it has to do with power. If we can create a media consciousness, which analyzes who has power and how the powerful benefit, and critiques inequities in the use of power, we are laying the groundwork for a movement towards a more just, peaceful and better world.

Woodruff: Do you think we have time to make all these changes? Is that something that worries you?

Lazarus: Yes. I worry we cannot decrease carbon dioxide emission soon enough to prevent the destruction of the world as we know it. I worry that we cannot defuse warlike and violent behavior throughout the world soon enough to prevent some group or nation from using massively destructive technology. And the list goes on from there.

Woodruff: What are your hopes or dreams for the future?

Lazarus: My dream is that we can tap into our natural well of empathy as human beings and struggle against the cultural messages that encourage warlike, vengeful and violent behavior.

Woodruff: Well, thank you for bringing us closer to that goal with the important and innovative work you do. And thank you so much, Margaret, for speaking with Truthout, and for allowing our readers and viewers to see parts of your films "Rape is..." and "Defending Our Lives."

For information on ordering "Rape is...," "Defending Our Lives" and other Margaret Lazarus documentary films, please go to Cambridge Documentary Films . Cate's E-Mail - an editor for Truthout.
Source: www.truthout.org/docs_2006/051807P.shtml

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