Bad experiences and personal traumas tend to be confined to diary pages and distant memory. Nancy Schwartzman's are being documented in a short film. And, she's bringing it to Hillels across North America.
Still a work-in-progress,
"The Line" is a candid documentary about acquaintance rape, sexual assault and the line of consent. Inspired by her own experience while living abroad in Israel, Schwartzman has spent the last five years collecting other women's stories, following college students on spring break, interviewing prosecutors and defense attorneys, and a former NFL player turned sexual assault activist.
"I moved to Israel at 25 and wanted to make a film about my life over there," Schwartzman recalls. "But after [I was raped], everything changed. I returned home and didn't want to look at any of my video. It was all tainted. My relationship with Israel had changed."
Three years later, Schwartzman decided to pursue the film she had set out to produce, but her focus had shifted. Her experience and the complicated cloud of issues surrounding it are now the crux of her documentary. Schwartzman's first step was returning to Israel, fitted with a hidden camera, to confront the man she refers to as "the perpetrator." Though his identity is hidden, his voice is clearly heard, their conversation played out on tape.
"The Line" explores the issue of consent, the burden of blame and the trouble society has defining the two. In addition to Schwartzman, a Jewish-American tourist attacked by a stranger in Bethlehem and a young woman drugged with GHB (commonly referred to as the "date-rape drug") in the U.S. also recount their experiences.
"Once someone shares their story with you, they've given it to you," says Schwartzman. "You own their story on your camera and you start to feel responsible for it."
Photo by Seth Kushner.
For Schwartzman, that responsibility means education, awareness and creating a safe space for healthy discussion. Since 2005, she has traveled to a dozen local Hillels throughout the U.S. and Canada, sharing clips of her film and leading group discussions. Schwartzman is not just looking for feedback on her project, but a response to the question, "Where is the line of consent?"
So far, she has not received a clear answer, but says the Hillel screenings are rewarding, particularly when she receives feedback from male students. On one campus, a student told her that the film forced him to question his own behavior and re-examine whether he had ever "crossed the line."
In fact, Schwartzman specifically tasks men with addressing the issue. "The Line" features Don McPherson, a former Philadelphia Eagle, who is now the executive director of the Sports Leadership Institute at Adelphi University on Long Island. In his current role, McPherson lectures extensively about gender violence and the pressure on men to exert their masculinity, often in sexual settings.
McPherson has also helped to shed light on the fact that sexual assault is vastly underreported in the U.S. and abroad. According to RAINN (The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), 1 in 6 women have been the victim of sexual assault. Schwartzman insists that number is skewed lower because of the number of assaults which go unreported.
"I would love for the numbers to reflect just how rampant [sexual assault] is," she says.
Yet, Schwartzman herself did not immediately report her assault.
"I didn't want to talk about what happened to me for two and a half years," she explains. "I didn't know if I had a right to talk about it. I didn't know if I could say it wasn't my fault."
After she finally did begin to talk about, she got to work on her film and in May, she plans to travel to Israel again, this time to file a police report about the eight-year-old crime.
"There's a difference between filing a police report and pressing charges," says Schwartzman. "For me, I simply want the experience recorded."
Until then, she remains hard at work on her film project. A Columbia graduate, Schwartzman majored in art history and only become interested in photography and video after college. Her first film project was producing a friend's short flick, "Ocean Avenue," which was purchsed by the Jewish Museum of New York for its permanent collection.
"After that, I told myself 'If I ever work this hard on a project again, it's going to be my own," says Schwartzman. "You pour your heart and soul into filmmaking."
When she is not holed up in her Borough Park, Brooklyn, apartment editing on her PC, Schwartzman works as a consultant, using her grant-writing skills from a former career to help other independent filmmakers fund their projects.
She is also the creator of NYC-Safe Streets.org, a Brooklyn-based neighborhood watch group, of sorts, that provides maps to illustrate routes where sexual assaults have been reported. Started in 2005, NYC-Safe Streets.org also partners with community businesses which agree to serve as "safe havens" for women who may feel fearful while walking alone.
"Safe Streets was an extension of the film," explains Schwartzman. "There was a spike in rapes reported in Brooklyn and I wanted to do something. The maps and the safe haven storefronts are a concrete action in response to that."
Both the Web site and her work on college campuses have received praise from both the Jewish community, local press and The New York Times.
"Nancy's open, passionate and empathetic presentation of her rape in context with her life at that time provides multiple paths to connect with her story," says Amy Greenbaum, executive director of Hillel at Miami University which screened Schwartzman's film last semester. "She is a gifted facilitator, making everyone feel comfortable sharing, asking questions and commenting on the film."
"I think everyone is hungry for honesty," Schwartzman has said of her work. "A candid dealing with the issue, without judgement, a space where people can talk."
Schwartzman plans to complete the final edit of her project in August.
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