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Sexual Violence & Its Aftermath in 2 Rivertown Film Screenings

A Conversation Between TAPE Star Annarosa Mudd and The University Creator, Julianna Roth

Still from ‘The University.’

Rivertown Film Society screens two films this week by Rockland County filmmakers dealing with sexual violence and its aftermath in collaboration with the Center for Safety and Change, whose demand for services have gone up over 60% during the last few months: TAPE and The University. TAPE follows the story of two aspiring actresses who cross paths with the darker side of the entertainment industry. TAPE’s virtual screening culminates in a talk between director Deborah Kampmeier, actress Annarosa Mudd, and Andrea Panjwani, Chief Legal Officer for the Center for Safety and Change on June 6th at 7:30p. Then, on June 11th at 7:30p, writer/director Juliana Roth of The University continues this virtual conversation with Rowan Reyes, Senior Director of Community Education and Social Change at the Center for Safety and Change. The University follows a college freshman who’s assaulted within the first few months of being on campus and turns to her college’s Title IX process for help. (Purchase tickets here.) In anticipation of the two online screenings, Roth and Mudd held a conversation about the films, the issue of abuse, and writing during the pandemic.

Juliana Roth: I’ve been wrestling with defining what justice means to me personally, especially when our nation is finally confronting how broken our criminal justice system is, how regularly law enforcement engages in sexual violence, and how officers often betray survivors. I wonder a lot about what feels right and fair, and trauma-focused, in light of all that. For Title IX processes, which are supposed to be alternative justice pathways, many survivors leave feeling as though their assailant didn’t change through the process, or were assigned something like a book report which doesn’t really feel to scale. I’m curious about what the future of justice might look like.

Annarosa Mudd: I very much felt this dilemma while watching The University. The tribunal members were underprepared for dealing with a person who has experienced the trauma of rape. I say this not as an expert, but only from my experience with my own therapist, and the specific ways sexual trauma affect a person’s entire body and mind, and especially their memory. The tribunal certainly seemed willing and empathetic, and yet I was almost surprised to hear that they believed Abbey, since they seemed so skeptical. A healthy skepticism makes sense in any situation like this, but it read more as lack of knowledge around how to deal with someone who has experienced sexual assault and the known effects. A feeling of unease came over me as the tribunal discussed next steps with the perpetrator. I was encouraged by the idea that not expelling him meant that there may be ways to teach him, or to “rehabilitate” him. If real concrete training programs like this existed, maybe this unease I felt would have subsided. I do think men who rape should suffer consequences. I do think privileges should be taken away. I appreciate your pilot as an example because I agree with one of the tribunal members, that it would not necessarily be useful to expel him without having actually dealt with what he did wrong. We don’t help the issue of sexual violence against women if men are unaware of their behavior and are only cast out. I think in the case of The University, some program or training could actually really help the abuser. There could have been an element of his not understanding, and his assumption of his own privilege that he can get away with a crime if he says the right things, based on what he learns from the lawyer he can afford to consult.

With my own experience, which was depicted in TAPE,  justice would look like a criminal charges of rape and coersion against the abuser. Right now, there is only a civil case, and the lawyer representing the victims has said that law enforcement did not want to get involved. This is a huge disappointment, and may involve or require us getting more public attention on the case, as well as petitioning to get certain laws changed. I would leave it up to a judge or jury, but I do think it is appropriate that he at least be charged in criminal court.

I do think our culture is so out of whack and so encouraging to young men, especially those with privilege, that they are actually clueless about consent. There should be serious consequences of some kind: suspension, probation, or even time in jail. But I think that the piece around education should not be overlooked. Ideally, the issues of gender inequality and consent are things that should be taught as early as preschool, a suggestion Roxane Gay brought up in one of our panel discussions on TAPE. As with everything we are seeing right now, our deepest problems are systemic where the inequalities are reinforced.

Roth: I’ve become more wary of incarceration as the goal for perpetrators. Yet, it’s hard to imagine another form of justice in our current world. I think our resources need to go into the community to increase education, essential services, rehabilitation, and protective measures. I’m certainly not an expert on this, but I don’t imagine moving away from incarceration all at once would be possible, especially when needing to provide immediate protection for a victim of stalking or domestic violence that may quickly escalate to a murder. It would have to be a phasing out. I like Roxane Gay’s suggestion quite a bit.

When I was first writing this script in 2014-15, I was working for a women’s center in metro-Detroit and consulted regularly with a counselor there who had been involved in training Detroit’s police force to make sure I was getting details right. One big one was Abbey laughing when she gave her testimony. Like you said of your own assault, many survivors experience confusing neurological symptoms like this. Laughter is an involuntary reaction that helps to ease stress hormones, but untrained professionals might think it’s a sign of lying. The counselor seemed hopeful but skeptical of police reform. Around the time I finished the script, a big story came out on Detroit’s backlog of rape kits–about 11,000 untested kits left for decades in a moldy storage room–and that just hit me in the gut: all those survivors who tried to follow protocol who just weren’t taken seriously.

Mudd: I think the changes we are experiencing now are supporting the idea that we all look to our immediate communities first to implement the change we want to see. Also the community of survivors is incredibly powerful. Through Deborah Kampmeier, I have been connected to several survivors who are not only supportive in their relationships with other survivors but in their activism. What you brought up about the backlog of rape kits is infuriating, and we can assume that if there are that many untested in only Detroit, then there are far too many everywhere. I recently met Lavinia Masters, who has been successful in getting a law passed in Texas to fund the testing of their thousands of rape kits. Today is actually the one year anniversary of that law being passed, named after her. I hope that her activism is contagious.

When I watched The University, I was particularly moved by the scene where Abbey swims, and lets herself scream and rage underwater. I related so much to that emotion, and also to the feeling that you can’t just let that out in real life, that it should be stifled, and private. Deborah Kampmeier and I talked a lot about how women are silenced after an act of violence, and how that silencing can sometimes be as violent as the act itself. She explored this by bringing the Shakespeare character Lavinia from Titus Andronicus into the script for “Tape.”  While Lavinia serves as a sort of touchstone and ritual for Rosa, she also is this overall metaphor for the ways in which women are silenced. I wonder if you had any thoughts on how the aftermath of rape affects the victim in the “quiet” and unseen or unheard ways.

Roth: That’s incredible that the advocate and Shakespeare’s character are both Lavinia–it feels like the mythic-ness of that play continues to reverberate. I think a lot of survivors might lack a ritual for their grief and pain, and I think healing and finding one takes many forms. It was really important for me to show that scream, which comes right before she gives her testimony. That private opening up and release is what allowed her to speak strongly and confidently when she finally faced the tribunal. I know I’ve struggled with naming abuse and assault in my own life, and for some, that process may take years, or a lifetime, or perhaps they choose to not tell anyone beyond their therapist or a partner. I hope to reach those viewers in the quiet moments.

Another quiet character is Dean Deborah Mullins. She is the arbiter for these students, but I also know that black women are more likely to experience sexual violence than any other population, and also that white women, women who look like me or Abbey, have historically lied about rape against black men in pretty violent ways. But we also know false rape accustations are just as prevalent as false reports for any other crime. These are difficult facts to handle all at once. I didn’t have an opportunity to go as deeply into Deborah’s life away from the tribunal in this one episode, but I would imagine she is being silenced by the campus bureaucracy and that these complex histories are likely weighing on her, even though she believes Abbey.

Mudd: The actress who played Deborah had such hidden depths. I could feel that there’s clearly a lot more going on with her than we are able to get into in this pilot. Is this something you see as a limited series, or ongoing?

Roth: Yeah, that’s Shelby Bradley. She is a Detroit-based actress and a serious powerhouse. This project started as a feature script I wrote in college, then I tried it as a web series, but the producer I was working with on that version was abusing his power within our mentorship dynamic. It didn’t go as far as it did with your experience, but when I saw TAPE back in March, it was incredible to see how women’s ambition is often preyed upon. The producer was a former professor who had asked me to give him a “story by” credit on my script before I knew what that meant. He sat on the footage we’d produced together, delaying the project for years. Looking back, there were a lot of grey moments between us that I wrote off as me being taken seriously as a writer and a filmmaker, but as an adult, and after lecturing at a college for years myself, I see that it was a really disempowering and predatory dynamic. I ultimately connected with a female filmmaker who helped me understand my rights. I got free advisement through Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts to get my project back. I tried crowdfunding to finish it as a film, but we didn’t raise enough so it just felt like the natural solution was to edit the footage into a pilot. I would love to write for television, and I think these characters could be explored with the depth offered by a series or in full as a feature, but I’ve also written new scripts and stories.

What is your hope for after TAPE?

Mudd: My hope for TAPE is that it gives clarity around these situations for people, who are mostly men, who have no idea how this happens. I hope that by watching the film that there is an experienced understanding that they take with them, and that it helps shift their perception of the injustices toward women and oppressed people in the world, and the ways people abuse power. I also hope it creates validation and space for people who have experienced something like it. It means so much to me to hear your experience, though at the same time it makes me seethe with anger that so many of us have a story like it. Deborah and I have been so grateful to hear from people who have seen the film who want to share their story. There is a little community that was created, that I hope will grow.

Roth:  Is there a certain type of character you have yet to play that you dream of playing?

Mudd: Deborah is writing a limited series that I am excited to be attached to as a producer, and she has many other projects in the pipeline that I hope to be a part of in some way. What I appreciate so much about the role Deborah wrote and cast me in for TAPE was not only that she based it off of my experience and my rage around it, but that she allowed for the character to be real and imperfect. Deborah is so intent on showing the truth in both the deeply personal, but also global way. She is so clear on how culture has shaped us, what it expects of us as women, and of men. I feel like the stories she tells have a passion for freedom, the freedom to be understood and not perfectly behaved. We are seeing so many more roles like this for women, mostly in TV and some independent work that I would love to play. Roles that reveal something about ourselves and our culture. Roles that help us forgive ourselves and feel seen.

But I also love costume dramas! Just throwing that out there! It’s exciting that there is so much room for creativity around telling a story and revealing its themes, whether it is fantasy, sci-fi, or graphic novel, or historical event. I enjoy projects where there can be great extremes in expression and character archetypes, and in the storytelling overall.

Can you share what your new projects are about? What are you feeling passionate about now?

Roth: I’ve been taking a few acting courses–the first since college–and that has been a lot of fun. I’m working on a new pilot about Radio City Music Hall in the ‘70s and a feature dramedy about a community of elderly women at a thrift store. I wrote another feature with a friend (actually Brook Lee, whose song “The Truth Unties” appears in The University!) about a famous actor/writer who tries to recreate the summer Frankenstein was written, casting himself as Mary Shelley (the author of the book) in his group of hired actors.

I really like projects that require research and exploring worlds beyond my own. Right now, I’m writing a series of essays for the Edward Hopper House Museum and Study Center that explore Hopper’s domestic life with a particular focus on his sister Marion who very little has been written on. The writing world is so slow so I usually have a few different projects to plug in and out of to stay energized. Writing has been a touchstone for me during the pandemic. My writing groups still meet each week virtually and those spaces have helped me keep in mind that there’s still meaning and art to be made during the chaos, to be passionate in that way. We’re still encouraging each other to reach higher in our work and to use our imaginations. Those spaces remind me that practicing my craft is just as important, if not more, than the product of it. It also reminds me how special filmmaking is because you really get to collaborate and be present with other artists each day.

Have you been able to engage in your acting practice at all during this time?

Mudd: I do also write, though it has been something I didn’t think I really knew how to do. I’m working on a script based on one of the original ballerinas who performed in the first production of Swan Lake in Moscow. Ballet was really the first art form I learned. I studied it seriously until I became more focused on acting in college. The world of Tchaikovsky and ballet in Russia in the late 1800s is one I’m fascinated by, and, like you said about Marion Hopper, there are many women whose stories have gone quiet. This ballerina is one of those women for me.

I am with you, the pandemic has been a great time to focus on writing, especially since I haven’t really attempted anything like this project, and so I’ve been working slowly on the ballerina script and reading–trying to expand my mind around new creative possibilities, rather than worry that there won’t be any work! We were lucky to be able to pivot to the online release of TAPE, and I was excited to be able to meet other filmmakers and creators in our two weeks of panels that Deborah organized. I guess the way I am holding acting practice in mind is to make the most of those opportunities, and keep connecting with our audience as the film makes its way out.

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.

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