Meredith Holt, Published March 02 2013
Eight women share their personal stories in Fargo native’s documentary on rape
What: “It Was Rape” screening at the 13th Annual Fargo Film Festival
When: 10:30 a.m. Saturday
Where: Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway
Info: Single-session admission morning tickets cost $6, $5 for students, and are available at the theater.
Online: For more information, go to www.fargofilmfestival.org.
FARGO – Ten years ago, Dena Wyum was raped at a party as an 18-year-old freshman at North Dakota State University.
“That was sort of my ‘welcome to college,’ ” the Mayville, N.D., woman says dryly.
Now a women and gender studies lecturer at NDSU, Wyum uses her experience to raise awareness.
“That’s why I decided to do the film, because for me, that activism piece is healing,” she says.
Wyum is one of eight women who share their personal stories of sexual assault in filmmaker Fargo-native Jennifer Baumgardner’s documentary “It Was Rape.”
“If I could help other people not have that feeling of ‘This is only happening to me’ that I had experienced, then it was worth it,” Wyum says.
Baumgardner showed a 45-minute rough cut of the film at NDSU in April and plans to attend a screening of the final version Saturday morning at the Fargo Film Festival.
The 42-year-old activist, author and filmmaker has remained connected to the area since she moved to New York after college. Her parents and sister, who’s featured in the film, still live here.
Fellow New Yorker 29-year-old Morea Steinhauer, who lived in Fargo-Moorhead for the majority of her 20s, worked on the film as Baumgardner’s assistant producer.
Steinhauer, whose background is in photojournalism and social justice, said she’s looking forward to sharing their work at the Fargo Film Festival.
“To be able to share that with friends and family, and friends that are family, in the Upper Midwest feels super important, and timely,” she says. “I really hope the community receives it as a call to action.”
FINDING A VOICE
Lisa Brunner, executive director of the nonprofit tribal coalition Sacred Spirits in Mahnomen, Minn., advocates for victims of sexual violence, particularly Native Americans.
“We’re two and a half times more likely to be raped than any other woman in this country, and that’s only based on 30 percent of Native women reporting the sexual assaults,” she says.
The 40-year-old Mahnomen woman, who’s also featured in the film, was raped at ages 15 and 16, the first time by someone she knew in the backseat of a car, the second on her way to her aunt’s home.
“I am in that 70 percent that never reported,” she says.
It wasn’t until she heard frantic 911 calls from a little girl during federal law enforcement training that “the cork came out.” Then she was able to begin the healing process with guidance from her culture and elders.
Filmmakers Baumgardner and Steinhauer were the first to hear Brunner’s stories in depth when they interviewed her in her own living room.
She did it “to be able to give honor and a voice, to be that echo for all of the other Native women that had been sexually assaulted and have never been able to tell their stories,” and to give strength and courage to women of all races.
By turning the lens on such a diverse group of women, Baumgardner hopes to dispel some of the myths that continue to surround rape.
“I think there’s still a lot of denial about it because it’s hard to handle when you open yourself up to the full breadth of how many people have been affected by rape,” she says.
NDSU lecturer Wyum, who participated in the April screening, says the variety of circumstances adds to the impact of the film.
“Even though we have this commonality that we label all of our experiences as rape, they came about in very different ways,” she says.
Steinhauer thinks the film tries to change the conversation as well as encourage open discussion.
“Instead of talking about what skirt somebody had on or didn’t have on or what unsafe or safe environment somebody was in, it’s really looking at the cultural violence that we’re living with,” she says.
Brunner, who grew up hearing stories of rape in her community, says she doesn’t know any family that hasn’t been affected by it in some way or another.
“Anybody from babies to 80-plus-year-old women are raped. It’s not about how you dress, act or behave, it’s just the fact that you are a woman and you are a vulnerable target in certain populations,” she says.
SHEDDING THE BLAME
“It Was Rape” shows that the self-blame so many victims endure can be overcome.
“We’re very hard on ourselves about wishing we would have done things differently,” Wyum says.
Brunner has since shed the guilt, shame and embarrassment she once carried, and she believes other women can, too.
She’d tell them, “It wasn’t your fault. You’re beautiful, you’re kind, you’re loving, you’re gentle. Those feelings of shame and guilt, you don’t own those; they do. Send it back to them,” she says.
Nor does Brunner believe victims have to forgive their attackers in order to move on.
“They’re not worthy of my forgiveness. What they set in motion is recorded. The creator knows what they did, and I’m sorry, no matter how many Hail Marys and communions they take, their slate is not wiped clean, it will never be wiped clean, and they will answer for that,” she says.
For a long time, Wyum was silent about what happened to her because she didn’t want to be the “rape girl.”
“I didn’t want that to be this really limiting part of my identity, that everybody knew me as this victim,” she says.
Although the eight women’s experiences were traumatic and the effects far-reaching, Baumgardner and Steinhauer want audience members to see that speaking out doesn’t fully define them.
“They’re also teachers and mothers and sisters and all these other identities that make up who they are, and this is just one life experience of many, both positive and negative,” Steinhauer says.
Baumgardner hopes “It Was Rape” will encourage both talking and listening.
“There’s a lot of power in simply being able to turn to someone who’s in your life and being able to tell the truth about what’s happened to you,” she says.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590