Female Directors on Reframing Stories Featuring Violence and Trauma

Hollywood has depicted harrowing scenes of rape, violence and sexual assault for decades. But a new wave of storytellers is bringing a distinctly female perspective to portraying such traumatic moments on the big screen.

This awards season, female directors behind movies such as “Women Talking,” “She Said,” “Till” and “The Woman King” have each notably avoided graphic assault scenes that could be triggering to those performing in or watching them, instead focusing on the message and impact of the act.

Early on, “The Woman King” director Gina Prince-Bythewood discussed with her largely female crew, including cinematographer Polly Morgan and editor Terilyn Shropshire, how they should depict the painful history of Viola Davis’ character, General Nanisca.

The key for Prince-Bythewood, who previously directed films including “The Old Guard,” was finding a sensitive yet powerful way to connect the present day with the past. She asked herself: “As a woman, I’m the first audience, and what do I want to see? What don’t I want to see? What do I not need to see?”

She determined that she didn’t want to see Nanisca’s rape, and that ultimately it did not have to be depicted in the movie. “I think that’s maybe the bigger thing,” Prince-Bythewood says. “We don’t always need to show it.”

Instead, the filmmaker and her team focused on the memory of the character’s sexual assault, taking care with camera positioning and sound that accompanied those flashback moments. “We used selective focus to make most of the frame fall away and just focus on the things that were really important for the story,” Morgan says.

Bearing in mind Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that the sound of her traumatic encounter with Brett Kavanaugh was seared into her memory, Prince-Bythewood worked with sound designer Becky Sullivan and Shropshire “to highlight those sounds to tell the story because we knew we were never going to show the actual rape.”

“She Said” director Maria Schrader also wanted to avoid depicting rape, assault or graphic violence in her movie, believing there has already been enough of that in past movies and the world at large. Again, sound was essential to her storytelling.

The film is based on the investigations of New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor (Carey Mulligan) and Megan Twohey (Zoe Kazan) into Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual abuse and misconduct against women. Schrader worked with cinematographer Natasha Braier to sensitively portray survivors’ stories.

“We show who this person was before the moment and who this person was right after the moment,” says Braier. “It’s about the consequences of that day. It was not about objectifying any person.”

In one scene, the entire audio exchange between Weinstein and Ambra Battilana Gutierrez is played out. (Gutierrez was sexually assaulted by Weinstein and after reporting the incident to police, wore a wiretap when Weinstein asked her to come to his room.)

Rather than re-enact the scene or re-create the sequence,Schrader shows a slow montage of hotel hallways as Braier’s camera looms slowly through them. “It already implies that there are so many doors, rooms and cities and so many encounters,” the director says. The camera movement continues as the audio plays, leaving room for the imagination — and female viewers to recall their own memories “of being intimidated, threatened or harassed in one way or the other.”

These films address the enduring trauma of such incidents and, in “She Said,” the liberation that can come from discussing it. “Being able to talk and be listened to is a healing act,” Braier says. “It’s an act of taking out that thing that stays trapped in your body,” she continues. “That’s what we tried to be respectful of as we were shooting.”

Chinoye Chukwu’s “Till” is the story of a mother’s courage: Mamie Till, played by Danielle Deadwyler, seeks justice for her son Emmett’s brutal lynching and murder in 1955. Despite the dark subject matter, DP Bobby Bukowski powerfully captures a moment, he bathed the exterior of the barn where Emmett is
being beaten in orange lighting, and what could have been a viscerally traumatic moment was artfully reflected in a searing image but the harrowing sound as Chukwu spares her audiences from watching Emmett being lynched.

Polley took a similar approach to her female counterparts avoiding showing sexual assault on-screen in “Women Talking.” Instead, she focuses on the Mennonite women at the heart of her story and how they handle the trauma of abuse. Brief flashbacks show the aftermath, but that’s where it ends.

As more female filmmakers tackle stories of sexual abuse, they are bringing their own perspective — the female gaze — in ways their male counterparts might not be able to do.

Female Directors on Reframing Stories Featuring Violence and Trauma

THE WOMAN KING, Lashana Lynch, 2022. © TriStar Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection
©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

“I don’t think that men understand the level of what we experience every single day, walking into a garage, into an elevator, a building or walking down the street where we have to be on alert and we have to be watching,” Prince-Bythewood says. “We have to be vigilant because we know that violence can happen to us at any time.”

She continues, “I think that it’s that hyper-vigilance that fuels me in what I want to see and what I want to put in the world.”

She, for example, is more interested in portraying women as fighters and warriors than victims of a shocking assault. “To tell a story, you don’t have to go to the lowest easiest denominator, violence against women or rape,” Prince-Bythewood says, calling “The Women King” a war movie. “There’s brutality in it, but I would never want anyone to say that the work is gratuitous whether it be violence or whether it be sex.”

For her, the goal for filmmakers should be to avoid dehumanizing women or making audiences turn away because a moment was too graphic. “Don’t put things up on screen that is going to force an audience to turn away,” Prince-Bythewood says. “Tell the story. Be truthful, be raw, visceral, real, which is what we were doing.”

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