In the powerful and jarring Hold Me Right, Serbian actress and rape victim Danijela Stajnfeld discusses the trauma experienced by her and other survivors, at the same time examining the motives of a number of rapists and perpetrators of sexual violence.
A few years ago Danijela Stajnfeld was raped by a well-known personality in Serbia. She refuses to name him as she feels that doing so would endanger her and her family. But this does not in any way hinder her examination of the traumatic event and its psychological repercussions.
After the attack Stajnfeld left Serbia for the US where she resolved to start a new life. But still she could hardly venture outside, continually feared new encounters and eventually decided to end her life. Thankfully she was arrested after a friend found her suicide letter and alerted the police.
“I didn’t understand how much I was suffering from PTSD, and that the suicide was a result of it… your pain cannot [let you] process things in a normal way anymore,” she says. “Everything was shattered.”
But she was fortunate in having made new friends in the US who offered much help and succour, eventually allowing to her operate in ‘a non-judgmental space’. “I realised the support of others and how my progress of healing spiked to the sense that I would never again be suicidal – that I could see the light around me, that I could heal.”
The experience of recovery also instilled in her a desire to record the testimonies of other survivors, and what started out as a 10-minute short film developed into a feature as she interviewed more and more victims, as well as rapists. Eventually at rough cut stage she decided to add her own story to the film, using personal video diaries that she had made over the past four years.
The victims she interviews tell harrowing tales of their own experiences. Nurse Karen was subjected to rape within her marriage while the (then) 17-year-old Heath was gang raped every day for 10 months after he signed up for the US Navy. Police officer Christa was raped by a respected senior officer (and former friend/mentor) and was subsequently vilified by her fellow officers when she went public with her accusations. Communication with Isaac’s father came to a painful and abrupt end after he refused to even acknowledge that the horrendous sexual assault his son suffered even constituted ‘rape’. In their state, it could be defined as little other than sexual battery, Isaac is told dismissively.
Each victim is highly articulate and their stories are hard to listen to, but by the film’s end we see that they have come through the other side, and that their willingness to share their experiences has been therapeutic. “I watched Karen the nurse who was raped by her husband or Heath that survived this continuous gang rape in the US navy – they were kind of my guides and teachers, so in a way I grew up with them and expanded and learned [a sense of] compassion through them as well.”
Stajnfeld also talks about the “ripple effect” which, for her, is a two-way thing. (The opening, and very moving, scene of the film shows her telling her parents on the phone that she had been raped four years before. Later, Christa the police officer comforts a son who has witnessed the trauma of his mother’s grief, but also that of his girlfriend who herself was raped.)
“The ripple effect, the aftermath, just kinds of destroys the family, their living, their [income] economy, the community, but then there is [another] ripple effect when people speak and people stand behind survivors and acknowledge that, yes, this has happened to you and we stand behind you. There is also a ripple effect of healing.”
That said, in a moving animated sequence showing thousands of silent candles, the director reminds us of the thousands of rape victims for whom the trauma was too great, eventually taking their lives.
In an admirably non-judgmental way, Stajnfeld also gives voice to rapists and perpetrators of sexual violence. Two inevitably question whether what they did to their victims actually amounted to rape, while an anonymous man living in an undisclosed location, shot in shadow, freely admits his culpability in child rape. His personal story is also tragic, having been the victim of horrific sexual assault as a young child. “The underside of the coin was to examine what makes the perpetrator [commit the crime], how do they feel, what do they think of it in the aftermath, and mostly I wondered how did they think they could get away with it,” says the director.
In a core scene, Stajnfeld meets her attacker back in Serbia and quizzes him as to his motives. His responses (muffled to protect his identity) seem a combination of crassness, stupidity, supreme arrogance and mind-boggling self-delusion. “Showing my tenderness is not a sign of my disrespect, rather it is your success,” he says. “You should feel honoured, not jeopardized… as if I am putting my dick into someone who I don’t respect.”
Hold Me Right is Stajnfeld’s first feature, and one that she felt could never have been made in Serbia. “When I got to Belgrade to be an actress, that was a very patriarchal, misogynistic space, and I just believed that I lived to be a function in a male world, and I know that even after six or seven years of a successful career as an actress [if] I wanted to make a film I would be laughed at, by men and women – so it has taken America to give me a sense of integrity, a sense that it is possible to fight for your freedom.”
By the end of the film, what emerges is a sense of core decency, compassion and resilience on the part of victims, whereby their ability to forgive enables them to achieve a sense of freedom. Many of them now offer full time support to fellow victims while Tony, the father of rape victim Krystal, observes that “an eye for an eye just makes the world go blind.”
Likewise for director Stajnfeld, the process of overcoming her trauma was ultimately life affirming, even though there seemed little evidence at times that a sense of closure could ever be achieved.
“I suffered from a lot of rage and anger issues [and] this was a crazy and sometimes unhealthy ride that I pushed myself through. But at one moment in the film I say ‘better dead than a coward’. I just had to keep on going.”