I Am Evidence Filmmakers on Standing Without Shame
By Fiona Gibb
Co-directors Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir, producer Mariska Hargitay, and Wayne County, Michigan prosecutor Kym L. Worthy discuss what moved them to take on the rape kit backlog.
HBO: How did you all decide to collaborate on this project?
Mariska Hargitay: Very early into my role [as Law and Order SVU’s detective
Olivia Benson], I went to a dinner where I learned the statistics of sexual assault and domestic violence: One in three women, one in six men. At that time I just couldn’t believe it; it was truly an epidemic. I started receiving letters from survivors disclosing their stories of abuse — I was just floored, because it was different from a normal, “Can I get an autograph?” fan letter. So I started the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004 as my response.
In 2009 I learned about the rape kit backlog in Los Angeles. I was so outraged. I didn’t know what to do, but I had to do something. It was such a shocking example of how we treat women in this country. I went to testify in D.C., and that’s when I met Kym Worthy.
Kym Worthy: Joyful Heart was pivotal in getting us going. We had no money; at that time it was costing $1,200 to $1,500 to test a kit. Detroit was broke, Wayne County was near bankruptcy, and I was on a begging tour of various foundations and Detroit businessmen and women. Joyful Heart helped not only with funding, but they helped take care of people who were doing the work.
Mariska Hargitay: Trish and I had been working together on SVU. She had just finished Gasland, and over the years, we had talked about working together. I said, “I want to make a movie,” and Trish said, “I’m in.” So we started on this incredible journey together and brought Geeta in.
HBO: The film is educational, but it’s also incredibly emotional. How did you choose Ericka, Helena, Amberly and Danielle, the women whose stories shaped the film’s narrative?
Mariska Hargitay: One of the biggest challenges of the movie was that we interviewed 14 different survivors, all of whom could’ve had their own movie. It was like, “How do we even begin to put this puzzle together?”
Trish Adlesic: Ultimately the way in which we decided to tell this story was to put survivors’ voices first — that was most important — and to do that within the jurisdictions that were in the trenches and actually trying to do something. Being in different phases gives us different perspectives of the issue.
HBO: Are you still in touch with the women in the film?
Trish Adlesic: They’re like family to me now, and we’re forever bonded in friendship through the making of the film. I will continue to support them in every way I can.
HBO: Have the MeToo and Time’s Up movements impacted the reception at all?
Geeta Gandbhir: Trish and I have talked about this a lot, but the MeToo movement has basically given us this additional incredible platform. Obviously women have been fighting for their rights and for equity and equality and justice forever, but the fact that there is a spotlight right now — that all these brave activists, women and people from all different walks of life have built — gives us that much more impact. The film would’ve had an impact regardless, but in a way they’ve opened doors for us, and it’s amazing to have that solidarity.
HBO: In making the film, what surprised you most?
Trish Adlesic: The transformative effects the survivors who were interviewed experienced as a result of their participation. Many of them couldn't believe a film was actually being made and that people cared enough about the issue to make a documentary addressing it.
HBO: Beyond bringing awareness to the backlog, and spotlighting survivors’ stories, what are your other goals with the film? How important is advocacy?
Mariska Hargitay: I think we all made the movie because we were mad. So we’re trying to provoke outrage into action and to change legislation in all 50 states. There are six pillars of rape kit reform, and we want to drive everyone to endthebacklog.org to find out what’s happening in their cities and states. But also, on a very human level, learn how to bear witness, be in community and lead with empathy.
And for people in law enforcement, to get educated about the neurobiology of trauma. One of the biggest problems, as you see in the film, is that many times law enforcement doesn’t know how to respond to a survivor of trauma. They mistake the survivor’s cues. They go, “Oh, she was laughing,” “Oh, she froze,” “Why didn’t she yell?” “Did you fight back?”
No, she didn’t fight back, and she literally froze, like an animal, to save her life. These are things that we hope to shine a light on.
HBO: What else should viewers know about this film?
Mariska Hargitay: I just can’t speak enough to the bravery of the women. We would have no movie without them. I keep saying there is so much strength, power, badassery, and vulnerability. Sexual assault, that was something that was hidden in shame, under the carpet. The shame belongs with the perpetrator. The vision is to go, “Yeah, I was a victim of sexual assault or domestic violence. It doesn’t define me — it’s something that happened.
Stand up without stigma, stand up without shame. Put it where it belongs and be in the community.
DOCUMENTARY AVAILABLE NOW
Four survivors trace the fates of their rape kits, as officials investigate the systematic failure that’s created a backlog of more than 400,000 untested kits nationwide.