by Julia Lesage
Cut, no. 19, December 1978, pp. 14-16
JoAnn Elam's RAPE is one of the most important fusions of the experimental filmmaking tradition and the current wave of self-consciously political films. It is an explicitly feminist documentary film which uses experimental techniques. In its content or signified, it provides an angry "speak-out" of women's rape experiences and a militant analysis of the myths and facts about rape in the United States. Elam has articulated many new film strategies to achieve such a task so that this film avoids — indeed, by contrast, comments on — the usual exploitive treatment of rape in cinema.
RAPE rejects voyeurism and pathos. It rejects showing women as powerless. Its protagonists are real-life rape victims who are not filmed crying, but angry and in control. To counteract the usual cinematic depiction of rape as the ultimate form of possession, Elam's film functions as rape victims' public speak-out. The women dare to speak the unspeakable, to restore to themselves their own identity, and to attack those cultural and economic institutions which make rape likely and those legal institutions which oppress the victim. The structure of the film is that of one evening's conversation in which women who had been raped speak with the filmmaker. Their conversation is presented in the film in video transfer, and is combined with filmed inserts shown while the conversation continues in voice-off.
The meeting takes place in one women's living room. It is women's "turf," the home, the domestic sphere. Visually, the videotaped milieu conveys a sense of solidarity and security as the women sit around in a circle talking. The video camera was passed around, and a number of women did the filming, so we cannot identify the filmmaker in that group. There is a sense of warmth and enclosure. The women constantly interact as equals. The filmmaker's relation to her subject is participatory and nonhierarchical. The entire farm of the film as well as Elam's participation in that group reveals her identification with and enhancement of the group's analysis rather than the more typical male filmmaker's "domination" of a difficult subject presented as a tour de force to an admiring world.
THE IDEOLOGY OF RAPE
Elam's cinematic technique, her relation to both subject and audience, and her non-voyeuristic depiction of rape all work in an original way to combat what Susan Brownmiller in Against Our Will has called "the ideology of rape." [l] This ideology is a main support of patriarchy, and it is especially visible in cinema. Elam attacks it both in the way she explicitly deals with an often repressed and misrepresented area of women's oppression and in her cinematic technique. What is the ideology of rape? Brownmiller does not describe either the aesthetic or the institutional mechanisms whereby the mess media perpetrate that ideology, but she well understands how it partly derives from the general depiction of women in our culture, a depiction of powerlessness:
"The theory of aggressive male domination over women as a natural right is so deeply embedded in our cultural value system that all recent attempts to expose it — in movies, television commercials, or even children's books — have barely managed to scratch the surface. As I see it, the problem is not that polarized role playing (men as doer, women as bystander) and exaggerated portrayals of the female body as passive sex object are simply 'demeaning' to women's dignity and self-conception, or that such portrayals fail to provide role models for young girls, but that cultural sexism is a conscious form of female degradation designed to boost the male ego by offering 'proof' of his native superiority everywhere he looks." (p. 437)
To demonstrate the uniqueness of Elam's RAPE, I would like first to look at two other cinematic treatments of rape — one a sympathetic and widely used short film, NO LIES, by Mitchell Block, and the other, the pervasive depiction of rape in pornography. Mitchell Block's NO LIES is a pseudo-documentary. That is, only when we see the credits at the end do we know that the film was scripted and acted. NO LIES has two characters in it, a film-school cinema-verité documentarist and his women friend whom he is filming in her New York apartment as she puts on make-up and jewelry preparing to go out. The filmmaker follows the women intrusively from room to room, and this footage is presumably the film that he then shot. The women casually tells the filmmaker she'd been raped; he goads her to tell him more and more about it; she cries. He moves in at this point for ever more pathetic close-ups, and she finally slams the door on him as she leaves, reduced to humiliation and fear.
When the credits reveal the names of the actors, we realize that the film has been a tour de force of acting, especially on the women's part, and that it has been intended as a metaphor to demonstrate that cinema-verité is rape. NO LIES, although it presents the women as "good" and the filmmaker friend as "bad," once again primarily uses rape as a metaphor. In this way, it refuses to allow women the concrete definition of their own oppression, refuses to look at that oppression for what it is and not as an indicator pointing to something else "more important." Filmmakers who would never use lynchings or concentration camp exterminations as metaphors nevertheless feel impelled to do so with rape.
Furthermore, although NO LIES pretends to attack the voyeurism of cinema-verité, it depends on voyeurism and an assumption of women's powerlessness to convey its message. The audience is led to protest emotionally the way the student filmmaker "rapes" his subject by filming her crying, but Mitchell Block does much the same thing to gain our admiration for his film. He sets up a situation for a certain kind of bravura performance on the part of his actress. Her big moment comes when she breaks down in humiliation. Tears stream from her eyes and smear her mascara. How brave, the audience thinks, of this beautiful women to be filmed as "ugly" in extreme close-up. She carries it off so well! Yet the question most audiences won't ask is why Block has used such a conventionally beautiful women for his protagonist. Surely he meant to elicit more sympathy for a rape victim's tragic plight. But he also evokes admiration for his actress' virtuoso range and his own ability as a filmmaker to adequately script that part and capture that performance in this film.
Block's film won prizes and gained international attention for him as an up-and-coming filmmaker. Elam's film was made collectively, in solidarity with her subjects: it was an act of documentary filmmaking specifically intended to provoke social change. Block dominates his subject just as much as his male protagonist does, and in so doing, the portrayal of rape in NO LIES — no matter how pathetic Block makes the victim's plight — once again fuels the ideology of rape. In both its content and in the relation of Block to his subject, NO LIES depends on female powerlessness and male dominance.
If it is "sympathetic," the depiction of rape on film usually presents the victim in terms of pathos, horror, or individual tragedy. In this case, the audience response may be one of both titillation and catharsis. Both males and females in the audience may respond — for different reasons — with a reaction such as this: "She's dead and beautiful and out there. Lucky it's not me." Either as titillation or catharsis or both, such a response has an adverse social effect in that it serves to limit people's capacity for self-awareness and their impulse to effect social change.
Far worse are the movies where women cry rape or enjoy rape, or movies where a sexual act inflicted by force is ultimately enjoyed. These film portrayals treacherously reinforce the prevalent social myths about rape that are enacted in the legal systems of most countries in the world. These myths make the victim the one who must prove she is not guilty. They include, "All women want to be raped. She asked for it. A woman shouldn't bring up the fact of having been raped as a public statement but should hide it as a shame." Such myths encourage violence against women, indeed make it legal, as in the British Supreme Court decision to free two men who violently raped a woman. In this case, the court ruled that because the woman's husband told the rapists that forceful sexual relations only excited her all the more, the two men could not have known that they were committing an act of rape.
Because rape is a staple of pornography, both hard- and soft-core, many feminists reject a liberal, "freedom-of-expression," and anti-puritanical defense of porn. With an anger that I and the women filmed in RAPE also feel, Susan Brownmiller in Against Our Will attacks pornography as "the undiluted essence of anti-female propaganda."
"The gut distaste that a majority of women feel when we look at pornography, a distaste that, incredibly, it is no longer fashionable to admit, comes, I think, from the gut knowledge that we and our bodies are being stripped, exposed, and contorted for the purpose of ridicule to bolster that 'masculine esteem' which gets its kick and sense of power from viewing females as anonymous, panting playthings, adult toys, dehumanized objects to be used, abused, broken and discarded. This is, of course, also the philosophy of rape. It is no accident (for what else could be its purpose?) that females in the pornographic genre are depicted in two clearly delineated roles: as virgins who are caught and 'banged' or as nymphomaniacs who are never sated. The most popular and prevalent pornographic fantasy combines the two: an innocent, untutored female is raped and "subjected to unnatural practices" that turn her into a raving slobbering nymphomaniac, a dependent sexual slave who can never get enough of the big, male cock." 
"There can be no 'equality' in porn, no female equivalent, no turning of the tables in the name of bawdy fun. Pornography, like rape, is a male invention, designed to dehumanize women, to reduce the female to an object of sexual access, not to free sensuality from moralistic or parental inhibition. The staple of porn will always be the naked female body, breasts and genitals exposed, because as man devised it, her naked body is the female's 'shame,' her private parts the private property of man, while his are the ancient, holy, universal, patriarchical instrument of his power, his rule by force over her." (pp. 442-43)
How cinema perpetuates an ideology of rape is far more complicated than the way it depicts actual rapes. An attitude of contempt for women is often inescapably built into a film.  This is especially true of a film that shows violence being done to a woman but is the case with many other films as well. Woman as victim, woman as object, woman getting fucked, woman getting shot, woman's body as object of public contemplation (only "beautiful" when young, of course) — all these are the staple of narrative cinema and of television as we know it.
Feminist film theorists have currently undertaken the massive task of explaining the mechanisms of how cinema both directly and indirectly oppresses women. Much of this analysis is from a psychoanalytic perspective. Thus, according to Pam Cook and Claire Johnston, women in film, especially fictional film, are generally used as markers in a male fantasy.  In their roles, costumes, and ways of being filmed, women in patriarchal narrative film have functioned primarily as fetishized objects of desire, objects that are really feared. According to this psychoanalytic perspective, such a use of the female figure derives from the original male oedipal fear of a lack or castration, an overwhelming Other that may swallow him up, an Other whose traits he must suppress in himself as the locus of power, the male. In his adult life, to possess or desire the woman, not as she is but as he imagines her, guarantees to the man that he is a man.  In a similar vein, in a study of the oppressive mechanisms of voyeurism in narrative cinema, Laura Mulvey describes the figure of woman as "an indispensable element of spectacle" in narrative film, where woman functions both "as erotic object for the characters within the screen story and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium." 
However, the relation of a woman audience member to that voyeurism, to looking at beautiful or suffering women characters in film, is more complex than men's and has not been adequately analyzed.  It probably involves a mixture of pleasure, identity, and distance. For example, in watching narrative cinema I can, and in fact usually do, identify with both the male protagonist from whose perspective the story is told and whose values are explored and with the beautiful woman he loves. I can be both Bogart and Bacall. However, although women viewers do not have the same psychological predisposition to view female images as Other as male viewers do, in almost every film they see, women viewers are forced to respond to female images in films, both the minor characters and the "stars," through the filter of patriarchal artistic concerns and conventions.
It is precisely because JoAnn Elam challenges both patriarchal film content and the conventions with which women and the topic of rape have been filmed that RAPE is important, especially to women. In watching this film, viewers must respond in a specifically political way to the facts of women's oppression, and they are also led to reflect on the cinematic treatment of that oppression. In this way, Elam's feminist cinema leads viewers to challenge what they had taken for granted before, especially the treatment of women in film.
The visual track of RAPE consists of three types of footage: a kinescoped videotaped conversation among a group of rape victims arid the filmmaker, handwritten intertitles (white on a black background), and symbolic illustrations -filmed in l6mm — of the concepts discussed by the women on the sound track. [A complete list of the intertitles is included after the endnotes in this essay.] For the women who met this one time to speak to each other and to make a film, this filmed discussion meant for each of them a coming to knowledge, a healing, a reaffirming of their right to inhabit their own bodies and most intimate selves. The film shows us these women interacting and discussing their rape experiences and analyzing women's situation. They have come together in a conscious act of social cohesion. They arrive at a political analysis through this one evening's group process and group interaction, which, in fact, is the political analysis of rape that Elam presents in her film.
While there is no story line or narrative development in the film, there is a deliberate progression from the women's telling of victimization — by both rapists and the legal system — to an analysis of rape culture, to an indication of possible collective action. For example, the group discusses the ordinary strategies patriarchy has forced women to adopt when going out in the public sphere. These involve paranoia, disguise, and conforming to social expectations about women's roles — e.g., stay at home or go out only with a man or look like you are expecting a man to meet you any minute — none of which has guaranteed men safety. There is also a sensitive discussion of class and racism, as the women (who are all white) respond honestly to these issues in terms of their own lived experience. The group here uses its collectivity to develop a sense of strength and to fight rape publicly. The conversation functions as a variant of the consciousness-raising group, and it is a conversation heightened by the women's eagerness to make a film.
The visual image of the conversation is that of a grainy video transfer, with foreground and background collapsed. The low resolution of the image plus the "unprofessional" framing as the participants passed the video camera around from one to the other dedramatizes the stories that the women had to tell. Pathos and personality are so minimized that often the viewer cannot remember which person had had which rape experience or took which political or personal stance. The group finally is remembered as speaking with one voice. For political reasons, Elam clearly has eschewed any portrayal of a tragic individual. She films no one with sculpted lighting and shows no acts of rape and no women breaking down in tears. The women's "stories" are experienced only in a situation of collective sharing and protest.
The soundtrack is the women's conversation. It sets the pace of the film. Elam intercuts the video image with symbolic filmed material and Brechtian-style titles which serve only to heighten and make memorable what the women say. The viewer must respond to the film politically. There is no other way to deal with the women presented in the film except in the intellectual and analytical way in which they deal with themselves. In particular, the symbolic sequences force an intellectual response.
I use the term "symbolic" here to refer to a constructed relation between thing filmed and topic signified in a particular sequence. Elam's visual symbolism is reminiscent of the post-68 Godard/Gorin films, for it is combined with Brechtian-style intertitles which "explain" or anchor the signification in the concepts expressed explicitly on the soundtrack. As with Brechtian distancing devices, this l6mm filmed material both provides an intellectual wit which expands the resonance of the film and also raises our political understanding of what we see and hear. For example, toward the end of the film, Elam inserts an intertitle which lists potential solutions and collective actions that have been taken by women against rape. The intertitle passes by too quickly for it to be absorbed as a worked-out formula to end rape. Rather it suggests areas for discussion that the film as a whole opens up, indicating ways women might act, rather than ways women must act. The inserted material, both intertitles and symbolic sequences, suggests an analysis but leaves it up to the audience to make the connections for themselves.
Sometimes the cinematic technique has an evocative effect deriving from the simplicity of the image or from the editing and camera movement. Elam's panning across the tops of skyscrapers and court buildings (to represent institutional male power) elicits a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia because of the visceral response it evokes. Other times, Elam uses a verité-type on-the-street filming. She combines here a number of shots of women walking, or men's glances, on people walking together. She edits these shots so as to bring out their most salient common feature (i.e., "woman walking down city street"), but she uses a "spontaneous" filming style to demonstrate the real threat women face in public situations and their constant awareness when walking down the street that they could be harassed at any time. You could, the film implies, film scenes like that on any city street on any given day.
To break tension and to make political points in a witty, memorable way, she flashes on at various times a shot of a screw, a pigeon (meaning women are sitting ducks), or columns which are carved into figures of grimacing women (meaning women are the pillars of society). She also uses humorous images of classical painting, showing unhappy or beheaded wives. The images of classical art, especially a painting of the rape of the Sabine women, a statue of a man abducting a woman at sword's point, and a Minerva-type goddess with arms upraised represent a number of concepts — women's traditional roles, the constraints placed on women, and what happens when they confront men or social institutions. These images are used in different combinations with the other symbolic images in a carefully crafted way to evoke the precise kinds of complexities and contradictions that affect or have a bearing on the situation the women are talking about on the soundtrack in voice-off.
Some of the symbolic sequences are more complex than a one-to-one equation of image with idea. For example, in the children's games, which broadly symbolize "the battle of the sexes," the audience has to attend to the switches in who is chasing whom — the boys or the girls. Certain visual sequences depict an extended metaphor, in particular, a hand game where a man's hands hit and grab a woman's hands. Another time we see a hand moving a glass of water around rapidly while a person's hand, with forefinger extended, tries to stick a finger in the glass. Here the women's voices on the soundtrack discuss how hostile judges have used this very trick to prove to a jury that a woman could never be forced to have sex against her will.
Elam's visual style in both the filmed l6mm inserts and in the videotaped sequences of the women's conversation partly derives from a tradition in U.S. experimental filmmaking that is in opposition to mainstream documentary and feature film style. The "home-movie" experimentation of the New American Cinema movement is characterized not only by spontaneous filming done in the filmmaker's own milieu, but also by a handheld camera and a seeming lack of concern for the "rules" of narrative cinematography. Thus, in RAPE, we often face seemingly erratic camera movement, a horizon line askew, or unpredictable kinds of visual repetition. Such a visual style originally functioned as a cheap form of filmmak1mg and as a protest against the aesthetic structures of commercial film. Even now, because audiences are generally unfamiliar with this type of cinematography, it may be perceived as crude or inept.
Here, in fact, such a style serves a political purpose. Elam has striven to create new cinematic tactics for exploring and explicitly analyzing the topic of rape without being co-opted into using that subject matter for visual voyeuristic pleasure. Furthermore, the intellectual and symbolic nature of her style makes a statement about the women being filmed and makes demands on the audience. The women filmed and the film itself are angry, intellectual, and politically aware. The responses to the visual symbolism must be analytical. The imagery never evokes a feeling of, "How tragic! How sad!"
The major way that Elam moves from the consciousness-raising filmed conversation to a useful public statement about and attack on rape-to forging a teaching tool, if you will — is through the intertitles. Some of these are summary statements; they usually follow the mention of a theme or concept by one of the women on the soundtrack. Often the intertitles define the symbolism of the inserted filmed sequences. More often, they are heavily ironic, underscoring the false consciousness and everyday assumptions that are the major prop of rape ideology. Such assumptions make rape not only a "thinkable" act for the rapist, but for both the rapist and the non-rapist, these assumptions reaffirm and institutionalize the notion of men's social and personal right of access to the female body.
Some of these titles include the following, the false consciousness of which I hope will be obvious: "say yes and mean no"; "you're so cute when you're mad"; "it's because they like you"; "victim precipitation"; "she claims that she was raped"; "the woman behind the man'; and "it's your burden in society to say no." Other times words such as myth or ravish are defined with their dictionary — i.e., patriarchal — definition. There are repeated shots of the Illinois rape statute's definition of rape.
Frequently, the intertitles express women's direct anger and their sense of what should be done. This heightening of the women's anger and the resolution expressed in the titles, as well as the political analysis the titles provide, bring great satisfaction to women viewers. I have seen the anger expressed by the titles divide the audience, as Brecht said a good political film should do, along class lines, in this case along feminist lines. Women in the audience usually respond more vehemently and to different issues than male viewers do; and I've had women students call one title "realistic — telling it the way it is," while male students characterized the same title as "polemical" or "rhetorical." Elam validates women's anger in this film by raising it to a conceptual level in which that anger becomes part of the most appropriate political response. 
The film does not have a beginning, middle or end. There is a process of moving from a personal to an institutional analysis and of ending on a sense (not an answer) of what is to be done and what steps women can take. The film cannot be either received or remembered like a story. There isn't a main point or event that was led up to, no chain of inevitable cause and effect. Women exploring issues of rape — or indeed of the larger, complex subject of their sexuality and their relation to their bodies — need something beyond stories where either something good happens (the woman is "won"; she finds Mr. Right) or something bad (the woman gets raped or shot; woman is vanquished). Elam's film opens on to women's experience in a new way by its very eschewal of a story form. The only "story" is what the group explored in a social act of affirming its members' identity and of fighting rape and the factors that cause rape.
After seeing the film, the viewer will remember little about the characters, who are neither cinematically beautiful nor tragic. We will remember snatches of the told experience, some of the titles, and some of the symbolic filmed sequences The film has forced us to witness women speaking the unspoken, and the film itself is a rare cinematic act in making the unspoken speakable. It shows women in a community of women breaking through guilt, isolation, silence, and alienation from self. The women depicted in the film and the filmmaker's own style create a sense of women as intellectuals and social actors. They are doing — even in the act of conversation — rather than waiting, suffering, and sacrificing, which are patriarchy's notions of women's roles. Elam uses the film to examine and attack oppressive ideological structures and to reinforce women's sense of just outrage and their capacity to act. It is an intellectual film that has a role to play in helping women forge both their own identities and a more equitable world.
Intertitles from JoAnn Elam's film, RAPE
1. Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, New York: Bantam, 1976.
2. A further analysis of intercourse itself as reflective of the same power relations that Brownmiller sees operating in pornography can be found in TiGrace Atkinson's perceptive and witty essay, "The Institution of Sexual Intercourse," Amazon Odyssey, New York: Links Books, 1971. To quote Atkinson:
3. See Barbara Halpern Martineau's "Documenting the Patriarchy: CHINATOWN" in Women and the Cinema, Eds. Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary. New York: Dutton, 1977 (originally in JUMP CUT No. 3, September-October 1974). Martineau examines the ideological implications of reviews of CHINATOWN which ignore the violence done to the female protagonist, ignoring "the fact that while the male star only gets his nose slit open, the female star gets shot through the eye."
4. See especially Pam Cook and Claire Johnston's analysis of MAMIE STOVER in "The Place of Women in the Cinema of Raoul Walsh," Raoul Walsh, Ed. Phil Harvey, London: Vineyard Press, 1974. Also Claire Johnston, "Women's Cinema as Counter-cinema," Notes on a Women's Cinema, Screen Pamphlet No. 2, 1974.
5. For a further discussion of the differences between male and female oedipal development, see Nancy Chodorow, "Family Structure and Feminine Personality," Woman, Culture and Society, Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, eds., Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974; also Chodorow, "Oedipal Assymetries and Heterosexual Knots," Social Problems, 23, No. 4 (April, 1976).
6. Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen, 16, No. 3 (Fall 1976); reprinted in Women and the Cinema.
7. This paragraph reflects a discussion between feminist literary and film critics in "Women and Film: A Discussion of Feminist Aesthetics," New German Critique, No. 13 (Winter 1976).
8. I draw here on Peter Wollen's application of Charles Pierce's semiotic categories — icon, index, and symbol — to cinema.
9. In showing the film I have encountered two types of negative responses, worth mentioning here. Some viewers find the film visually crude either because they are hostile to the use of video transfer in experimental filmmaking, or because they do not like a film style that differs from TV documentaries. Another negative response, and it is often combined with the above response as a "cover," comes from those who do not want to look at rape in both personal and political terms and who thus reject the type of response insisted on by both the style and the content of Elam's film.
As a friend of the filmmaker and as a critic trying to establish a broader audience for women's films, I have shown RAPE in women's studies classes, film classes, and film conferences, and also had it shown to women and police staff working in the area of rape. "Naive" audiences do not seem to have much difficulty with the formal innovations; film students either like its experimental strategies or find it lacking in production values; people in rape-crisis work either accept or argue with its politics. Often this last group is looking for a film that would serve as an organizing tool in a specific anti-rape campaign. RAPE's open-ended form and symbolic sequences make it suitable for starting discussions, but it is not prescriptive in terms of strategy and tactics.
RAPE may be rented from Canyon Cinema Co-operative, 2325 Third Street, Suite 138, San Francisco, CA 94107 (415/3321514) or Film Makers' Co-Operative, 175 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10016 (212/884-3820); in Canada, D.E.C. Films, 121 Avenue Road, Toronto, Ontario, M5R 263 (416/964-6901); in England, The Other Cinema, 12-13 Little Newport Street. London, WC2 H7JJ. Rental charge — $35; Purchase price — $250. For purchase apply to the filmmaker, PO Box 41864, Chicago, IL 60641.