The rape and assault of a teenage girl by member of a Steubenville, Ohio football team made national headlines after the events were exposed via social media. While the public outcry led to a criminal trial and opened a conversation of teenage sexual assault, it also exposed the role privilege has when it comes to excusing and protecting assailants (at the expense of justice). After finding the story the way so many did (in the whirlwind of media surrounding it) filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman wanted to expose the larger issues which has made this a landmark case in the fight against sexual violence.
Lesley Coffin: When did you become aware of the story and start thinking of it as something that had potential as a documentary subject?
Nancy Schwartzman: I probably first saw it when most people did, when the story ran in The New York Times. I was visiting my parents, I think I was essentially on my Christmas break. I hadn’t even brought my computer with me. And my father dropped the paper in front of me and said, look what’s happening in Ohio. And my first thought was, this is happening everywhere. What about this story is different? I was glad to see it getting coverage, but what was different about this story that made people pay attention. But what kept me interested was the social media aspect, it provided this window into the language these kids were using and the privilege these young men believed they had. There were a lot of people who knew about it, a lot of people who were part of the digital conversation while this event happened. So often these cases burden the victim to continually relive the events to earn the public’s sympathy. I wanted to shift that aspect and focus on who the perpetrator’s behavior. The other piece I found compelling was Alex Goddard. After my first phone call with her, after the New York Times article ran, I felt like this story’s been covered but what she did was so fascinating, people should know what she did.
Lesley Coffin: Regarding the decision you made not to mention the victim of this crime, this event happened in a small town where she is known, where the details of the events are known. Did you discuss how to give her a voice while giving her the confidentiality she deserves?
Nancy Schwartzman: Absolutely. From the beginning I wanted to make a film which did not rely on a victim’s testimony, and that pertains to any story I told about sexual assault. In this case Jane Doe didn’t want any participation, she’d been contacted by Katie Couric and Oprah’s people and turned them down. She said she didn’t want to participate at all and we took every step to protect her identity and tell the story without having her testify in anyway.
Lesley Coffin: You mention this isn’t really a unique case, there are stories of similar assaults having occurred. This is the story of a town almost as a microcosm. What traits, characteristics exist which explains both these boys’ behavior but also the social reaction to want to protect or excuse that behavior?
Nancy Schwartzman: I think what we’ve seen is, whenever a group is privileged over another, whether it’s an elite prep-school, star athlete, or successful movie producer, we do things which enable their success which includes excusing or covering up this kind of behavior. There’s been a lot of looking into these male-to-male alliances of protecting those who bring in money and power to build up the group. We saw it with the Catholic Church, we saw it with Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. I think of Brock Turner who was given a couple of months by the judge because he didn’t want to ruin his swimming career. And that judge was under-fire for that decisions and suddenly people started to take a closer look at judges. Are they helping boys and men like them? Would he have done the same thing for a young black man? And Brock Turner’s father argument “why are you punishing my son for a couple minutes of fun” really makes you think of the bubble of privilege people have.
Lesley Coffin: What was the town’s reaction to your presence there to make this film?
Nancy Schwartzman: I wasn’t welcomed, especially at first. This is a very dark, unpleasant story that exposes an ugly truth and it happens to be about their town. It isn’t unique to their town, but it is about their town. Over time, as I stuck with the story and was there longer people started to open up a little more. They started to trust me to tell their story. But, when you’re making a film you are noticeable because you ask someone “can we do an interview” and you must get your camera and lights and microphones. It’s not like being a print journalist where you can blend in a little more with a notebook or recorder in hand. So that can throw people off too and it takes a lot of time. Since starting this film there were two other big projects about Steubenville, a podcast and show on the BBC, so they got used to being in the fishbowl. And I was trying to create an opportunity for a larger conversation. Most people very, very close to the events told me they didn’t want to take part however.
Lesley Coffin: How long did it take to make this film?
Nancy Schwartzman: It took about four and half years.
Lesley Coffin: Did this film make you think about similar stories which don’t make it onto the New York Times and essentially falls off the radar because they don’t have the public outcry?
Nancy Schwartzman: In a way. We show the Anonymous rally because they represent so many of survivors of similar crimes who haven’t been heard. And there is the part where we hear testimony after testimony and hearing about this one crime you imagine similar cases exist everywhere and have never gone to trial. We wanted to keep the documentary contained to Steubenville, but audiences are reminded that there are multitude of survivors who haven’t had their cases heard.
Lesley Coffin: Such a big part of the story related to the role social media played in this case. Were you surprised at the kind of content and commentary going up on these platforms from young people?
Nancy Schwartzman: Yes and no. What I think is powerful about the film is we talk in broad strokes about social media and rape culture, and the way the film is laid out allows audiences to see it first-hand. The idea that kids would do harmful or illegal things on social media isn’t surprising. We know that teenagers don’t read the terms of service when they post on Instagram or Twitter. But the content was shocking to me. And the lack of empathy expressed by others was disturbing. The language was so awful it was chilling. Just the way they spoke about someone so clearly in distress. The journalist Rachel Dissell was at the trial and she said the parents were horrified to hear them read off because they hadn’t been monitoring the way their kids talk on social media.
Lesley Coffin: In terms of the access you were given, to the material in the film which was used as evidence in the trial, how difficult was it to obtain that material?
Nancy Schwartzman: We had to really invest in the story. I was preparing a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain documents of public record. But fortunately, a journalist gave me those documents. I credit that to them seeing the commitment I’d shown and trust they had in me to tell this story.
(C) Lesley Coffin (3/21/19) FF2 Media