In 1998, Linor Abargil was crowned Miss World. Seven weeks earlier, she had been abducted and brutally raped at knifepoint; after the horrific, hours-long ordeal, she had to convince her attacker not to kill her. Watching the footage of her crowning, it doesn't seem that she's crying from joy — as she wipes her eyes, she looks slightly panicked and deeply sad. Later, in an interview, she says, "I'm just in shock. It feels surreal to think that — " She falters and buries her face in the shoulder of Miss World Organization president Julia Morley. "The tears are of joy," asserts Morley.
At the time, no one knew about her sexual assault. In the decade since, however, she's become an outspoken advocate for sexual assault victims. Brave Miss World, a new documentary by director Cecilia Peck, follows her journey to connect with and empower rape victims across the world and provides an insightful look at what can happen when someone in possession of courage, empathy and fortitude sets out to combat institutional misogyny and metastasized indifference to the suffering of women.
"Once Linor decided she was ready to speak out about rape and tell her story she wanted to document it [on a large scale]," Cecilia told me. "When she was 18 and had spoken out after her trial in Israel, she said to all the women in Israel, 'If I can do this, you can too, and if something happened don't be afraid to report it.' The incidence of reports rose dramatically that year and also several laws were changed as a result of what she did." According to her, Israel enacted a law that notifies sexual assault victims when their rapists are eligible for parole as a direct result of Linor's advocacy. "Linor wanted to see if she could accomplish that on a bigger scale," said Cecilia.
The film follows Linor on her journey to speak out about sexual assault, to encourage others to do so as well, and to dispel the shame around coming forward with one's rape story. This chapter of Linor's story starts as a website on which sexual assault survivors can connect and share their accounts — originally LinorSpeaksOut.com, now a part of the documentary's website — and becomes an international journey, spanning America, South Africa and Europe. At one point, speaking at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, Linor gives a speech through tears: "Rape is so isolating. Because even if you tell people what happened, they're afraid to mention it. So you're surrounded by sadness." It's evident that Linor sees a clear, causal link between speaking out, being heard and believed, and recovering. "I need to find a way to help women speak up so they can heal," she says.
Part of her mission to empower women to speak is accomplished through the documentary itself — in a series of heartrending direct-to-camera testimonies made by rape survivors across the world, which are interspersed through the film. One woman worries that her mom will look at her differently because she was out drinking the night she was attacked. Another breaks down crying recounting how, as she was attempting to press charges, the D.A. told her that her rapist was "cute" and tried to convince her that she "just had a weak moment." A blind woman describes how the police felt that she "wasn't holding up her end of the bargain" because she was unable to describe her rapist's appearance. In South Africa — where women are more likely to be raped than educated — the crew visits the Teddy Bear Clinic For Abused Children. "No one listens to us," a girl who was raped at age 15 tells Linor. "People feel like: 'Ah, she just wants attention.'" Linor responds, "Tell them, 'Yes. Attention. This is what I want. And if you don't give it to me, I'll cry louder.'"
I asked Cecilia what she made of Linor's insistence that all rape victims speak out — doesn't everyone heal differently? She responded, "It's Linor's belief that speaking out helps to heal and it helps others, so that's what she's fighting for. Yes, she did push some of the survivors she met with along the way perhaps out of their comfort zone — but she's a crusader, and it takes a crusader to change a culture." She added, "She's a fighter. That fighting spirit, combined with terrible trauma, gives her a lot of strength."
As a crusader, Linor has immense faith in the power of expression and in the need for justice. However, the narrative of her helping other women to heal and tell their stories is dogged by something more sinister: she learns that Uri Shlomo, the man who raped her (and two other women, neither of whom were able to get him convicted) is up for parole early. Linor's frustration with the far-too-difficult process of keeping a serial rapist in jail chafes against her fervent belief that coming forward is the most efficacious thing one can do and her constant insistence that the rapist and the rapist alone should always bear the burden of shame. After she attends a the retrial hearing of a Los Angeles serial rapist whose methodology almost mirrors Shlomo's, she breaks down. In the following weeks she starts to display symptoms of PTSD. "I'm playing like a big momma, which I'm not, and I'm trying to save the world," she says. "At night, it's inside my body — the pain of all these girls."
Inevitably, Linor overcomes her trauma and the institutional indifference that re-victimizes so many survivors of sexual assault. She's able to delay her rapist's parole, and she graduates from law school and begins working at the District Attorney's office — the same building she went as a victim on the search for justice — in order to advocate for rape survivors. "Linor's story is a hero's journey," Cecilia told me. "It's a wounded one, but a triumphant, courageous one." For all the suffering, for all the frustration and devastation in Linor's story, there's clear triumph. Maybe she can't save the entire world alone — but she certainly can (and will) try. Brave Miss World simultaneously illustrates the malignant tendency of those in power to try and silence women and how much power lies is in defying that imperative. In the documentary, when asked what her greatest fear is, Linor responds, "I'm afraid of screaming and not being heard again." The message is clear: if enough people to scream loudly enough, willful deafness will no longer be an option. And Linor won't be done screaming for a very long time.
Brave Miss World is playing in New York tonight; it will be playing in festivals worldwide until its theatrical release.