I remember the first time I read Dorothy Allison’s “River of Names,” that shocking recount of a childhood of poverty, violence, and sexual trauma as the narrator tells you about the myriads of cousins in the South Carolina that never gets shown in all the romanticized southern films and tales. The character has moved away from her past, into a new life, with a new love. And yet the scars continue to burn when her middle-class girlfriend doesn’t seem to understand. When I see pundits on TV talking about a case regarding sexual assault, I think about this short story, because we’re all like the narrator’s significant other, trying to understand while at the same time hoping we don’t have to talk about the upsetting parts anymore.
It’s hard to talk about rape, whether we’ve experienced it or not. When it hasn’t happened to us it’s easier to think about it as an excerpt in a work of fiction. But when someone we love is caught in the aftermath of sexual assault, we’re clueless. We want them to recover, but cannot fathom how this can happen. As for the victims, how can they find healing when the world refuses to listen? How can they ever process when the world is trying to rush them or making them relive it over and over? What happens when those meant to provide support, perpetuate the violence through their words and lack of empathy?
The Light of the Moon is a film about the life of a woman in the aftermath of sexual assault. Bonnie, played by Stephanie Beatriz from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, is out with friends one night when on her way home she’s dragged into an alley and raped by a stranger. As she goes through the motions, police officers, social workers, and others intended to be her advocates ask her the usual,
“Why were you alone?"
“How much did you have to drink?”
“Why wasn’t your boyfriend with you?”
But the real crisis proves to be at home with her boyfriend, Matt. While Bonnie tries to move on and go back to her everyday life, her significant other tip-toes around her, suffocating the space between them. Every act of attempted tenderness and love becomes a brick that builds a wall between the couple. We rarely see this domestic side of sexual violence. Films usually focus on the moment someone is raped, the courtroom drama, and even the entirely fantastical moment when the victim exacts revenge on her perpetrator. According to the film’s director and screenwriter, Jessica Thompson, this last part was what lead her to create this movie. As she explained in an interview with Women and Hollywood, during the presentation of the film at South by Southwest Film Festival, “I was sick of seeing assault overused in mainstream media — usually by male writers — as a mere plot device and it was not explored in an honest and real way.”
This is probably a difficult film to watch for any of us because we’re all at risk of being in a situation like this. This isn’t a story where we can comfortably remove ourselves, and perhaps that’s what makes it so important. There’s no use for marches, protests, hashtags, and slogans denouncing rape and sexual violence when we’re all indifferent to victims, constantly looking for reason why it happened to them. We can all be guilty of acting like the officer taking Bonnie’s statement, the social worker who’s seen it so many times that she’s normalized this type of attack, or we might even like Matt, who ends up putting his girlfriends needs and pain on the side to focus on how this is making him feel.
Not every film is meant to simply entertain. This medium, like the other arts, is intended to open dialogues we’ve shut down. It’s meant to erupt feelings within us, as well as be a catalyst to leads us towards true activism and action, rather than passive denouncements.