Victims reclaim their own narratives at Sundance 2019

If the premise of Pippa Bianco’s Share feels depressingly familiar – girl wakes up with no memory of the previous night, until video surfaces of her own assault – the film is notable for what it doesn’t do.

It doesn’t show us the full videos Mandy (Rhianne Barreto) received. Nor the hateful comments and texts she started getting afterward. It offers few concrete clues or details about what might have been done to her. It’s not especially interested in the boys who were there that night, or what their motivations might have been.

SEE ALSO: 5 things to know from this year’s Sundance Film Festival

What it does instead is prioritize Mandy’s subjective experience of the fallout, in all of its confusion and disorientation. Scenes linger in a depressive funk, or cut away at pivotal moments. Others separate sound and image to signal her increasing sense of dissociation. A few even play out like horror movies, minus the cathartic scares. 

It’s an alienating and often frustrating watch, and that’s exactly the point: This is what Mandy’s headspace feels like right now. Share makes us live through the emotional fallout with her, with scant possibility of escaping into a broader, more superficially “objective” point-of-view. She is the focus of this story, not her assailant(s) or the crimes committed against her. 

In that goal, Share was not alone at this year’s Sundance. Two years after a snowy Women’s March in Park City, the festival presented a slate full of projects that put control of sexual abuse narratives back into the hands of its victims – including one about Harvey Weinstein, himself a former Sundance fixture.

Director Ursula Macfarlane and actress Rosanna Arquette were among those at the Sundance premiere of Untouchable.

Director Ursula Macfarlane and actress Rosanna Arquette were among those at the Sundance premiere of Untouchable.

Image: Sundance Institute

Untouchable‘s approach to sexual trauma couldn’t be more different from Share‘s, but their goals are simpatico: Both want you to think about the women harmed by these injustices, rather than the men perpetrating them. 

The documentary puts Weinstein’s victims in front of the camera to speak for themselves – a powerful gesture in itself, even if the stories themselves are all familiar from the pages of The New Yorker or The New York Times. It can be easy, reading an article, to think of the names in them as abstractions; it’s much harder to deny an individual’s humanity when she’s looking directly at you through the camera with tears in her eyes and a quaver in her voice. 

Meanwhile, Weinstein himself gets no say in how he’s portrayed, since he’s never interviewed. So the power rests entirely in the hands of his survivors and his former colleagues and acquaintances – with assistance from director Ursula Macfarlane and her team. Naturally, they’re more interested in plumbing their own experiences than in trying to analyze his. 

When Untouchable ends, we’re left thinking about the women he terrorized, the consequences they’ve suffered, the institutions that let them down, the silent victims who haven’t spoken out, the young women and men who might yet be protected if only the rest of us would commit to changing the system. Weinstein recedes from focus. He’s the setting of this movie, not the subject.

It’s a tough needle to thread, and not every film that attempts it is so successful. On paper, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile seemed to be a narrative feature in a similar vein, revisiting Ted Bundy through the eyes of his girlfriend, Liz (Lily Collins). But the film keeps sidelining her perspective in favor of watching Zac Efron play Bundy’s greatest hits.

By the real Liz’s account, Bundy treated her in ways that could be described as abusive, and even tried to kill her at one point. Yet she stayed with him. Surely there’s a story to be told here about why Liz found Ted so hard to shake, or why other women, like his later girlfriend Carol, were so drawn to him, or what it might feel like to realize that the man you thought you loved was a monster.

Liz becomes the supporting character in what was supposed to be her side of the story. 

But Extremely Wicked is too taken with Ted to consider such questions, even though it’s ostensibly from Liz’s point of view. While he soaks in the spotlight, Liz’s emotional arc, which is almost entirely reactive, is largely explained in dialogue, rather than developed organically. Carol and the other women in Ted’s orbit merit even less attention.

The perspective does shift back to Liz in the final moments of the film. She visits Ted in jail, finally taking charge to demand that he admit what he did. But it’s too little, too late. Liz has become the supporting character in what was supposed to be her side of the story. 

At least Extremely Wicked tried, I guess. If nothing else, it (along with the companion docuseries, also by director Joe Berlinger) has given us a reason to talk again about our glorification of a literally murderous misogynist, and about true crime’s responsibility to real victims. And those conversations aren’t going away.

Elsewhere at Sundance, the docuseries Lorena and Leaving Neverland reassessed two other major news stories from the not-so-distant past: Lorena Bobbitt’s attack against her husband, and the child molestation accusations against Michael Jackson. 

While this reporter has, unfortunately, seen neither, both seem poised to frame those figures in a new light. Bobbitt, once the subject of punchlines, has become the subject of interviews and thinkpieces that reframe her as a survivor of domestic violence. Jackson’s legacy, always hotly debated thanks to the persistent allegations of abuse, seems poised to come up for debate yet again.

These perspectives aren’t entirely new, of course. There have always been stories about women who survived bad men, some shouted from the big screen and some whispered at parties. There are people who understood Bobbitt’s tale as a tragedy from the beginning, and ones who never stopped believing Jackson’s victims. 

But these films and shows are of a piece with the awakening that’s occurred over the past couple of years, as mainstream society started to reassess how we see stories about women, power, and abuse. We can’t change what happened to these victims, or guarantee that no one will ever become one again.

We can, however, decide which stories we listen to, and how we listen to them, and how we process them. We can choose to ignore the abusers and focus our energies on the abused instead. And after taking them in, we can decide what we’re going to do next. 

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