The Rape Epidemic: India's Daughter Filmmaker Leslee Udwin and Former Malawi President Joyce Banda on How to Inspire Change 31 10 2015
SAN LEANDRO, Calif. — The gang rape of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh in 2012 was an event that shook India to its core and caused countless men and women to flood the harsh winter streets of Delhi for a month-long protest calling for justice.
Inspired by these protests, British filmmaker Leslee Udwin got on a plane to India to document and amplify the voice of the protesters in a documentary that would become her directorial debut, “India's Daughter,” which actors Meryl Streep and Sean Penn, among others, are endorsing for the “Best Documentary” Oscar award.
The documentary saw a week-long screening in New York beginning Oct. 23, a week-long screening in Los Angeles from Oct. 30, and a screening in San Francisco Nov. 3, with a more widespread release scheduled in the near future.
“It was a compulsion,” Udwin told India-Westby phone from Los Angeles. “I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if I didn’t get on a plane and go out there and make this film.”
Interviewing the rapists, their families and lawyers, and Jyoti's parents and friends, the hour-long documentary looks to answer the question, “Why do men rape?”
“To get that answer, you can’t go to books,” Udwin said. “You have to go to the source of the action, you have to ask the men who rape what their attitudes toward women are, who the significant women in their lives have been, and how they’ve been treated by them.”
Armed with a host of questions honed over a month with the help of psychiatrists, the filmmaker was able to gain access to the six rapists, with the blessing of the director general of prisons in Delhi, to learn about their views about women, their notions of manhood and their ideas about the roles of men and women in society.
“If you want to change these men, you have to hear what they have to say, you have to understand them,” Udwin told India-West.
In the documentary, Mukesh Singh, one of the rapists, insists that Jyoti was only brutalized, because she fought back, and women should not fight back when men rape them, adding that women who are out late at night are at fault for being raped.
At various points in the film, Mukesh says things such as, “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy,” and, “When being raped, she shouldn't fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape. Then they'd have dropped her off after doing her, and only hit the boy.”
Udwin said this mindset is not only a problem in India but is ubiquitous the world over, though it expresses itself in varying degrees, pointing out how one in three girls between the ages of 13 and 17 in the U.K. have experienced sexual violence while one in four girls on college campuses in the U.S. have been raped.
Udwin said she had assumed a lack of education had something to do with the rapists' mindsets, since only one had finished secondary school, and the others had dropped out of school around the ages of 12 and 14.
However, she was shocked to learn that their lawyers, who had the highest possible access to education, seemed to share their trend of thinking.
M.L. Sharma, a defense lawyer for the rapists, says in the film, “If my daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing such things, I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse, and in front of my family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight.”
The filmmaker said that realization was the greatest insight of the film, that it's not just about access to education, but the content of education as well.
“We are teaching them (children) only to read, write and count,” Udwin said. “We are only educating their heads, we are not educating their hearts.”
Now she is leaving filmmaking to work on a three-year campaign to design a global curriculum integrating human rights education.
“This is my directorial debut and directorial swan song in one,” Udwin told India-West. “I may return one day, but I will certainly die in the attempt to get countries to adopt this curriculum.”
Working with a committee of global experts and visionaries in education, psychology, gender and human rights, Udwin said they are designing and constructing in minute detail a global curriculum that teaches empathy, respect and moral values to children.
Empathy is not a natural ingredient in human nature, she said, and thus must be taught, practiced and exercised regularly “to help us understand that every human being, and not just us, has value.”
She explained how when women are allowed to meaningfully participate in society, such as in decision-making processes in the economic, political and social realms, both men and women benefit.
“This isn’t about pushing the men out,” Udwin asserted, “It’s about bringing women in.”
Currently, Udwin said, we are encouraging a rape culture and the rapists are a product and reflection of “what we have taught them and allowed them and encouraged them to think.”
“We may as well bloody well give them rapist's manuals when they hit puberty,” she said. “We know they’re watching pornography, which we know dehumanizes women.”
The filmmaker pointed to the incident a few weeks ago when the Indian government lifted a ban it had placed on roughly 900 pornography Web sites after one week of outrage on social media.
“Within one week, the government gave them back their pornography sites,” Udwin said. “Pornography, which is so responsible for the objectification, devaluation and violation of girls’ rights across the world.”
At the same time, her own documentary has been banned in India since March 5, shortly before it was supposed to premiere on TV March 8.
“What kind of values, what kind of priorities, what kind of message does that send out to the world?” Udwin asked.
She was told the film was banned because it “would lead to a disruption of law and order” and cause protests. Two Indian activists are petitioning to have the ban lifted on Udwin's behalf since she cannot petition the government herself as a non-Indian citizen.
Outside of India, the filmmaker explained to India-West how “India's Daughter” has been having a dramatic impact on people, bringing them to confess their own accounts of raping or being raped.
Udwin recalled how at one screening in Brazil, a man came up to her and told her that he was one human being before seeing the film and another afterward and wanted to help.
After receiving a few suggestions, the man, who is the head of personnel at a large IT company comprised mostly of men, has started hosting workshops and bringing in female experts who can talk about “what it is to feel completely undervalued, to be objectified, (and) to see their own image in these porn sites.”
Everyone can do something, but the most important thing, Udwin said, is to keep the conversation going.