Rape survivors’ stories told through virtual reality in new documentary

Rape survivors, up close and personal.

“Testimony.” CREDIT: Zohar Kfir
“Testimony.” CREDIT: Zohar Kfir

When Lucy was raped in 2003, about a week before her 19th birthday during her freshman year at the University of Michigan, she didn’t know exactly how to talk about it. Her roommates agreed that it was “rude” of the guy in question — a student-athlete who carried an incapacitated Lucy back to his dorm after a party — to not only have sex with her but to then leave his door open, talk to some friends, and eat a slice of pizza, all while Lucy, undressed from the waist down, regained consciousness on his bed.

But despite what Lucy knew was physical evidence to the contrary, the doctor at the student health center scribbled down that the encounter “wasn’t abuse.”

Lucy grew up in Michigan. She knew what happened to girls who accused male athletes of sexual assault. Crushed by the shame she felt from the conclusion from her doctor and hoping to move on with her life, she made “a conscious decision” to never speak about her rape again. “If I don’t talk about it, it’s like it never happened.”

Lucy is one of five sexual assault survivors (four female, one male) in Testimony, a virtual reality documentary by director and media artist Zohar Kfir that premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. The project is an inversion of what used to be Lucy’s mantra. If it’s true that not talking about something can make it seem like that something never happened, then the alternative — not just talking about it, but talking publicly, on film, for audiences everywhere — is insisting that, in spite of everything, it did happen, and no one can undo what was done.

“I’m a survivor myself.”

Testimony is a project I always wanted to create,” Kfir said by phone. “I’m a survivor myself. I always wanted to do something with the testimony of sexual abuse survivors, but I was scared at the same time. Then I realized VR would be the best medium for that. Using VR is kind of a commitment for people to watch the content — because when you put the headset you’re kind of blind [to the rest of the world]. You give your full attention to the content.”

With VR, a viewer becomes more of a participant; you’re completely immersed in the world of what you’re watching. “I wanted to confront people with those testimonies,” Kfir said. “Everybody talks about VR as a tool for empathy: the empathy machine.” You wind up “being close to those people, and not being afraid to keep on listening.”

“I don’t think a non-survivor could have done this work.”

To find the people who would appear in the film, Kfir started with close friends who she knew had experienced sexual abuse. “I first approached my friends thinking it would be the easiest thing, but I was surprised to find, they weren’t willing to speak up.” (She allows that her closeness to them may have, in fact, been a deterrent, and “I totally accept that.”) Once the project got accepted into the Tribeca Film Festival, Kfir had her deadline — she needed to finish in two months. Through a friend network and a Facebook message to about 200 people, she interviewed eight subjects and, from that pool, culled five for the piece.

“I wanted five very strong testimonies that are quite diverse in nature,” she said. “The process of talking to people and interviewing them was quite intense and amazing, and it’s something I didn’t expect. I’m not a therapist, but being a survivor myself, I contain people’s journeys — there’s this strong sisterhood and brotherhood emerging. If I’m a survivor, you’re a survivor, we can share our stories. I don’t think a non-survivor could have done this work.”

The focus of the interviews is less on the abuse itself and more on the aftermath: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dealing with the legal system, and the grunt work of survival. “The way rape culture is portrayed in the media [is] much more about the rape itself and [asking], ‘what did they get in court?’,” Kfir said. “But the people don’t get much exposure of how bad it is to deal with PTSD, and the health manifestations, and the anxiety other people go through. We opened the stage for survivors to talk about that.”

The survivors do mention the outline of the assaults — the age at which they were raped, or a few details about the nature of the assault — but Kfir kept those sections short. “From my experience, a lot of survivors do not necessarily need to describe what happened. Recounting the details is not beneficial to anyone. And I didn’t want this piece to become a hub for descriptions of what happened. I don’t want people to listen to the graphic details of how violent it might have been. It’s not pornographic in that way.”

“It was mostly about the process of hearing them. How do you go about your life with PTSD and overcome the trauma?”

What it’s like to experience ‘Testimony’

Kfir wanted to take the interactive elements of VR — typically used in gaming — and “incorporate the documentary aspect” of her interviews. So when you put the headset on, each of the five survivors is “floating around you in a 3D space,” she explained, almost like planets in a mini-galaxy. Kfir asked each of the subjects five questions that were similar but not identical. “They were more like guidelines, an open space for discussion.” Each person has five nodes, connected with a thin line, so you can choose your own adventure: Follow one person through every answer that individual gave, or jump among the testimonies.

“The design of the environment was quite challenging in that way,” Kfir said. “How do you design a platform for storytelling that deals with an emotional subject? I wanted to give viewers all the freedom to choose what they want to watch and make their own narrative with it, but also the ability to disengage very quickly if they feel uncomfortable watching something.”

“It’s a very slight effect I thought of as I was editing: People coming to life as you’re listening to them.”

How do you opt out? If you look at one of the subjects, they will slowly come closer to you and start talking. “Everything is animated in a floaty, meditative way,” Kfir said. It offers a comfortable place for listening.” If at any point you’re ready to move on to another testimony, or you need a breather from whatever that survivor is describing, just look away. “When you slightly turn your head — if you move your gaze out of the perimeter — they go backwards,” she said. “I wanted to play with that metaphor, turning your head away.”

The structure “empower[s] the viewers to make their own decisions,” Kfir said. “They’re becoming active viewers, so it might generate more empathy. It’s not like a DVD that you watch from point A to B with a fixed conclusion. You can do a remix of experiences.”

If you do stay with one survivor long enough, you’ll notice a change in their appearance: The images originally appear in black and white, they turn to color as you listen. “It’s a very slight effect I thought of as I was editing: People coming to life as you’re listening to them,” Kfir said.

A global movement

The first five testimonies is simply the beginning of Kfir’s project. She plans to launch a bigger web platform by early summer (it’s currently in the design and development stage) and expand the project to have “hundreds if not thousands of testimonies, inviting people to share their stories with text, audio, or video we will travel and capture.”

The scale will be determined largely by funding, but Kfir’s vision is a massive one: “I want it to be a global movement, to turn [Testimony] into a database of sexual abuse stories that you can tag, so you can see similarities around the world.”

Kfir’s last question for all the survivors was a hypothetical one: “If you were to solve this for yourself, not through the legal system,” she said, what would that solution look like?

One woman, Tanya, said she believed you should be able to report a sexual assault from home through a secure web form. “It is obviously important to go to a hospital to get a rape kit,” Kfir allowed. “But there are problems with a rape kit. They expire. And two people in the piece went to court with DNA evidence and the court said it’s not enough. So why go through this excruciating experience in the first place? That’s something a lot of survivors are not aware of. They want to regain themselves through justice but they end up being more crushed than the assault itself.”

Kfir hopes that, as the project spreads, she’ll hear more ideas from other people “to offer a place for change, eventually. It’s a struggle to do it, city by city, police station by police station.” And in the meantime, if her project can move beyond VR — which she acknowledges is a limiting, if exciting, medium, because people can’t watch it at home — more survivors will be able to connect with it and contribute in their own ways. “The survivor healing is realizing there are other people like you.”