This is the fifth year that The Pixel Project has published a list of powerful and thought-provoking films, documentaries and television shows that depict violence against women and girls. Some of these films were made for the sole purpose of information and education while others have entertainment as their primary goal while addressing important themes such as violence, rape culture, the conflict between tradition and societal evolution, and gender equity.
While pop culture has been slowly moving away from sexist and overly sexualised portrayals of women following a trend of more awareness of feminism, there are still those who are pushing back against the change, showing that there is still a long way to go before proper gender equality is achieved.
In this case, film can be an effective medium for disseminating the message that equality is beneficial to all, whether it be the individual, society or economy. The 16 films in this list tell harrowing stories of violence but are also portraits of survivors, supporters and fighters. We hope that they inspire you to join us in our quest to end violence against women and to be a catalyst for change in your own community.
Written and compiled by Anushia Kandasivam
Selection number 1: A Crime Unpunished: Bangladeshi Gang Rape
In this short documentary, VICE News explores how a deeply ingrained patriarchal culture, traditional practices and religious beliefs come together to create a tacit acceptance by individuals, communities, local leaders and the police of violence against women and girls. In the film, VICE News correspondent Tania Rashid interviews survivors, the police, activists, and even rapists to bring understanding to the phenomenon of pervasive physical and sexual violence against women and girls in Bangladesh.
Selection number 2: A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
This film directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy documents the story of 18-year-old Pakistani Saba who refused to marry the man picked out for her by her parents. She married for love instead and survived a subsequent attempted honour killing by her father and uncle. Unusual in that it depicts the issue of honour killing from the perspective of a survivor, this documentary is a scathing and eye-opening examination of the traditions that influence the law when it comes to issues of gender-based violence, as well as a look at how societal pressure influences women to ‘forgive’ their assailants.
Selection number 3: Be Relentless
This bilingual (English and Spanish) documentary follows single mother of two and ultramarathoner Norma Bastidas as she sets the record for the longest triathlon ever, swimming, running and biking 6,054km from Cancun, Mexico to Washington DC, USA. In this triathlon, Bastidas followed a known route of human traffickers to raise awareness about human trafficking, aid child protection projects and raise funds for scholarships for survivors in the USA and Mexico. Be Relentless is also the story of a survivor – as a 19-year-old, Bastidas was deceived into travelling to Japan for a modelling job that did not exist and ended up being sold at an auction. Years after escaping and now with a family of her own, Bastidas decided to use her athleticism for a cause close to her heart.
Be Relentless Trailer from iEmpathize on Vimeo.
Selection number 4: Gulabi Gang
This film follows Sampat Pal Devi, an extraordinary woman who leads the group of Indian women activists called the Gulabi Gang in her native state of Uttar Pradesh in India. The women wear pink saris (gulabi means pink in Hindi); the group was formed as a response to widespread domestic and other forms of violence against women. Sampat herself was married as a young girl and abused by her in-laws. After escaping her situation, she became an advocate for and supporter of women in the same situation, especially lower caste women who do not have a voice in society. Gulabi Gang highlights Sampat’s passion and strength as a leader, showing her unique way of resolving disputes and how she and her team work to empower women to fight against gender violence, caste oppression and corruption. The film sheds light on the plight of rural women who have little or no social power in a society where violence against women is pervasive.
Selection number 5: He Named Me Malala (2015)
This film about Malala Yousafzai, now 19, the young Pakistani peace activist and 2014 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, reveals the events leading up to her being shot by the Taliban. It depicts her recovery and continuing journey to speak out and work against opposition to the education of girls, especially opposition through violence. While it highlights the reasons behind Malala’s unwavering fight for gender equality, the film is also a portrait of a teenager who is both inspired and inspiring. The film shows her father playing an important role as supporter and a strong male advocate for her cause – he named her after a folk hero – but it also makes clear that Malala’s choices are her own.
Selection number 6: I am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced (2014)
This Yemeni drama (Ana Noojoom Bent Alasherah Wamotalagah) tells the story of 10-year-old Nojoom whose father marries her to a 30-year-old man and who asks a judge in Sana’a to grant her a divorce. Based on the autobiography of Nujood Ali, now 18, who was forced into marriage with a much older man when she was nine years old and directed by Yemen’s first female producer Khadija al-Salami (herself a survivor of forced child marriage), this film depicts the struggles of the young protagonist to obtain a divorce in the absence of laws against child marriage. I am Nojoom has received positive reviews from international press and is one of the entries for Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards.
Selection number 7: Jessica Jones
One of several current television series that is based on comics, Jessica Jones stands out for having a female superhero (the eponymous Jones) and for effectively portraying trauma and its psychological effects. The series addresses issues of rape, abuse, coercion, consent and post traumatic stress disorder with realism, with the stories’ noir quality letting the viewer get a visceral feel of the damage that assault can do. The writers have consciously avoided fetishising rape, and the viewer does not see it on screen. While the series does see Jones trying to use her abilities to help others, it also sees her struggle to deal with the aftermath of a sexually and emotionally abusive relationship, a journey that any victim of abuse can identify with.
Selection number 8: Mad Max: Fury Road
This blockbuster has a lot of things going for it, not least the heart pounding action that is phenomenally choreographed and executed. The focal point of this film is its female protagonist who never wavers from her cause and is strong enough to both take care of business by herself and ask for help. With its rallying cry of “We are not things!”, the film sends a clear message that women are not and should not be treated as property. The basic plot of the film revolves around five women escaping sexual slavery aided by another woman, Furiosa. This film has generated a slew of articles and Internet discussions on feminism, rape culture in film – it is interesting to note that though rape is a strong underlying theme in this film, it is never shown – and gender equity in pop culture.
Selection number 9: The Uncondemned
“In every single conflict, if you start asking questions, you will find that sexual violence is used. Why? Because it is an extremely effective tool of conflict.” Though rape was classified as a war crime in 1919, it was only in 1997 when it was first prosecuted by two tribunals attempting to offer justice for war crimes committed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. This documentary recounts the trial of a former Rwandan politician for his knowledge of the rapes and involvement in other war crimes through the stories of the Rwandan women who came forward to testify and the group of young lawyers and activists who fought to have the systematic and targeted rape perpetrated during the war prosecuted as a war crime by the tribunals.
Selection number 10: Murdered by My Boyfriend
This BBC3 film centres on a little-covered topic – teenage intimate violence. Closely based on real events, it follows bright 17-year-old student Ashley who meets and falls in love with charming and seductive Reece, a young man a little older than her. Ashley’s idealistic dreams of love, marriage, motherhood and her career are slowly torn down by Reece’s increasingly controlling and abusive behaviour, paranoia and violence. The title tells the viewer how it ends, but the BAFTA-winning film still conveys a sense of building tension and tragedy as it portrays the gradations of abuse, such as teasing becoming bullying and love becoming control and how difficult it is for outsiders to understand what goes on in such a relationship.
Selection number 11: Murdered by My Father
The online-only follow-up to 2014 film Murdered by my Boyfriend, this BBC3 docudrama follows the story of 16-year-old British girl Salma who is torn between her father’s conservative values – he wants her to marry the man chosen for her so that he can ‘die happy’ – and her Western life, which includes a secret relationship. Based on true events, the film examines forced marriage and honour killings among Asian communities in Britain – issues that many are unaware exist in this developed nation. Its portrayal of traditional values in conflict with ‘modern’ living will hit a cord with many viewers.
Selection number 12: North Country
Inspired by real-life events that led to a class action sexual harassment law suit in the United States, this film chronicles the life of Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) as she returns to her hometown after escaping an abusive husband and starts work at the local mine in the late 1980s. The female employees at the mine endure a constant stream of sexual harassment, intimidation, abusive language and other forms of assault from the male employees while their employer turns a blind eye. Aimes files a lawsuit against the company and eventually persuades her co-workers to join in a class-action suit. This film accurately portrays the ingrained gender bias and misogyny that dogged (and still dogs) the industrial employment sector, and how aversion to change and a pack mentality can lead to violence against the minority party. It also shows how standing up to what is right – in this case, a gender-equal and safe workplace – is fraught with difficulty.
Selection number 13: Palwasha – Rays of the Rising Sun
The first commercial television serial in Afghanistan, Palwasha – Rays of the Rising Sun is a soap opera style series that follows the life of a young woman called Palwasha, a rare female judge in her traditional and religious Afghan community. Created by Indian filmmakers, this Afghan serial uses the dramatic style of Indian soap operas that is incredibly popular in Afghanistan to bring social propaganda into Afghan homes, showing women in powerful leadership positions, addressing issues of domestic violence, and attempting to educate the public that they should trust the official legal system and not resort to serving justice themselves.
Selection number 14: Private Violence
This feature-length documentary seeks to bring awareness to the plague of domestic violence that women in the USA face every day. Told through the eyes of two survivors, one of whom is now an advocate for abused women, this film is takes a look at the intimate partner violence as an entrenched problem in a society that does not truly understand it and is meant to serve as a call for better and more urgent responses to it. The film basically uses the experiences of the two survivors as case studies to explore flaws in police and judicial responses, the obstacles women face when wanting to leave an abuser and misconceptions of domestic abuse.
This Oscar-nominated film tells the story of a young woman held captive in a small room for seven years and her five-year-old son, how they cope with their captivity, finally gain freedom and learn to live in the outside world. Though the woman, known only as Ma throughout most of the film, was abducted as a teenager and is systematically raped, the film does not show any of this. Told mostly from the perspective of the boy Jack, the film instead focuses on how he and his mother slowly learn to live in the outside world again and deal with their trauma, how other people react to them, and the complex feelings of happiness and grief that they and their family go through.
Selection number 16: What’s the Point?
Part of the At Stake documentary series by Project Change!, What’s the Point takes a close look at the practice of female circumcision in Indonesia. Although different from the practices in African countries – it does not remove the whole clitoris and labia – it is still an invasive and painful procedure that poses serious risks to the girls’ health. It is a widely accepted practice in Indonesia and believed to ‘clean’ the girl and keep evil spirits away from her. The film showcases the beliefs behind the often chaotic rituals of circumcision and the beliefs that inform and propagate this practice.
Watch the full documentary here.