Last year I reviewed the blistering documentary examining the Steubenville rape case, Roll, Red Roll. One of the first major cases to bring the concept of rape culture into the media, the Steubenville story remains a hot-button topic and director Nancy Schwartzman’s documentary was a must-watch for anyone who wanted a comprehensive look at the story free of victim blaming. The film is finally coming to theaters this week (and will hit PBS over the summer) and Schwartzman was kind enough to sit down with Citizen Dame to discuss her documentary and whether things have changed since Steubenville happened.
When did you first hear about Steubenville and decide document it?
Nancy Schwartzman: What I really wanted to do with this film was tell a story about rape and sexual assault that didn’t center on the victim; it doesn’t rely on a victim’s testimony or put the victim under scrutiny. What I felt was important was shift[ing] the focus on to the behavior, the perpetrators, the bystanders and the witnesses. I’m very passionate about this issue and I have looked at teenagers and youth culture, also how technology impacts teens and youths and I think all of those pieces come together in this film; social media, the football culture, and the ability to have a window in to how this was planned and witnessed by so many people. The only way we can shift the culture is to really look at it and understand it.
What do you think it is about football culture that creates these stories we’re seeing in the news?
What we can see now with the #MeToo movement is that rape culture and enabling of this behavior of any group of people we consider to be untouchable, it’s happening everywhere. It’s happening in Hollywood, in television, in the NFL, all over. It’s not just football and it’s not certainly not only that town, but the issue is when there’s a group of people [who] are prioritized over another group. Football is important because it helps kids [as] a ticket out of town or the town has pride in it then you protect it. It’s not just football; I remember reading about it in the New York City ballet. It’s like, “Whoa, this is a high cultural, beautiful artform” and men were sharing photos of women and talking really terribly about them. It’s the larger culture at play and any group that feels they’re entitled. And the adults in their lives, too, are letting them get away with it. That’s the problem, really.
What was it like going into Steubenville and interviewing people? Was there resistance?
Folks in town definitely had a hesitancy to speak with us but [were] also open. I traveled back and forth quite a bit. I got to know people in town and know what was happening at the local city council, or the local parade. It’s pretty much like anywhere, but the initial beginning period was really hard to gain trust because people felt like we were going to swoop in, stay for a day, tell a story, and leave and that’s not what we did. What I learned was that everybody was impacted by the rape, whether it killed the town’s reputation or hurt businesses. It was so unpleasant it shattered this perfect vision of town. Everyone was affected, so I think you can find common ground in that conversation.
You also spend time looking at how toxic masculinity is fostered with the coach and the police telling these boys they need to “man up.” Was that something you wanted to intentionally explore?
That was such a key moment. When I got those interviews and I saw that scene I was like, “Oh my God. This needs to be in every classroom.” If we’re talking about masculinity and also the pressures on boys this isn’t about demonizing boys. Who can live up to that? [To] tell children to be a man when the adults in their lives aren’t giving them good models. And what does that mean? Does that mean he has to be tough? Does that mean he has to take things without asking? Does that mean he’s not allowed to show his feelings? What does it mean to be a man? I feel that moment so perfectly encapsulates the conversation that’s happening more broadly now about the dangers and harms of toxic masculinity. When you’re looking at gender-based violence you have to think about gender. How women are treated or the way they construct sexuality; men are supposed to take it and women are the gatekeepers. That’s always part of what you’re looking for when you’re filming. That was such a moment for the film and we’re doing a lot of education with this film and that scene is something we’re going to unpack quite a bit in our study guides.
What’s so haunting for me is the photos of the room where the assault took place. You have this innocuous looking rec room with a little girl’s toys all around.
I love that you noticed that. That was so stark to us as well, so banal. Where does rape happen? There used to be this myth that rape only happens in a dark alley by a stranger. Nope, here it is. It’s where someone’s parents go out of town and you’re in a basement. It’s so chilling without the right guidance or the right education, without the right modeling of a culture that’s going to say if someone is in distress you help them. You don’t make it worse. You don’t laugh at it. You don’t step over it. Looking at masculinity and also the idea of bystander intervention. How do we intervene? That assault could have been interrupted at any point and that’s also chilling.
We all have this inevitability idea; “this is inevitable. It’s going to happen.” And that’s also not kids faults. They’re not being taught in school. I have an obligation. What is my obligation and how do I do that? Because nobody wants to rat on their friends and no one wants to break up the party. But, obviously, you have to and the whole cultural norm has to change. It’s been amazing to bring this out so widely. We’re in theaters on Friday. We’ll be on POV, which is public television, in the summer. But we’re having a hard time, frankly, getting it into public schools. I doubt you’re surprised. It’s such a disappointment but what’s really interesting is there’s a lot of fired up parents who are making it their business and their priority to push this film into schools as much as possible. We have a lot of private schools [which are] more liberal. But why it’s amazing that many public schools are either too afraid or too cautious but it’s happening under their roof as well.
Was there an attempt to get the witnesses on-camera or was it always going to rely on just their taped statements in the moment?
No, we certainly tried to talk as many people as possible a lot of times. We tried to get the coach to speak on-camera and certainly reached out to [witness] Michael Nodianos. Those two people, especially, seemed to have paid a price for what happened and I wanted to show some kind of learning and humbling and redemption. But people were really wary about trusting where the story was gonna go because we went with the truth and facts. It’s not pretty. It’s a very hard story, but I think it’s a very relatable one and certainly not unique to that town. The other thing we did when crafting this story that was really important, not just to take any scrutiny off the victim and look at the perpetrators and witnesses as characters, but to also craft it like a thriller. To craft it with that kind of intrigue that true crime has and the energy of football, youthful energy, because we were trying to also appeal to male audiences.
What went into finding and interviewing Alex Goddard who really blew the lid off this case?
She was incredible. I knew when I first spoke to Alex that she was going to guide us through the story. She is so terrific. Really smart and really caring and really brave. Alex is a whistleblower. She saw something and she did something about it. She intervened in the way she could from her home and her computer. It’s really important to show that everyday people can do things like this, to interrupt and disrupt something that, again, was just seeming inevitable. She was great. She was wary of the press when we first met but over time I gained her trust and we embarked on this journey together.
Do you feel we’ve gotten any better regarding rape culture since these events happened?
It is incredible, I think Steubenville and the story that happened there was one of many sparks that started the #MeToo fire. It’s the first case to go viral; it enabled so many people from the surrounding area to tell their stories for the first time. You could see that it broke this wall of silence in a really powerful way for many generations who had been fed up but were holding their stories in for 40 or 50 years. It’s important and an important moment that’s kept building. It’s really part of a deeper understanding of rape culture. Rape culture is kids cracking up, laughing their heads off, about someone being violated. That’s rape culture and that’s the core of it, the beginning of it, is rape jokes. We can see from this film how the language links to the behavior and I wanted to make something that disrupts anyone thinking what happened in Steubenville is okay.
What it been like having this be your feature-length debut during this climate?
It’s really exciting and an exciting time to be making films. The documentary community has always had a lot of women behind the camera so it wasn’t quite the “we need more women.” The doc film scene has plenty of women. But an openness to this topic is really taking root all over which is exciting. It’s great and it’s also nice to be sharing this film and having male critics and male audiences really get it. So often there’s this idea of “oh, it’s this film about rape; that’s for women.” And actually I think we crafted something that people understand “oh, if I’m a guy this is my culture. These are the locker rooms I grew up in. These might be the board rooms I’m sitting in.”