Four years ago, a 23-year-old woman, Jyoti Singh, was brutally gang-raped and murdered on a bus in India. The incident made headlines, and sparked outrage, all over the world. The details of the barbaric incident were unimaginably horrific.
Oscar-nominated filmmaker Deepa Mehta's latest venture, Anatomy of Violence, attempts to make sense of that incident. In doing so it also attempts to not only unravel the world's collective grief over the incident but the mentality that fuels rape culture.
An experimental, docu-drama hybrid, with a cast of mostly unknown actors, the film is an improvised exploration of the lives of the six rapists. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this September and is a far cry from the rest of Mehta's body of work. When it opens to the public this Friday at TIFF Bell Lightbox, the film, itself, may well cause outrage.
VICE: Your last film, Beeba Boys, was a highly produced gangster film. Anatomy of Violence couldn't be more different. What drew you to tell Jyoti's story?
Deepa Mehta: I think what stunned me, and all of us, was the brutality of the rape. It just felt like a typhoon almost or a tsunami that took place in the bus and spit them out after decimating them. There's a type of incident that catches the public's imagination and hits you in your core. Do you remember the photograph of that young boy, the Syrian refugee, who was washed ashore? It was that picture that galvanized action, awareness and dialogue and I think that's what happened with the 2012 rape of Jyoti. It just galvanized people. And it galvanized me too.
The film shows the individual backstories of the rapists – are these real or imagined?
They're imagined but the framework is real. There's a lot written about the young girl—what she liked, what she didn't, her background, and her family life, but there wasn't much about the men. When we got the cast together, I gave the actors the narrative was and we started it as a workshop. But when I saw them enacting the scenes, I said forget the workshop let's just film it. This is our film! The thought of going back with a proper crews, getting hair, makeup, big name actors was ridiculous. It felt dishonest.
Why focus on the lives of the men?
I didn't feel that it was right to revictimize a victim. But I did think about whether or not we should give them that space to talk about their past. To talk about the complete banality of evil. Was it a sensible thing to do or did it perpetuate the problem? I thought about it very carefully before I made the film. And I realized that it was tough but imperative because my aim in making the film is not to show that rape should not exist in society—that's a given. My reason for making the film is to show that society actually contributes to the rape.
Even though you don't show the actual gang-rape that the movie is about, there are many instances where non-consensual sex, or rather rape, is either shown or implied. A lot of it is extremely uncomfortable to watch. Can you talk about your approach there?
It was important that I tell the story of the rapists because not much is known about what happened to them. I don't know if they were raped or they were not but all I was trying to explore was, what if this had happened? It was sort of alluded to in some of the reports but it hasn't really been documented. So to do that was an extremely difficult decision but a very important one.
Well rape, and sometimes even sex, is still something that is usually alluded to and not talked about openly. Is it time for everyone to start talking about it?
That's why I made the film, because it forces you to confront the topic, whether you like it or not. Maybe because of the revulsion or discomfort or maybe because it shakes you to the core. Because (the film) is not explicit. You go see a film like Elle and that's explicit. There's nothing like that here.
Where do you think consent falls in this conversation?
I think consent is a very liberal idea. Its an intellectual idea. On that level (of Jyoti's rape), it was all about power. Consent is very civilized and we're not talking about a civilized crime, were talking about a completely barbaric crime. How can we intellectualize it and civilize it? We cannot. I think consent is wonderful but it's a word.
It's been four years since Jyoti's rape. At the time it launched India into what seemed like a feminist revolution. Since then there have been similar explosions all over the world, with reports on campus sexual assaults in Canada, and even Trump's comment about grabbing women. Has anything really changed?
It's an interesting question and the fact is that (in India) the laws were changed. And that is progress. But it's a monolith we're fighting and we have to become aware. We have to start the dialogue. I do wonder though, where are all those women who accused Donald Trump? Where have they gone? Why don't we hear about them anymore? I think (the media) is petrified and so are the women. Because they're not talking about the Republican nominee who's a yahoo but they're talking about the President-elect of the United States. Even as far as the objectification of Melania and Ivanka is concerned… This is a terrible time.
What have you learned from making this film?
It's strange, I've never thought of myself as an activist. What drives me to make films is usually curiosity. When I made Fire I was curious about what would happen if two women in a joined family fell in love with each other? What would the fallout from society be? I did Earth because of something Bapsi Sidhwa said, which stays with me forever—she said "all wars are fought on women's bodies." That's the sentence that made me want to do the film. Water was about religion, and Beeba Boys was always about a strange turn in immigration. Anatomy of Violence is about my curiosity of what makes a rapist. So, what do I feel now? I feel like I haven't ever worked so hard after a film. We don't have any distribution, or a PR machine. Even though I had an opportunity to do this film more conventionally, I think that if I had done that I would have been self censoring so much. This was much more instinctive. I think it is brutal filmmaking, like the incident. If i tried to make it more commercial it wouldn't have been that. But I think the film should be seen, and it will be seen, just not in your local cineplex. It'll be seen by people who will say "I get it."
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