Film

Why Mandi Gray Documented Her Sexual Assault Case

She hopes her upcoming documentary will help sexual assault survivors understand what it means to report.

Allison Tierney

Allison Tierney

Image courtesy of AlphaPR

Before the #MeToo movement, Mandi Gray faced her alleged rapist in court.

Gray, a PhD student at York University in Toronto, says she was raped in January 2015 by a fellow student. Gray reported the attack to police and to her school, which she later claimed lacked proper procedures for reporting sexual assault.

If you follow Canadian media, you’ve probably already heard Gray’s name, for it made headlines over and over in 2016 and 2017: She became “a kind of cult hero to sexual assault victims” for defying how our society expects sexual assault victims behave, as one Toronto Star columnist wrote. Gray made the uncommon decision to go public about what she went through, rendering her the target of harassment and vilification.

In a statistically rare event, the man Gray accused of raping her was initially convicted of sexual assault and given a maximum sentence for a summary offence of 18 months. Then, after Gray had spent months being subjected to the brutalities of a trial, her alleged rapist had his conviction overturned after the unorthodox wording in the trial judge’s decision led to an appeal.

Gray, along with director and producer Kelly Showker, sought to document the experience of trying to get justice through the legal system with an upcoming feature-length documentary.

Slut or Nut: Diary of a Rape Trial premieres at Hot Docs in Toronto on May 2.

VICE: Why did you decide to document your experience trying to get justice through the legal system with a film in particular?
Mandi Gray: I’m a sociologist in training, so a large part of what I do is research and documentation, and recognizing the importance of that. Also, my background is in advocacy: the need to take detailed notes, to keep track of everybody you talk to, to keep records. So, it was kind of a blending of those two… I recognized that this was a unique experience, that many people don’t report, even fewer make it to a criminal trial. So, I began to document what was happening to me, all the people I had to talk to, all the hoops I had to jump through. It was more so, I’ll do something with this, but I didn’t know what it would be.

But it was also crucial when I noticed that the university wasn’t supporting me in terms of being able to take legal action against them. So, that was necessary to keep all the very detailed documentation of everything. I’m a writer more so than a filmmaker. I didn’t even own a camera, but one day I decided I’m going to make a film about this. Just by sheer luck, the Canadian filmmaker Min Sook Li introduced me to Kelly Showker, and I pitched her the idea about how important it was. I reported at the time of Jian Ghomeshi, when it was very similar to the #MeToo movement—we were being encouraged to report. We were told that things are different. And that was the exact opposite of my experience. I told Kelly that I think this is a really important thing to document to show people that not to necessarily believe anything at face value. That’s how the film kind of emerged. Kelly also identifies as someone who has experienced sexual violence, who has experienced institutional betrayal. So, we immediately clicked.

Certainly reading about sexual assault through the media reports we are inundated with every day is different from actually seeing it the form of a film.
Absolutely, and I think that ties into not wanting to be Jane Doe, to giving it that human piece of it beyond just facts in a case or words in a news article or a blurred-out face on TV.

Why do you think it’s important for everyone to see this documentary, and particularly for Canadians to see it?
I think that it’s important for everybody really because Kelly and I made the film specifically for people who’ve been sexually assaulted to make an informed decision about what’s best for them. Alternately, the film is also used to demonstrate to people who think that reporting is the best option without really critically thinking about what reporting actually entails and the potential consequences of reporting. Then, on a larger, systemic level, I hope this is a call to action to politicians, to government to really examine the significant barriers that folks face following a sexual assault—whether that’s receiving medical care, returning to campus, returning to work, going through the legal system. There’s so many systemic failures when it comes to sexual assault, which I think we’re starting to talk about. But the real, real ingrained misogyny within the system is going to take a long time to unravel.

Still via 'Slut or Nut: Diary of a Rape Trial'

What was it like to go through your experiences with these systemic failures before the #MeToo movement and during the Ghomeshi era?
I think the time period is so significant… I was sexually assaulted months after Jian Ghomeshi had been charged. I had this naive notion that no institution would want to be the next CBC. I often heard from university officials, from police, constantly in the media, that things weren’t the way they used to be, that we believe people who come forward, we support people who come forward. Then, I felt like I was crazy because when I actually reported to police, they told me I “implied” my consent, that I was drinking. When I went to the university, it was disregarded as a case of domestic violence. It was this extreme contradiction. I think also having Lucy Decoutere so bravely come out and say “This is me!” also provided me so much. I really admired her. Having her in the spotlight really pushed me to remove the publication ban. I since told her that, and she apologized profusely [laughs].

What’s also interesting and is not captured in the film because it was too complicated to include: My trial started the exact same day in the exact same courthouse as Jian Ghomeshi. So it was really interesting to see the parallels in terms of the Ghomeshi case having this celebrity. His trial was on the first floor, and mine was on the third floor of Old City Hall. Just seeing the parallels in terms of media interest… Of course, media interest came later. I called it the “rape circus,” and I would still refer to it in that way.

That’s bizarre—I was also at the courthouse that day. In regards to media attention, how do you keep going with everything that you’re doing while dealing with the burden of that attention and the harassment that comes with it?
Taking long breaks. I know people on social media will kind of notice that I go in and out of having an online presence. That’s been pretty significant. I have an amazing therapist. I have an amazing community and support system. It’s not easy to keep going, especially when you’re constantly seeing so much injustice. What I’ve experienced is horrific, but it pales in comparison to the stories that I hear from folks regularly. That keeps me going as well, and that I have this absolute privilege in that I have the language to talk about these things and that I’m able to be public about these things. Just having a sense of humour and enjoying life too at the same time—I needed that balance, otherwise it would be impossible to keep going. It’s really not easy.

What kind of reform do you feel is necessary in Canada’s legal system given what you’ve experienced? How can we even begin to approach such a huge systemic issue?
Honestly, I don’t even know if reform is even on the table. Canada has the most progressive sexual assault laws in the world. It’s just that misogyny, rape culture is so intertwined with not just the legal community, but society and these assumptions about sexual assault. The laws that we have on paper are great, but there’s a refusal by the legal community particularly in this set of circumstances to acknowledge that they exist. It’s really frustrating, and in terms of an easy answer, I don’t really have one because all the laws are there… Even for something as basic as, there was a bill in terms of getting judges to take a class on sexual assault. There was a lot of opposition to that—that it would make judges biased. There’s a lot of pushback particularly from the legal community that makes me really wary of even how to move forward. Right now, the system works great for their clients, their clients who are men charged with sexual assault. So they have a vested interest in keeping it how it is.

I’ve kind of moved away from this legal reform activism and focused more on the grassroots level, community and supporting folks in whatever capacity that they want because I just don’t have a lot of hope.

Can you talk about your focus on the grassroots level and what you aim to do with that?
It’s not to say that I discourage folks from reporting, but it’s in terms of weighing out what your objectives are. If your objective is to get a conviction and have the person go to jail, unfortunately, it’s unlikely that is going to happen, just statistically speaking. I think that I can say this because he did receive a conviction, I think there’s a common misconception that hearing that this person was convicted will redeem you of any pain. I learned firsthand that that conviction doesn’t unrape you or undo any of the brutalities of the legal system. That was really surprising to me. I thought that I would feel validated, I would feel better—and I didn’t.

I try to communicate that to people, that we need to think about what your objectives are. Maybe your objective is to return to work. Maybe your objective is moving. Maybe it’s outside the legal system, and that’s totally OK. Maybe it’s a human rights complaint against your university for their role in fostering a culture that allows sexual assault to happen and go un-responded to.

That’s kind of what I’ve been working on with people. For one woman, for example, helping her get money for her case to go to trial against the University of British Columbia to create systemic change.

In regards to university campuses, I found that part of the doc and those institutions’ roles in all of this to be extremely disturbing. Can you talk about what’s going on with universities in this country in terms of how they’re dealing with sexual assault?

It should be [disturbing]. I think that there’s this misconception that because these are places of higher learning that they’re employing world-renowned experts, especially at York and U of T, which the film focuses on. But, at the end of the day, universities are corporations. At the end of the day, their concerns are their reputation and their bottom line. So, what they do is a cost-benefit analysis: Who is more likely to sue us? In most cases, it’s the man who’s been accused of sexual assault. They wrap that up in terms of privacy and confidentiality and with the hope that the person who’s been sexually assaulted, there will be so many institutional barriers that they’ll just drop it because they’ll be told it will be hard… They’ll drop the complaint, they’ll drop out of the program, or they’ll graduate. That’s the problem with universities: There’s people coming and going constantly, so there’s no record of repeat offenders, for example.

We find out in the doc about Mustafa Ururyar’s overturned conviction, how he didn’t serve a sentence, and this odd bit about the judge in the case having a “feminist bias.” Seems pretty ironic considering the whole ingrained misogyny in the legal system issue. How did that make you feel after going through all of this only to have these things happen?
Aside from the jail thing, which is really neither here nor there for me, my main objective was being able to return to campus and feel safe. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t serve his sentence. I was more frustrated that the legal system put me through so much in terms of kept me on the stand for four days over a course of six months, read out my phone number in open court, continuously asked me about my sexual preferences—just significant violations of privacy. Then, to go through that, the police didn’t do a good investigation, they didn’t interview any of the witnesses I provided. To have gone through all of that, then find out I would have to go through an appeal and the possibility of another trial, I was really angry. I still am really angry because Justice Zuker made that decision about him, and he could have written that differently so that it could have upheld an appeal. He wanted to make a statement and make a point, but it was on my back. And it was putting me through the legal system longer, and I had already exacerbated all the supports that I had. It was really frustrating, and I was really angry.

Is there anything else you want to say about the film and your advocacy work?
Well, I’m trying to get Justin Trudeau to come to the premiere because I think it’s really important for him to see it… I’ve showed the film at a few law schools already, I’ve shown it to high school students. I’m hoping to utilize the film to have a larger conversation about what it is we’re doing when we encourage people to report. Also, I’m supporting a number of women who are currently in the process of suing their universities. I wasn’t able to get my case to trial in terms of financial restraints and because I found out that I was going to be going through an appeal. I ended up settling before I would have liked to, so I feel really happy I’m able to support others who are able to take their cases to trial. I hope that sends a clear message to universities: We will start suing you to level out the playing field a little bit. I don’t see any other way to get that to happen, because it comes down to money and reputation—so let’s do this.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

'Slut or Nut: Diary of a Rape Trial' premieres at Hot Docs on May 2.

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