Israeli beauty queen Linor Abargil was crowned Miss World in 1998, just weeks after she was raped brutally. A decade later, she started a worldwide campaign to support other victims of sexual abuse and encourage them to speak out about their experiences.
Inspired by the young woman’s courage and determination — Ms. Abargil, then 18, brought charges against her rapist and saw him sentenced to 16 years in prison — director Cecilia Peck made a documentary, “Brave Miss World,” chronicling this remarkable story.
On March 10, International Women’s Day, the JCC of Northern New Jersey will screen that film in Ridgewood.
It was Ms. Abargil’s desire to tell her story and help other women that brought Ms. Abargil and Ms. Peck together. “When Linor was crowned Miss World in 1998, she thought there must be a reason why the worst moment of her life and her high point were so close together, that it must be her destiny to tell her story to other women,” Ms. Peck said.
Ten years later, she was ready to do just that. “She came to L.A. to find a team of filmmakers — and a woman director — to help her.”
After watching Ms. Peck’s earlier film, “Shut Up and Sing,” about Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks — the group was ostracized in 2003 after speaking against President George W. Bush’s proposed invasion of Iraq — “she liked the energy and wanted to meet me,” Ms. Peck said. “I sat down with her and my producing partner Inbal Lessner in a café, and we listened to her story. I was impressed by how unashamed she was about having been raped. I hadn’t heard that before.
“Rape victims generally talked about it with shame and embarrassment. And when Linor stepped up to tell her story, there was no #metoo movement.”
The next steps came quickly. After Ms. Abargil decided to speak publicly, she organized a press conference in Tel Aviv and launched a small website, http://www.bravemissworld.com, initially drawing several dozen followers. Today, there are 10 million.
“The press conference was the first thing we filmed,” said Ms. Peck, adding that the project did not yet have funding, other than “a small donation of seed money.” Ultimately, the film was supported by grants from Women In Film, Foundation for Jewish Culture, Artemis Rising Foundation, and the Fledgling Fund.
“Linor says she thinks that one of reasons she won [the Miss World contest] was that after that horrific night, it made her stronger,” Ms. Peck said. “She was imprisoned for several hours, and it took incredible intelligence and strength to escape. The film is a story of turning trauma into activism.” The documentary features women — of all ages and from all over the world — talking to Ms. Abargil about their rapes. Some had never spoken of their trauma before.
“Linor traveled to speak with teens in South Africa, where girls are statistically more likely to be raped than educated; she visited U.S. college campuses, where women described a campus culture that fails to take assaults seriously,” and she traveled to rape crisis centers and “Hollywood living rooms,” Ms. Peck said.
Bearing out Ms. Abargil’s belief that it is necessary to speak about one’s rape in order to begin healing, “All of the women we interviewed… said that being part of the film helped them in the healing process,” Ms. Peck said. Nevertheless, as she has learned by watching Ms. Abargil, “healing is ongoing. It’s one step forward, two steps backwards. For Linor, speaking out and helping others is part of the healing process. She is such an inspiration as far as perseverance and overcoming fears and obstacles. I saw how hard it was on her to keep going.”
One challenge Ms. Peck faced was that during the course of the filming, the former model became religiously observant, trading in her swimsuits for long skirts and head-coverings. “We weren’t sure if the film could accommodate this,” she said. “But it was the story. Every survivor needs a source of strength, and this was her way of coping. She said she’s finally able to understand the deeper meaning of life.”
“The film was hard on her,” Ms. Peck said. “It brought up her own trauma. The more she turned toward faith, the stronger she became.” And with the protective clothing, “She no longer has to worry about men touching her. She feels extremely empowered.”
After her rape, Ms. Abargil received immediate and strong support from her family. “Her mother is a role model for any mother in this situation,” Ms. Peck said. When her daughter managed to escape and call her, she told her, “It wasn’t your fault. Go to the police. Don’t take a shower.” Without that advice, “She wouldn’t have had a basis for a case,” and she wouldn’t have been able to put a serial rapist in prison. Indeed, the former beauty queen credits that advice, as well as her mother’s strong support in fighting back and not feeling ashamed, as the reason she was able to convict her attacker and survive emotionally.
“Rape affects the whole family,” Ms. Peck said. “It was hard on her father, both for her to endure this and to be public about it, but now that he’s seen the impact she’s had all over the world, he’s gained a better perspective. What she was doing was for all of us. Everyone. Creating a more empathetic world.”
In the years since Ms. Abargil has gone public about her experience, she has married and had three children. And while “she’s very busy raising toddlers, she’s still in demand in Israel and abroad as a public speaker on the issues of trauma recovery and activism.” She has also received a law degree, putting her in a better position to advocate for other women.
Fortunately, her husband, initially concerned about his wife’s drift toward Orthodox Judaism, has grown increasingly comfortable with it, after some counseling and therapy. “We thought she might lose him because of her religious beliefs,” Ms. Peck said. “It was like watching a drama unfold. But he did manage to accept and observe Shabbat with her.” Since they share parenting duties, he also holds down the fort when his wife is engaged in outreach.
Noting that rape is far too common, and underreported, on American campuses, Ms. Peck said improvements made during the Obama administration are in danger of being reversed. “I think education is most important,” she said. “We need more films and articles, to educate people and let survivors know they’re not to blame. The film is about the courage it takes to confront the truth about rape and to seek justice. It’s important to know that this happens to women, girls, men, and boys in every community. It’s so important to support and believe the victims of rape and assault.
“The first words should be, ‘I believe you. I’m going to help you.’ Not, ‘What were you wearing? Were you drinking?’ That re-victimizes them.”
Showing the film, she said, “provides a safe space for survivors to speak up and tell their stories.” So far, the documentary has been shown on more than 100 college campuses as well as at JCCs across the country. Inevitably, “Someone in the audience after a screening says to me, or Linor, ‘I felt so alone. I never felt safe to talk about it. Thank you for making me not feel alone.’”
“Shame and self-blame are still so great,” Ms. Peck said, stressing the value of “anything that helps a survivor know it wasn’t their fault. It’s a big step in the healing process. You can’t heal if you keep it inside. Call a help line or a loved one to share the burden. Once you speak and get it out of your body, you can begin to heal.”
Ms. Peck said she is drawn to stories about people who stand up for what they believe in. “Shut Up & Sing” — the film about the Dixie Chicks — premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and won a special jury prize at the Chicago Film Festival, Best Documentary at the Sydney, Aspen, and Woodstock Film Festivals, and was shortlisted for the 2007 Academy Awards. Among other films, she made a documentary about her father, actor Gregory Peck, which also garnered several awards.
“That film is based on a stage show he was doing in the 80s — an evening of storytelling, film clips, and questions and answers with the audience,” Ms. Peck said. “It’s a personal look at my father, my mother, and their friends. He had a wonderful sense of humor, Irish wit, so funny and charming. They were both extraordinary people, in love their whole life.”
Even more, she said, her father “championed stories that were both entertaining and had a positive message, like ‘Gentleman’s Agreement,’ the first movie about anti-Semitism, and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ He was determined to advocate for films that could make a difference. I inherited a little bit of that, and hope I’m living up to his legacy.”
After the March 10 screening of the film — which was nominated for a 2014 Emmy for exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking — Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey will facilitate a discussion with the director.
Erica Danziger, the JCC of Northern New Jersey’s program coordinator, said, “The JCC is proud to be able to bring together multiple Jewish agencies, synagogues, and community organizations to leverage each other’s capabilities and reach a wider audience. It is refreshing to collaborate with so many wonderful organizations and be able to bring something so powerful and meaningful to our community together.”
Rabbi Jennifer Schlosberg of Glen Rock Jewish Center, one of the participating synagogues, said, “When the #metoo campaign spread, we learned that there were seemingly more people affected by sexual harassment or violence than those who were not affected. This documentary illustrates how no one is immune to this community-wide problem. All of us are responsible to help eradicate it, which is why it was important to me to participate in this incredible collaboration among rabbis, Jewish organizations, and community resources.”
Other participating organizations include Temple Avodat Shalom, Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, Barnert Temple, and Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, as well as the Bergen County section of the National Council of Jewish Women and YWCA Bergen County’s HealingSPACE.
Who: The JCC of Northern New Jersey screens
What: “Brave Miss World”
When: March 10. Doors open at 2:30;
screening begins 2:35.
Where: Ridgewood Public Library, 125 North Maple Ave., Ridgewood
How: jccnnj.org or (201) 666-6610
Because of the sensitive nature of the material, this screening is for adults only. Pre-registration is requested.