Laughing About Rape
Can laughing about rape change rape culture? An interview with filmmaker Jessie Kahnweiler.
“I’m a very special Holocaust survivor. I was in the camps with my wife and my girlfriend; and believe me, it wasn’t easy.”
Jack Polak recites parts of his Holocaust testimony with a cheeky smile across his face. Jack—a young, Dutch, married, Jewish man—had fallen in love with Ina—the other woman. And even deportation to a Nazi camp couldn’t get in the way of their passionate affair.
Jack and Ina’s story is the heart of the documentary Steal A Pencil For Me. I teach the film because it reminds us that the Nazis and their collaborators didn’t commit atrocities in a vacuum; the Nazis persecuted and murdered ordinary people who were trying to live ordinary lives. As Jack grins, we smile along and sometimes laugh gently at the complicated reality of his Holocaust experience.
So when I first watched the short film Meet My Rapist (you can watch it here) by director-writer-actor Jessie Kahnweiler, my uncomfortably-amused response felt comfortably familiar.
Interested in how we can engage young people and the public in questions about human rights—which includes confronting rape, sexual violence, misogyny, and rape culture—I invited Jessie on a video date. And she said yes!
It was your usual chatter. Y’know... filmmaking, dark humor, rape, “Holocaust survivor speed-dating,” that sort of thing.
I asked Jessie about using comedy to draw attention to rape culture. “What feels natural to me is using comedy to trick people into giving a shit,” she explained. “I wasn’t like 'I wanna make a rape comedy, like let’s really stir it up,' I wanted to fucking deal with my rape and this is how I deal with it.”
So the film is a form of testimony? I asked her.
“It had been eight years since I’d been raped. And I felt like I’d done everything I was supposed to do. Therapy, y’know—. You could supplement any other kind of trauma or skeleton or stuff people don’t wanna deal with. The film is about me confronting my own denial, and how I’ve moved through all these steps of healing. In this effort to be this strong feminist chick, I forgot to just be.”
I told Jessie why I thought her film works so well as an educational device. In one scene, Jessie brings her rapist home to meet her parents. In another, Jessie’s rapist gatecrashes a job interview and distracts her by popping a sheet of bubble wrap. At the heart of the film is the reality that rape and the aftermath of rape are ever-present. “Will you stop it?! Just stop it!” Jessie snaps.
Moments within the film are so jarring, and the script is so embarrassingly funny, that the viewer is forced to consider how we, collectively, think about and talk about rape and sexual violence. “I was like raped, but I wasn’t like raped,” Jessie smiles apologetically.
“You laugh because you’re uncomfortable,” Jessie explained to me. And I was reminded of teenagers who laugh at photographs of open mass-graves and naked women about to be shot. Laughter indicates surprise and shock and the failure of expectations—and learning.
The 'R' Word
As the film builds, its unexpected scenes reveal questions that survivors of rape rarely ask out loud, in part because our culture of “first-world rape” (as Jessie put it) and victim-blaming and misogyny force survivors to keep their memories and trauma hidden from view. “What’s my rapist doing now?” Jessie wondered out loud. “And does he remember me? And how the fuck am I gonna get over him?”
Rape is taboo.
I toured Auschwitz last summer, I told Jessie, and an employee of the museum told us that Auschwitz tour guides are explicitly discouraged from talking about sexual violence in the camp.
In Meet My Rapist, Jessie Kahnweiler does the opposite. The film’s genius lies within Jessie’s bravery and audacity to say out loud what we’ve been trained to keep silent. “No one here wants an angry woman,” the interviewer warns her. “Because honey,” her therapist smirks, “Nobody wants to marry a rape victim.”
I asked Jessie about the public’s response to the film.
“I’ve gotten both positive and negative feedback. Some people just don’t get it,” she said, accepting that the film doesn’t speak to everyone. “What I’m most interested in as a filmmaker is how people think the way they do and why they believe certain things. In terms of rape culture, people are like, 'Rape is really bad.' But we’ve gotta open up the conversation. The fact that people are offended by the title Meet My Rapist—now that’s a fucking problem.”
When Jessie talked about the thanks she continues to receive from other survivors of rape, it became clear that the power of Meet My Rapist has even surprised its filmmaker.
“I mean, you wanna talk about the greatest moment of my life? The email from a rape victim. Or the guy who is a father of three who had been molested. I’m being honest about my shit, and it connects with people and helps them heal. As personal as it is, it feels like this issue is so much bigger than me.”
Throughout our conversation, it was obvious that Jessie doesn’t have a particular message or specific agenda. “I don’t have any of the answers. But in my work, the fun is in asking the questions.” Jessie wants people to think and reflect. “I don’t wanna tell you how to feel about the film. That’s your job, to be honest,” she said with a smile. “Sit with it. Be uncomfortable. Do some work.”