Filmmaker: Tod Lending
One in three Native American women will experience sexual abuse at some point in their lifetime. That is more than twice the national average. And for the women of Alaska, the US state with the highest incidence of rape, the situation is particularly bleak.
Donna Erikson is a Native Alaskan woman and a survivor of sexual abuse. She, and those who share this devastating history, are now embracing the transformative power of lifting the burden of silence within their community by speaking out about sexual assault.
In Burden of Silence we hear her story and see, through the work of a Native Alaskan state trooper, the challenging reality of law enforcement for a crime that is so frequently hushed up by victim and victimiser alike.
As a director, there are those stories you develop because you have a passion for the issue and the people you are filming. Then there are those stories that you develop because they have come to you as an assignment. This latest film, Burden of Silence, came to me as the latter. Some assignments stay an assignment, but others become your passion. Fortunately, Burden of Silence evolved from an assignment into a passion.
At the outset I had my trepidations about taking on this assignment. The assignment was to develop a story that would look at the issue of sexual abuse among Native American Indian populations because they have the highest rates of abuse in the country.
In 1992, I was on assignment for Oprah Winfrey's company, Harpo Studios, researching and developing one of the segments for an ABC Afterschool Special documentary that focused on young peoples' perspectives on racism. We were looking at the issue from every imaginable angle and one of the stories was about how Native American Indian youth were experiencing racism on the Lone Pine Reservation in South Dakota.
It was one of the most difficult assignments I had ever undertaken because of the cultural and psychological barriers I had to try to penetrate in order to get young people on the reservation to talk about their experiences. It was considered culturally inappropriate - a sign of weakness - to talk about one's problems, fears, wounds and pain. And because I am white, there was little to no trust from the start. So when I accepted the assignment to look at sexual abuse among Native American Indian populations I had serious concerns about access.
My first step was to focus on the Native American culture but from a part of the country that has not been explored much from a documentary perspective. Alaska, as a state, also faces the highest rates of sexual abuse, a fact that most people are unaware of. I then hired my good friend and colleague, Bhagyashree RaoRane, to co-produce. She is a wonderful woman from India who I knew would have the best chance of establishing a rapport with the women we were going to film. I decided it would be best for Bhagyashree to conduct the interviews because she is female, non-Western and multi-cultural, and she has had her own personal experiences with sexual abuse. Moreover, she is a very smart young lady and a wonderful interviewer. My role was to shoot the film and direct.
It was not easy to reach people because of how remote most of the villages are and also because it was the summer when most people are performing subsistence activities like hunting and fishing out in the wilderness so that they will have food for the winter. We also had to jump through some hoops with the Alaska State Troopers office in order to gain access to one of their female troopers who we wanted to include in the film. When people, especially those in a law enforcement agency, hear that you are doing a project for Al Jazeera, more than a few eyebrows are raised. But somehow we won their trust and they provided us with full access to Trooper Anne Sears, a Native Alaskan who is one of the women in our film.
The warmth and openness that we received from the people we decided to profile was remarkable. This experience was the complete opposite of what I had experienced at Lone Pine. We met women who wanted to tell us their stories of pain and healing, sometimes stories that they had never shared before.
The Eskimo people are much more open and accepting of outsiders. Rather than seek ways to be more isolated, we felt they were looking for ways to connect with outsiders - even a white guy like myself! We were also fortunate to be introduced to the women we interviewed by other women they trusted. It was through this chain of one woman knowing and trusting another that we were offered access to the hearts and souls of the women we interviewed.
Unlike my other films, Burden of Silence is a film driven by interview material and the willingness of people to openly discuss their experiences. We relied heavily on our subjects to tell compelling stories of their abuse and road to healing. Through their stories we provided an insight not only into the emotional and psychological experience of sexual abuse, but, just as importantly, into the cultural and social reasons why sexual abuse is so prevalent in their families and communities.
Unfortunately, sexual abuse is a problem that is prevalent throughout the world. Our first hope is that Burden of Silence will open the doors for Native American Indian communities to discuss a topic that is painful and very stigmatised. Secondly, we hope this film will catalyse discussion and open debate, exploration and reflection among women, men and teens from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
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