Jessie Kahnweiler is a 28-year-old filmmaker, based in Los Angeles, who is best-known for her web series, Dude Where’s my Chutzpah, a hilarious and straightforward look at finding meaning in Judaism. But her latest video, Meet My Rapist is not so funny. And not so straightforward.
It’s a blunt response to her own rape that occurred as a student in Vietnam eight years ago. In the short film Meet My Rapist, Kahnweiler plays herself being followed by her rapist. In recent days, it’s attracted attention at a variety of outlets. I spent some time with Kahnweiler and talked about her new, somewhat controversial film, filmmaking as a profession, the choices she made in making a short film about this sensitive subject, and her audience’s reaction.
How is rape typically portrayed in film and media?
People just don’t want to go there. I mean I don’t even want to answer this question. That’s part of the problem. It’s a lot of preaching to the choir. A lot of what’s out there now makes it really easy for the audience. Like “yeah, rape is bad, I don’t like rape either!” But it’s not doing justice to the reality of rape culture right now. The conversation tends to end before it even has a chance to begin.
What was the catalyst to making this film eight years later?
I was in New York City last summer dancing the night away with some friends, when this random dude slapped me on the ass. It really triggered my rape eight years earlier in Vietnam when a man took my body without asking me first. When I told this guy his ass slap reminded me of getting raped his dick literally shriveled up as he ran away. The rest of us had a good laugh but the moment really struck me and forced me to realize that, despite all the therapy in the world, I so wasn’t over my rape. I got really frustrated with myself, after all it’d been a whole eight years and besides I wasn’t like gang raped or anything, I mean it could’ve been SO much worse. As a loud & proud feminist, I felt so much pressure (mostly self-imposed) to be strong and not play the hopeless victim, that I missed out on processing my own feelings about it. Though I had a wonderful support system in my friends, lovers, and family, I got the feeling from the beginning that everyone just really wanted me to be okay …so I tried my best to play the part.
It’s a very personal story, I’m sure very hard to make. Tell us about the film’s production and how you decided to make your rapist an actual character in the film.
The film came out of a pure fantasy. Over the past eight years, I’ve spent so much time talking (on therapists’ couches and in my stand up routines) and thinking about this dude I began to wonder what it would be like to see him again. If he would remember that night the same way I did or even if he would remember me at all. Well I don’t remember what his face looks like so the reality of schlepping to Vietnam and tracking him down was pretty slim. I was simply going to have to sort it out on my own. Making the film seemed like the best way to come to terms with MY own truth surrounding the rape. There was so much anxiety in facing these repressed shadows but I really wanted to explore that and run towards that fear. What’s the scariest scenario I could imagine? Okay, let’s go with that! By literally facing my rapist I was able to explore the complexities of our relationship and the role he played and continues to play in life. For me, filmmaking is the only way to find my own truth as I use my imagination in order to get real with myself. Maybe it’s not the most efficient route or the most cut and dry way to go but that’s never really been my thing. I prefer to get wet.
There would be no movie without the support and creativity of my cast and crew. From the initial script outline through editing and sound design they literally carried me through this movie. I was really terrified about the execution of the film ruminating “Oh my g-d what if people get offended? What if I cry too much or don’t cry enough?” But as production began I saw everyone brought their own brilliant creative vision to my story and that became my fuel. Every time I got cold feet I’d have an amazing rehearsal with one of my actors or the cinematographer, Jacob Gilbert, would email me an idea for an epic shot and it really hit me that this movie was happening whether I liked it or not. When my editor, Scott Evans, and I screened the movie for the first time, it just really hit me that even though the film is so personal it wasn’t just my movie anymore…it was ours.
What was the rationale behind not showing the rapist’s voice and giving him a baby voice?
The film is really about the process of me coming to terms with my own reality so I wanted to really keep him as a projection of that. That is why is he in every single scene because I wanted him to seem like a ghost of the film, much like he has been a ghost in my life. The baby voice is breaking through the stereotypes of how we label predators. I wanted to project my truth from the inside out instead of how society tells me to see it.
In the video, you tell your rapist, “I know why you did it. I’m adorable.” Has using humor been cathartic in your own healing process?
I did not intend to make a comedy but when I sat down to write this is the story that [is what] came out. I have found a dignity in honoring my own process which includes using humor as a means to understand and cope with my rape. It’s how I experience the world. Nothing is ever straight tragedy or comedy, life is far more interesting than that. If you find the film to be filled with exhausting contradictions welcome to my world! Ultimately, I didn’t want to tell THE rape story I just wanted tell MY rape story.
How has the reaction been to your video? From family and the general public?
Oh (wo)man, the support I’ve gotten is unbelievable. Everyone from my 94-year-old grandmother on the Upper West Side to a 13-year-old sexual abuse survivor in the Netherlands to a father of three in Los Angeles. To see people responding is so gratifying and will hopefully help to spark a larger dialogue. The fact that so many people won’t watch the movie because it’s a comedy or has rape in the title is so sad to me. Watch the film. Feel uncomfortable. And then talk about all of it.
What is your overall goal with the video?
I think a lot of people shy away from talking about rape because they feel pressure to have the perfect opinion or solution or attitude towards it. In order to find answers we have to actually start talking. My goal is to fuel some of those authentic conversations by getting people a little bit out of their heads and more into their hearts.
To other sexual abuse victims or anyone who has been affected by sexual violence I would say to share your story whenever and however feels right to you. There are people who want to hear your story. Well, I can’t speak for people but I want to hear. And I’m here in my neon leggings waiting to listen to you. My DREAM is to Google “sexual abuse survivors speak out” and have billions of videos to watch.
Someone on YouTube suggested the video be 90 minutes in length, has that been considered?
Why? Are you a rich producer? 🙂 No immediate plans to expand Meet My Rapist but I’m working on a few feature-length projects and themes in Meet My Rapist are definitely explored. Making MMR, helped me realize the influence my rape has had on the construction of my womanhood and I can honestly say I don’t think I’ll ever stop exploring this idea in both my life and work.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m working on a new web series White Noise where I immerse myself in various sub-cultures around LA in order to expose various stereotypes. I’m also fundraising for another web series My Boyfriend is Homeless where, after dating all of LA, I delve into the homeless community in search of my dream man. I’m also getting some feature-length projects off the ground, drinking lots of coffee, and practicing my Oscar speech. I’m REALLY broke and REALLY happy. There’s a level of danger/taboo in all my projects, but if something doesn’t scare me a little bit I don’t really see the point in making it. Before I start any project I always as myself ” Is this going to force me to be vulnerable?” If the answer is ‘yes’ then I know I’m on to something.
Holly Rosen Fink is a marketing consultant, publishing executive, freelance writer and theater producer living in Larchmont, New York.
Image courtesy Jessie Kahnweiler