Please Do Disturb: She Stole My Voice

Today we turn our attention to a different kind of disturbing, with a look at Justine Chang and Armand Kaye’s 2007 film SHE STOLE MY VOICE. Subtitled “A Documentary About Lesbian Rape,” VOICE aims to shed light on the under-reported and ignored (so the filmmakers say) issue of woman-on-woman sexual assault. As documentary subjects go it’s a darkly fascinating topic, but the directors’ one-two punch of biased, sloppy reporting and astonishingly wrongheaded filmmaking reduces the volatile subject matter to a shallow, unfocused mess.

SHE STOLE MY VOICE plays almost like a feminist tract brought to life. In its introduction–which consists of a nameless female voice-over atop a blank screen occasionally peppered with black-and-white still images–the film decries the the matter of lesbian rape as a crime just as reprehensible as man-on-woman or man-on-man assault (no arguments here), but because of the nature of the act (i.e. no penis is involved) it’s often dismissed as “not real rape,” or taken less seriously by law enforcement, if the victims speak out at all. This thesis is supported by the sole expert interviewed on camera, the director of a DC-based rape crisis center, and text-based quotations from feminist figures such as Camille Paglia and Andrea Dworkin (some of which even pertain to the subject at hand).

Okay, right off the bat I have a problem with a documentary that assumes I have no regard for its subject because of my genital configuration. And even with the growing certainty I’ve stumbled upon an angry radical screed I figured I’d stick it out, if only to see how the filmmakers argued their case.

Simply put, they do it poorly.

Instead of using facts or documented statistics to support their claim Chang and Kaye dump an interminable twenty-minute segment consisting of anonymous, credential-less people who babble about the topic of lesbian rape in what has to be the worst talking-head montage in documentary history. Rambling, inarticulate, incoherent, and often repeating the same non-point ad nauseum this jaw-droppingly meaningless piece sheds no light on anything and essentially serves as an over-extended means to tell us RAPE IS BAD. (Again, you’re preaching to the choir here, people.) And wouldn’t you know it, the most ineloquent member of the bunch is recruited to share her own lesbian-rape experience–an anecdote I’m sure would’ve been resonant if I could’ve understood just what the fuck she was saying.

Apparently the filmmakers decided this verbal clusterfuck wasn’t effective enough to get their point across–gee, ya think?–so they opted to include a series of re-enactments to illustrate just how ugly and horrible lesbian rape really is. And it’s at this point I began to wonder if VOICE is really a girl-on-girl variation of FACES OF DEATH, using highfalutin’ academic trappings to legitimize softcore shenanigans–because the only thing ugly and horrible on display here is film technique.

For starters, Chang and Kaye have a problem with the primary act of conveying information to the audience. The main re-enactment, which serves as the film’s centerpiece, shows black-and-white assault footage as a background. In the upper left-hand corner of the screen we witness a second act of violence while a third, unrelated attack goes on in the upper right-hand corner. While these scenes play out the text transcript with yet another anonymous interviewee crawls up the bottom half of the picture like a particularly lurid entry in the STAR WARS series.
Exactly how are we supposed to process this information when there’s literally five to seven things happening at the same time?

But that’s the least of this film’s worries. What’s most troublesome is the fact that these sequences are pornographic.

And by pornographic I don’t mean that they’re explicit, though there’s certainly a fair amount of graphic nudity. I mean that these re-enactments do not elicit the intended outrage, but instead serve as masturbatory fodder.

How else are we to interpret these scenes? The directors present them without context or explanation, wasting no time with dialogue to jump straight to the “action” with startling indifference. A typical encounter goes like this: random woman walks into a room, strips nude, and heads to the shower. Her female roommate grabs her discarded panties off the floor and lovingly runs her tongue over them until she’s caught by the first girl, who punishes her by with some half-hearted spanking (as well as grinding her crotch into the other girl’s face).

Not only does this not come across as unpleasant (it’s more like a mild S&M session between two willing participants), but Chang and Kaye present them in the most palatable ways possible: the performers are, for the most part, attractive, the assaults are well-lit and staged so that the women’s bodies are shown to their best advantage, and end once the assailant has gotten their fulfillment. (Some of the early scenes have a token coda in which the victim sobs softly to herself, but at no point are they depicted as being violated or traumatized.)

Or what about the closing segment, which “dramatizes” a cliched porno scenario (a female burglar gets what’s coming to her when she wakes up the lady of the house). The establishing ambience, with its shadowed lighting and mock-suspenseful score, actually give a sense of excitement to the proceedings, further emphasizing the sense of roleplay. Once the rape begins, however, the atmospheric lighting shifts to harsh, unobtrusive natural light so the viewer doesn’t miss anything. Random close-ups of labias and lingering shots of breasts, both the victim’s and the assailant’s, aren’t exactly the best way to instill a sense of outrage in your audience; neither does preventing your would-be rapee any chance to struggle or protest but instead let out soft, muffled whimpers during their attacks–the same kind of noises made during consensual intercourse.

And that’s what makes SHE STOLE MY VOICE so disturbing, because I can’t tell which is worse: sneaking rough-sex porno–and poorly made rough-sex porno, at that–under the guise of a socially conscious documentary, or being so clueless as a filmmaker that in presenting rape you accidentally make jerk-off material. I gotta say, for a movie that strives to show how serious and devastating lesbian rape is, it sure makes it look like a lot of fun.

If you really want to see an effective portrayal of sexual assault and its emotional fallout I have five words for you: I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. Sad, isn’t it, that an exploitation film–made by dick-possessing men, no less–can do a better job of showing the base brutality of rape than a feminist documentary?

I’d recommend this solely for its train-wreck watchability, but seriously, this is 88 minutes you’re not getting back.

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