Sometimes, when I watch documentaries on gender violence, I feel a certain sense of anxiety that does not come from the topic itself, but rather from the way in which the issue is tackled.
I wonder if their authors, led by their eagerness to attract attention and by the praiseworthy purpose of giving greater visibility to this reality, are mistaken in the way they depict it. Perhaps, when trying to reconstruct the recounted events through images, they fall into the lurid sensationalism of showing it in all its rawness without realising they are producing a seductive spectacle that, when resorting to all types of formal artifices, achieves the opposite of what they intent, making us accomplices of the violence they apparently condemn.
Where were you? It is a doubt that originated in that personal concern, in that quasi-physical uneasiness and in a series of rhetorical questions that struck my conscience.
In fact, I was afraid of making those same mistakes. If I wanted to create just another documentary and show its content through real life images, I would risk trivialising it and would end up making a false sensationalist reconstruction. However, I didn't want to play down a topic, that of gender violence, which needed to be constantly brought to our awareness, and that's why, trying to be honest with myself and with others, I thought that animation cinema could contribute to the visibility and denunciation of this atrocious and universal violence against women.
Documentary and animation. Two genres, one objective
If we think about it, these two genres are not so separate. We have all seen how in many documentaries, especially in those with a historical subject, computer graphics and animation are fundamental parts to illustrate some of the facts being explained. Therefore, approaching the documentary from an exclusively animation technique was not so strange and it also solved, with the stroke of a pen, some of my fears about how to tackle its content. Animation can reinforce the discourse making it, curiously enough, more real and collective. On the other hand, it fulfilled one of the almost essential requirements of the documentary genre, which is to give a personal and ethical vision. A documentary is by definition the exposition of a partial aspect of reality, shown in an audiovisual form. However, representation in animation is unlimited and, in spite of this, I wanted to avoid any morbid or sensationalist element and dodge any uncomfortable and unethical image.
The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek had defined “the animation image as a veil of the real”. In this way, we could understand that animation films distance us from the horror at the same time that they reveal it to us: the animation sequences become “recollection-objects”, to utilise the term used by Laura Marks, and condense the individual memory of a traumatic event. Every catastrophe is a trauma: it is the end of the world as we know it and, therefore, it is unrepresentable and inenarrable. In this sense, as the feminist philosopher Judith Butler also observes, every traumatic event resists a narrative structure. Therefore, it is a question of overcoming this epistemological and ontological obstacle through animation.
I knew that it was necessary to act with the rigour and honesty that the project required, and that is why I researched the subject for over three years. I was awarded a grant by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that allowed me to travel to Mozambique and the Philippines together with a psychologist, who was an expert in gender violence, and a sound engineer. There I interviewed over twenty victims.
The interviews were carried out under a strict self-imposed protocol of good practices agreed with the expert in gender violence. We considered the best way to prepare the questionnaire given to our interviewees, as well as the need to safeguard their identity, since most of these women were facing the risk of being killed by their ex-partners. This is the reason no videos were recorded and no photos were taken. We only recorded their oral testimonies and deleted any data that might have revealed their identity.
The interviewees could stop the conversation at any time if they considered it appropriate. They were much more important than the documentary. There was a firm decision not to force them to answer any question that made them feel uncomfortable.
After the exhaustive fieldwork described above, I considered how to best show those experiences.
A documentary is the exposition of an aspect of reality shown in audiovisual form and, as I have already explained, I had imposed a series of deontological limitations on myself: I could never record or photograph the protagonists of this story, but above all I had to show them without compromising their safety. At the same time, I wanted to deliver a strong discourse that would reach the viewer. A documentary that would be, for those who watched it, a challenge to learn more about gender-based violence in other parts of the world, that would highlight its common aspects, despite the distance and economic and social differences. I wanted to make a film more humane than many films with flesh and blood characters, painfully honest and far from being trivial, through the eyes of very different women but with a lot in common, women who were able to get out of the pit in which they were pushed at a key moment in their lives.
What I learnt from these women seemed to confirm Judith Butler's earlier statement that “every catastrophe is the end of the world as we know it”, but it was also clear to me that Judith Butler was wrong in asserting that this trauma is unrepresentable and inenarrable. I didn't agree at all with the latter: the women I had met were aware of their situation and had been able to overcome this catastrophe with much effort, they were alive and willing to tell their story if sharing it helped other women to follow their example so that these women could bravely overcome what they had already left behind. They had shown to me that it is not true that a real event, however traumatic it may be, is inenarrable.
The solution, as is almost always the case, lies in good science, although there are still many people who are reluctant to it. In the scientific discipline there is a principle that states that, if a fact or a theory cannot be expressed in a common language and in a manner intelligible to everyone, that fact in practice is most likely not to exist and is therefore false. It was evident to me that what these women had told me was real and had happened.
In the emotional discourse of the women I had interviewed, going through the traces and traumas of their memory, I had found some common denominators: they were women who talked about a happy childhood, without any sort of abuse happening among their family members; after the beginning of their romantic relationships, their partners had started displaying a subtle and progressive amount of violence towards them (and, as a consequence, towards their children); and, fortunately, all these women had been able to overcome the situation by leaving their abusive partners behind. It was clear that the trigger of this drama had always been their partners, who were supported by a completely sexist social environment.
The psychologist specialised in gender violence I worked with explained to me that many women manage to psychologically survive their abuse by seeing it from a distance, as if through the lens of a camera, keeping the memories as static images unconnected to them. For this reason, the difference that those women had in their story, between their idealised vision of life before their trauma and the events that they narrated afterwards, was a formally stereotypical difference and, therefore, representable. The idea was to overcome the obstacle of the impossibility of the traumatic representation expressed by Judith Butler, understanding it as these women saw it and understood it, showing it through their own iconographic stereotypes.
Having solved this last obstacle, I worked, on the one hand, on the selection of the testimonies in order to design the documentary part of the project and to prepare the basic script. On the other hand, I defined the graphic style of the animation that make up the visual representation side of the film, serving as a guide and reference to tackle the final production process. Afterwards, I was awarded two grants by the Valencian Institute of Culture and The Institute of Cinematography and Audiovisual Arts to complete the last phase of the production.
I only hope that the result is up to a topic so important to me and so vital to society as a whole because, if after watching the film one single woman finds a way out of the terror in which she lives, I will be satisfied, but if, in addition, one single child or young person takes good note of what can never be allowed, we will be winning the future.