Every time I get invited to see a new film about rape culture, a heavy dread settles over me. As a survivor and an anti-rape activist, too often I leave these movies feeling wrung out, triggered, and frustrated — at the filmmaker’s fixation on making audiences and victims relive the trauma of sexual violence over and over again, and failure to seize opportunities to help viewers understand their power to make change. So when filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman invited me to a preview screening of her documentary Roll Red Roll, I can’t say I was excited about it.
I should have been. Roll Red Roll, which was named Best Feature at seven different film festivals in the past year, rethinks the possibilities for storytelling about sexual violence. The film, about a notorious 2012 rape case in Steubenville Ohio, is paced like a thriller, focusing on rape not as a sad tragedy but as a violent crime committed by actual perpetrators and enabled by their friends and community. Even more, it introduces you to the people — mostly women — who broke through the pervasive denial and minimization of rape culture and made sure they were held to account. I left energized and so ready to kick ass that I collaborated with Schwartzman and her team to develop a “Rape Culture Detox” action kit that you can pair with the film to fight back alongside us. And to celebrate the film’s recent Netflix release, I caught up with her to make her talk with me about it all some more.
Jaclyn Friedman: Let’s start at the beginning — how did you get the idea to make a film about the Steubenville case?
Nancy Schwartzman: I wanted to make a film about rape and rape culture that actually looked at perpetrators and looked at patterns. Steubenville broke and I was like, everything that we’ve all known and talked about and looked at and pointed at, here are all the characters writ large. When I saw all of the social media written by these boys… their personal lives were jumping [out at me] like ohhhh this is the kid who set it up. This is the kid who was making all the jokes. This is the ringleader who’s actually real quiet and not being so public. It presented an opportunity to really look at how this happens when the larger community looks the other way. And we could construct the story without it hinging and centering on Jane Doe, and that was really important to me too. Inevitably whatever we learn about a victim, it absolutely turns to judging her.
Did you never consider interviewing the victim? Did you not attempt to talk to Jane Doe?
No. I went to her representative (a lawyer) and I said ‘I want you to know who I am. And I want to protect her throughout. This is not a request for an interview. This is to let you know so you’re not surprised.’
Jane Doe made very clear by never accepting an interview from Katie Couric, from Ellen — I mean, everybody approached her — that she doesn’t want to tell her story publicly, and doesn’t want to be an activist. So even aside from the fact that the frame of my film was not on her, that is so strong to me, that is so her act of choice. That’s not her obligation if she doesn’t want to do that.
You’ve talked about filming this story as a true crime thriller. But a lot of true crime is really exploitative. How did you approach making something in a genre that goes so wrong around sexual assault so often?
From the top, I wanted to create a film that men would watch. I love the thriller genre. The surprises [in Roll Red Roll] are in the layers and levels of how open everything was and how awful. My challenge was, how do we build the context, so it’s not about that [the rape] is going to happen, which is the gross true crime trope of oooooh the victim is about to get victimized, but instead it’s about oh my god, this is how people talk about it, this is how people normalize it? It’s that discord of knowing it’s going to happen and being filled with dread for all of the right reasons.
It’s almost like a horror movie in that way.
This is a horror movie, because we are all complicit, especially the men in the audience. And everyone can recognize themselves somewhere in this movie. Are you the two mean girls who blame the victim? Are you the older coach who’s trying to get his boys out of trouble and you know, change the definition of rape? Are you the kid who’s laughing really hard because you’re trying to fit in? We’ve all been these people, so I think the horror is in how complicit we’ve all been. I wanted to flip the genre and not focus and obsess about the victim.
Did you know going in that most of your heroes were going to be women?
I knew Alex Goddard, my blogger, was going to be my hero from my first call [with her]. I could hear the cigarette being pulled, as we were on the phone and I was like Ohhhh hello! Everything about Alex is true crime. She’s an armchair sleuth. She calls herself a snoop. She says ‘I’m nosy. I know where to look. And if something stinks, I’m going to be the first one to get in there and look at it.’ Sharp as a tack, and knew where to look, because she’d been through it. She knew the town. Rachel Dissell is just this Midwestern, no-nonsense investigative reporter at the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, with a really affable face and Twitter bio that says “my job is to question authority. Send tips.” The fact that Alex and Rachel were [already] in dialogue was really fascinating to me. That’s when it started to get clear that they’re part of a network of women who are helping each other. Against huge systems. I was so honored to get to be part of it.
The reviews have been fantastic. Did you expect such a warm reception from the traditionally-male film establishment?
The reviews are incredible, and a lot of them are written by men who are very disturbed by what is being normalized in the culture. What I learned from those reviews is that some middle-aged white men are ready to challenge bro and rape culture. They’re as fed up with it as we are. Because they’re victims of it too. In a way, Brett Kavanaugh and Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell and these Republicans stripping away sexuality and women’s rights have moved some men closer to allyship than ever before.
Speaking of all those attacks, how did you take care of yourself working on this film? You took a lot of really hard content and made it into a super-watchable format for us. But you had to sit in the editing bay for what must have felt like infinity hours. Did it get to you?
Talking to people in town whose primary motivation is to minimize rape was really hard. I would need to go across the river to West Virginia or go to Columbus and be with Alex or be with some of my survivor ladies to just ground and be with the core of why I was making the film. Which was that I got to tell my story. For a much larger, strategic purpose. That’s so fucking empowering.
I did really go off the deep-end on all of the [self-care] things. Isolation tanks, salt baths, tons of crystals, eucalyptus, reiki. All of it. It’s my first feature, it’s independent, it required a ton of financing. Then there’s the nuts and bolts of filmmaking that can be very brutal and exhausting. But I have a capacity to be with this kind of material. I can move it around and make it into a story and make it compelling and make a really good fucking movie and collaborate with musicians and artists and graphic designers, which is so fun! That’s empowering. To sit back, and feel victim to forces in a culture, and feel like I can’t do anything about it [would be worse.] I’d much rather be getting to the heart of it, figuring out how to tell the story. That to me feels like power and privilege. And hope.