From Finding Neverland to Surviving R. Kelly, there’s been a recent spate of unflinching documentaries about sexual assault. The latest, Roll Red Roll, might be the most infuriating and difficult to digest, because it documents almost in real-time the horrific gang rape committed by high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio in August of 2012. After watching it, you’ll need to talk about it with someone, and who better than filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman, who will appear at three post-screening discussions at Film Forum this weekend.
While the Michael Jackson and R. Kelly documentaries focus intently on the testimony of the musicians’ accusers, Roll Red Roll decentralizes the victim narrative in favor of what Schwartzman, in her director’s statement, describes as “a film about rape that looks at the perpetrators, bystanders and witnesses– and the larger communities and institutions that enable rape.”
Years later, the circumstances of the incident are hard to forget: After becoming blackout drunk at a party, a 16-year-old woman was driven by four fellow high schoolers to a basement rec room where she was stripped of her clothing and penetrated orally and digitally by two of the young men while she was incapacitated. The horror of the crime was compounded when witnesses shared photos and video of it with their friends and even on social media, gleefully touting it as evidence of a “sloppy” party and shaming the helpless victim in the process. Texts and tweets quoted throughout the documentary show the kind of callousness you’d find in the darkest corners of Reddit and 4Chan. Read one tweet: “The song of the night is ‘Rape Me’ by Nirvana.”
Because Schwartzman was a varsity athlete herself, she takes an interest in the Friday Night Lights culture that drove the two football players to commit the crime with such bravado, and caused their coach to protect them. (In police interrogation footage, the coach tells detectives why he didn’t so much as discipline the alleged perpetrators for drinking: He didn’t want to make them look guilty before their day in court.) But Roll Red Roll is more than merely an indictment of the kind of toxic masculinity that has existed throughout time. “The behavior wasn’t unfamiliar to me,” writes Schwartzman, “but the social media platform was new. I wanted to know what empowered boys to talk about rape so casually, and broadcast it so publicly.”
Indeed, the Steubenville case was unique in that it unfolded in real-time over Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, a process that is recreated to disturbing effect in the documentary. Just days after the incident, crime blogger Alexandria Goddard uncovered brazen messages about the party and published a story that quoted the most damning of them. (“Some people deserve to be peed on,” read one student’s tweet.) Many in Steubenville reacted by shooting the messenger; among other things, Goddard was sued for defamation by the parents of a boy who had posted a photo of the incapacitated victim being carried by her wrists and ankles like a slab of meat on a slaughterhouse floor. At the same time, Goddard’s amateur reporting garnered wider attention from the mainstream media (Rachel Dissell, an investigative reporter for the Plain Dealer, is interviewed in the documentary) and from hactivist group Anonymous, which organized a powerful anti-rape protest and outed the names of some of those involved.
Had such nauseating evidence not been broadcast over social media, it’s easy to imagine that this story would’ve been relegated to the realm of “he said/she said.” Still, even as the incident sparked national and international outrage, many in Steubenville– from local radio DJs to the victim’s classmates– continued to blame the victim and take a “boys will be boys” attitude toward the perpetrators. Given the abundance of apologists, one begins to see how these young men could’ve been callous enough to shoot video of themselves laughing off the incident even as it unfolded. “They raped her quicker than Mike Tyson raped that one girl,” says one boy who is red in the face from laughing hysterically.
Watching this footage, one is tempted to view the perpetrators and the do-nothing bystanders as utterly inhuman. But that’s not what Schwartzman wants. “Watching and studying the police interviews, the story shows clearly that rapists and bystanders are not ‘monsters,’ they are us– our sons our fathers, our coaches, our friends. When we turn them into ‘monsters’ – it makes rape hard to ‘see’ and eradicate.”
Roll Red Roll clearly aims to anger its viewers into rising up against rape culture, as evidenced by a “TAKE ACTION” tab on the film’s website and by the talks at Film Forum this weekend. Tonight after the 7:45pm screening, Schwarzman and special guests will ask the question: “How Can Men Challenge Rape Culture?” On Saturday after the 6pm screening, she and other guests will discuss ways to support female filmmakers. And on Sunday after the 6pm showing, she and yet more guests will ask: “Could Sex Education Save Steubenville?”