Documentary Filmmaker, UK

Published Date: 9th April 2015

Open Windows | In Conversation

Documentary Filmmaker, UK

April 9th, 2015

Corruption: [adjective]—Dishonest, criminal, unlawful.

Core: [noun]—The most important part of something.

Cor: [verb]—Latin for heart.

The paradigm of violence is always in concert with corrupt systems and criminals. When a leader, within the home, community, or head of state misleads with a ruptured core, complicity in perpetuating violence is the order of the day. By adhering to transgression this corrupt clan franchise the dismemberment of the girl-child to feed their prodigious ugliness. On the one hand, where the tradition of secrecy, denial, and duplicity facilitates violence against the girl child (and women), on the other, it violently demands silence. And the greater the sexual violence, the greater is the force to thwart the truth.

In her documentary film, India’s Daughter, Leslee Udwin chronicles the 2012 gang rape of Nirbhaya, a 23-year-old woman in Delhi, India. Her film captures the violent thinking at the core of society, one that demands silence to safeguard its image. In my conversation with Ms. Udwin, she emphasizes the urgency on issues ranging from gender equality to sex education in schools. These crucial discussions and pressing actions are vital to ensure our daughters can dream without carrying the burden of shame and disappearing under violence And this change can be made possible with your active partnership.

Leslee, thank you for embarking on this journey. Your documentary, India’s Daughter, is a realistic portrayal of the prevailing mindset.

Leslee Udwin – Thank you for saying that. I am always touched and moved when I hear that. And fortified because you can imagine in these dark days with so much witch hunting going on it’s very, very hard sometimes to keep that perspective going.


Though I cannot fully grasp the trail of devastation that sexual violence leaves behind, I can very well empathize with the trauma survivors’ experience. I asked your producer if I could address the sexual violence against you and she insisted: “Heera, you should. Leslee wants to talk about it.” I commend women like you, Eve Ensler, Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Ellen DeGeneres, Madonna and other bravehearts who share their stories of surviving sexual violence. When you own the violence inflicted on you and speak out, it takes away the shame doesn’t it?

Yes, Speaking out takes the shame away. It puts the shame where it belongs—to society, which leads the society to think the way a rapist thinks about women and acts the way they act against women.

I kept silent for 20 years. I told nobody, not even my best friend. It happened to me in South Africa when I was 18 or 19, in my first year of university. And even I—and when I say even I, what I mean is I don’t come from a culture that particularly points fingers at a rape victim and their initial response is not to say: “You shouldn’t have, what were you wearing, what type of day was it, why were you out alone and why did you trust this man—as a natural instinct, I blamed myself for having trusted this person.

There was a lot for me to regret because I had been invited by this guy to a party who seemed delightful, warm, and lovely and trustworthy. When I arrived at his home, there were no people there. And when I said, “I thought this was going to be a party,” he said, “Yes, yes, people are coming, they are just coming a little later.”

I kept blaming myself for not turning on my heels and walking away when I arrived because my instincts were operating—the first thing I thought as I reached was that this wasn’t right, where are the other people? And you know what kept going through my mind, during the rape, was I was going to die, that he was going to murder me. So in a sense, it was the fear for my life that was the most predominant feeling I had. And when I survived it, I was so relieved that the violation became insignificant compared to how bad it might have been, because I was utterly convinced he was going to kill me. Hence, 20 years of keeping silent.


When you don’t take action immediately, time passes, and you say: “But that happened yesterday, that happened last week, that happened last year.”

Yes, you are right. It’s harder and harder to do something about it. And also, you start believing that somehow you are coping with it, that you are okay.


Tell me about the emotional devastation that accompanies sexual violence.

It is the ultimate violation because it takes away from you any sense of empowerment or ability to control what is happening to you. And it is a physical fact that men, for the most part, have more physical strength than women, and that sense of utter powerlessness is what is most devastating or most frightening; it was for me. As I said, I was utterly convinced that the next step he was going to take, once he had finished violating my body, was to kill me…it felt like a precursor to murder. And in a way, it was a form of murder.


How did this incident affect you emotionally in the years that followed?

Recurring nightmares, night sweats, and reliving the experience when I was alone at night—what we now know as post-traumatic stress syndrome.

The very first person I ever shared this with was my husband. And I did that because when you meet the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, there is an impulse not to have any secrets, and to share, know everything there is to know about each other. And when my daughter was 10, and my son was 13, I sat them down and told them about it. I felt the need to do that because I felt the need to protect them, both of them, in different ways.


It is a journey; it is about togetherness.

Ultimately, that is what this film is about. It is about getting all of us to care about this issue, to stand up and be counted, and not to be silent.

Silence is collusion.

It is one of the prime motivating factors that made me take the decision—I must talk about my experience of rape, which is not that uncommon—one in five of us globally is raped or are the victims of attempted rape.


Your documentary, India’s Daughter, chronicles the real life 2012 gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi, India. Where it elucidates the destruction of Nirbhaya, it is a universal story of gender-based sexual violence. It speaks equally for women in Japan, Sudan, Italy, America, and Iraq.

Correct, correct. And more than that actually—it is not just gender-based violence across the globe—it is a story of gender inequality across the world. The one big insight I got from two years of making this film is that the violence, the offences against women, are simply a small part of the story. The mindset leads them to offences.


Where there is sexual violence and defacing of human life, there is a conspiracy to safeguard the most violent individuals, while demanding silence. I am a survivor of abominable emotional violence, and it has been a grueling journey for me, but I refuse to be silenced.

Bless you for that because it takes enormous, enormous courage to do that. This is the thing that will change the situation. If you think of all the vile wrongs and injustices that play in this world, the situation of women is the one that is still not being addressed adequately. But the time has come to address it, and there is a willingness in the world to listen. Not in every corner of the world yet, but in the vast majority of countries. And a film like this, and this kind of response to it gives us that platform to join people into the conversation, and join people as activists, and that is the only thing that’s going to make a difference.


A few years back, I watched one of Oprah Winfrey’s shows where she interviewed pedophiles. I was repulsed, angered, and disturbed on many levels. But what amazed me was that in spite of being a victim of sexual violence she interviewed them, to show us their thought process. I felt the same when I watched your documentary. It takes immense courage and desire to give back to society. What made you embark on this journey?

It feels and has always felt, since the moment I had the impulse to commit to doing this, like a compulsion, not a choice. I have had all sorts of responses, ranging from the extreme response of people, men, and women, who have thrown their arms around me and hugged me. They said: “Thank you for coming to my country to do this,” right up to the other end of the spectrum, where people have been pointing fingers at me and calling me a patronizing intruder and asking me who the hell I think I am.

What made me go, the simplest motivation was not the rape, not the horror of the details of the rape—or anything that shocked and turned my stomach as it did. What made me go was the optimism—the fact that I saw an extraordinary potential for change in the shape of the sustained protesters. Had they gone on for just a day or two, I don’t think I would have been motivated to go there. I was sitting in Copenhagen, they were out in the freezing cold streets of Delhi, and they kept being out on the cold streets, even after a week into the protests. Things turned nasty because, the establishment, of course, felt highly threatened and started showering them with water canons. They were shots fired, they were lathi charges [Baton charges], tear gas shells, and it was almost like a civil war was out to erupt, and the protesters still came.

The only thing was that I had a duty to my family, and asked them permission to go. And I did ask genuinely, particularly to my daughter who was 13 at that time. And I said, “Look, I need you to allow me to go. If you say no, I will not go because you are my priority in life.” I quickly followed saying, “But you need to understand that if you do say no, and ask me to stay, I will find it very hard to look myself in the mirror.” So in a sense, I am wittingly blackmailing her. So yes, emotionally, the fact is it didn’t feel like a choice.


It is something you feel deep.

Yes, you know that if you don’t do this, you will not be whole as a human being. Somehow you would have let yourselves down as well as an opportunity to do really good. And look, I am not a religious person. I don’t believe in god; I don’t believe there is anything after this life.


They become convenient crutches to avoid ownership and action.

Yes. And then you have the notion of forgiveness and sins, which means you can kind of sin because you can be forgiven for it, or any notion of life hereafter as there is more time or another opportunity. I don’t believe in any of that.

I believe we have an allotted time on earth, and some of us have a very short time on earth. And whatever time we have, the only purpose of mankind, as far as I am concerned it is to continue to improve, pass the baton on and leave the world a better place than when we were introduced.

Was it challenging to sit across this violent criminal while interviewing him for your documentary film? And how did you prepare for this meeting?

It was difficult preparing for the first face-to-face meeting. I spent weeks talking to psychiatrists, dealing with people who do research in criminology and psychologists who dealt with hate crimes, to come up with a set of questions that would elicit insights because that’s what I was after. And I was after what goes on in their heads, to be able to put out a meaningful exploration of their mindset that might help us understand them so we can change them, and prevent others.


What did you learn about the mindset?

The truth is frightening and chilling and serious. The truth is that they are ordinary human beings. The truth is that they are unremarkable men who have been taught to think a particular way. Society has formed them—we are responsible. Our society starts off with a story that tells our boys and our girls that a girl is lesser than a boy, that a girl is not as welcome as a boy. When a girl is born, those relatives and friends, who gather around the parents and say: “Don’t worry, it will be a boy next time.” That is where the crime begins.


I was not flummoxed by the cold revelation of the criminal’s mindset—of blaming the victim. It’s all-pervasive. Had I ever been raped, the educated, affluent, and English speaking would have relished my destruction and echoed the thoughts of the rapist: “She deserved it. She was a bad character woman. She was an actress after all.” This is the capacity of debauched people masquerading as pious.

I know that. It is a fact. And you hear it from politicians, which is why I am particularly bewildered when I am told, and hear expressions by MPs [Members of Parliament]. I watched the Lok Sabha [The lower house of India’s Bicameral-Parliament] proceedings the day after the ban was announced. And watching minister after minister, and member of parliament after member of parliament say that I was bringing shame on India by giving a platform to a rapists misogynist views. And all I could think of was, you yourselves, your parliament provides the platform to politicians to say very similar things.


It is violence at the very core.

Yes, it is an attitude that deems certain sectors of society to be without value, without worth. And if they are without value, you can do what you like to them. You can commit necrophilia to defile them; you can rape them, you can traffic them, you can marry them off at the age of 9 or 10 or 11, you know? If they are of no value, then there will be many men, and many of them believe they can treat them in this way.


What about women who are part of this system?

Women are not immune from sexual norms and social thinking, and they collude with this because they are brought up believing that it is their fate; that it is their position in society—to be second class. They will eat last at the table.


So they feed off each other to maintain the reservoir of violence?

Yes, and added to this there is also the culture where sex is completely taboo. And that is highly unnatural and highly unhealthy. Because if you suppress a completely natural instinct, it will find its way out in other ways.


The reaction to your film divulges the system that grants permission to eviscerate the girl child—do what you want to, we will defend you and shield you. How and where does one begin to take ownership of this antiquated culture that is heavily anchored in hate and shame-filled thinking?

Yes, they didn’t want to look into that part. They didn’t want to look at themselves, and so they found all sorts of reasons to ban it—it will decimate the tourist industry, it will lead to unrest on the streets, it will defame India in the eyes of the world. And the supreme irony is that it is their reaction to it that has defamed India in the eyes of the world.

It was the greatest opportunity ever presented, on this issue to India, to say to the world: “Yes, we have an appalling record as far as treatment of women is concerned, so does nearly every other country in the world. But what distinguishes us, what sets us apart is the extremely positive action. We have had civil society on the streets for over a month demanding change. Our people are enlightened in their response to this, and we are leading the world by example.”

There is not one interview I have given where I do not say that India was leading the world by example because India did stop its silence by coming to the streets in that extremely robust way. What I wanted this documentary to do was to inspire other countries to stand firm—stop their apathy and their silence.


The greater the violence, the greater is the force to thwart transparency.

Sadly, yes. And that is why the reaction to this was so extreme. I have come to realize that. This is not the first time I have been involved in a controversial film. My very first film, for television, was a drama documentary called Who Bombed Birmingham, made for Granada television and HBO, which was about the Birmingham Six, who were probably the most hated terrorists, so- called prisoners, and they weren’t actually. They were innocent men who had been rounded up, and they served 17 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit.

The image of British justice was at stake, and the hysteria over that program was marked, and the Prime Minister of England, Margaret Thatcher, stood up and screamed about my film in the House of Commons, the day after its broadcast, “We won’t have a trial by television in this country.” I had a special branch of the British police visit me at 2 o’clock in the morning, threatening me that my career would be over if I continued with this film. It was the same thing, to suppress the truth, and attempt to control what version of the story is told to the world. So I am not a stranger to controversy, but I have never in my life experienced this degree of Salem-like witch-hunt and hatred poured out against me. And it has been very tough, you know.


I can very well imagine.

There is something right, and there is this ghastly reaction to it. The thing is, we have to keep going. We have to fly at 30,000 feet, and look down on what is happening and understand that we are dealing with people who are desperately trying to stop change, who are desperately trying to cling on to a backward worldview. We are dealing with people who have a massive chip on their shoulder, and feel terribly insecure about their image in the world, and have a knee-jerk reaction.

We just have to understand where they come from and have the faith that the truth will always out in the end. And the truth is always brighter than lies that attempts to pretend the world is a certain way when it quite blatantly isn’t. And it is only a matter of time. You have to be steadfast. We know that our heart is right.

Nirbhaya’s father said something really beautiful to me on the day I left Delhi, after the outcry. He saw my bewilderment and my pain—and he is someone who was very used to dealing with a much more intense pain than I could ever imagine—and said:

“Please remember when you walk on the right path, there will be obstacles, and there will be thorns.”

And that was such a simple, eloquent, generous, beautiful, supportive thing to say.


Nirbhaya’s parents define life and living. I am sure they are tormented by the memories of their daughter and are engulfed with a multitude of emotions. Having said that, I was transfixed by their grace and composure as I watched them in your film.

Like you, I can’t imagine how I would behave in such a situation. I can’t believe I will be as dignified and as strong. They do break down, particularly the mother. I saw her as recently as three-and-a-half weeks ago, in Delhi, and it’s all so very close to the surface.

Of course, the thing that is stoking their pain is that the so-called fast track case. If this is fast track, what a joke because it has been more than two years and there has not been one hearing in the Supreme Court. And this could take some years still. And of course, for them, they cannot get closure until they get justice.


How can crimes be prevented?

I believe preventing crimes happens by properly educating people, by taking a moral stand. To say: “We are a civilized society and we will not allow to feed a girl last, relegate the girl to be the one who doesn’t need an education. She is not destined to become a domestic slave, even in someone else’s home, or give and take dowry,” which a massive percentage of society does it. And they are all breaking the law—dowry giving and taking is illegal in India. Now every one of those people who give and take dowry should be prosecuted because they are criminals. They are breaking the law.


Can this reform be approached in holistically?

There is only one way to change the mindset, and that is education from the earliest possible age. With luck it will take a generation, and probably realistically, it will take two generations. And it has to be compulsory education because you cannot leave people to become educated or parents to allow their children a particular kind of education. I am now going to dedicate my next year to address this.


I respect what you shared with me earlier, sitting your daughter and son down and explaining the violence perpetrated against you. The conversation started at home, the way it should, no?

But you see, there is so much resistance to it when it comes to the conversation being in any way about sex. In India, there is no sex education in schools. And one of the Verma committee report [A report from the Justice Verma Committee constituted to recommend amendments to the Criminal Law] recommendations is that there should be, that it was important. But what they found was that it was not the schools that were resisting sex education—it was the parents.


Why are parents scared to talk about sex?

Because it is culturally taboo, and they have been brought up to believe it is taboo. They have been taught to keep the lid on it and make sure that their children are controlled in the same way. If they experience anything that is shameful or dishonoring of the family that’s another problem, the culture encourages that kind of thinking. That they are not to talk about it, they are to hide it, bury it. So, I don’t think the parents can be left to make the right choices, or encouraged to make the right choices.


The school teachers come from the same mindset and society. How will that help?

The thing is if the curriculum is very carefully laid out, carefully designed by educationalists and gender specialists, and is compulsory, and if the curriculum is co-opted onto the formal education to all schools from the very first grade, from the earliest stage, then I think we stand a chance.

You have to start with those 4, 5 and 6-year-old kids going to school, at least, one hour a week, a course that is on the formal curriculum of the school. It starts them with breaking down stereotypes. Obviously, you don’t start off with sex education at the age of 4, 5 and 6. You reach that perhaps at the age of 11 or 12, and, of course, there will be resistance to that. There will be educationalists in various countries that will say: “We can’t start talking to children about sex till they are 15.” And I will argue that in those societies that there is likely to be a resistance the thing that they should bear in mind is if you are allowing girls to be married at the age of 10, 11 and 12, then certainly you should be educating them about consent and consensual sex and sex.


Does the over-sexualization of young people in the media affect the mindset?

I think it’s another factor. It’s another denigration of women. When I look at most Bollywood films, I tell you, to me, they are pornography. They are reductive and inhumane. They are denigrating of women, and they encourage women to be seen as sex objects and fair game.


A child can watch these degrading films and somehow attempt to process the sexualized information but cannot talk about it. Doesn’t this feed into the culture of shame, secrecy, and duplicity?

Absolutely. And that is highly dangerous. The biggest insight in this film was the answer to, “Why do men rape and why do violent rapes happen to the degree that they do?” The answer did not lie in those rapists; the answer lay in the society and patriarchal society that has formed those rapists. I believe it encourages them to think the way they do and to act the way they do. We are responsible for that. And as long as we remain silent and collude in this learning, in what we are teaching our boys and our girls to think, we are guilty.


Accomplished individuals are lending their support to your film and campaign. What does their support mean to you?

It is the optimism. All these people understand that now is the time for this change. The world is putting it on the agenda. The world is ready to listen. And if we don’t all capitalize on this now we will let the enormous opportunity go. And then god knows how much longer it will be, you know?


In a message to me, Alyse Nelson, President of Vital Voices Global Partnership expressed: “At Vital Voices, we invest in women leaders who improve the world. We know that we cannot move forward if half the population is left behind, which is why securing the human rights of women and girls is the greatest unfinished business of our time. Films like India’s Daughter ask us all to consider and challenge the social norms that perpetuate violence against women. We’re incredibly proud to partner with director Leslee Udwin because this is much more than a documentary film, it’s a powerful platform for cultural change on a global scale.”

How did Vital Voices Global Partnership [A non-profit, non-governmental organization] empower you?

The interesting thing is that they got behind the film before seeing it. I massively appreciate that. A lot of other partners did get involved once they saw the film, but Vital Voices just believed in me. I wrote endless treaties and laid out my vision for the film. And they believed in me because they are there to empower women and empower women’s voices.


As a woman, what does it mean to have the support of your spouse?

Well you see, it shouldn’t at all be surprising that anybody’s partner is supportive. You know the fact that it is surprising in itself is sad because he happens to be the man and I happen to be the woman, but we are partners in life. And we are committed to each other and love each other as husband and wife, and if one of us needs to spend time away working or expressing their passion or creating something, then the other one will support whether they are the man or the woman in the relationship. It’s a human thing to do. And when you have children, you can’t both be out there. One of you has to sacrifice for the other at the time that that is needed.


And this is how we should be in life, partnership in the house and society, to make progress. It is about vital partnerships.

Absolutely. And it is achievable. I am lucky enough to have that in my life, and it’s not just my husband who is supportive, my children are supportive. My children, both of them, have the kind of values that said to me: “Of course, you must go and do this. It’s important.”

There was a moment where I would have climbed off that train because it was so, so deeply depressing, it was so difficult. I felt crushed by it, and all I wanted to do was stop, and come home. And by chance, I phoned home—it was 5;00 a.m. in my Delhi hotel, and it was 12:30 in Copenhagen—to tell my husband to please come and get me from the airport. I was a wreck. And my little girl by pure chance, who was then 13-and-a-half, picked up the phone, and I pretended I was okay, but she knew there was something very wrong, and she forced me to tell her. And I broke down and told her, because I was in such a state it all came pouring out and I said, “I am coming home darling, I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know how I ever thought I was going to achieve this. It’s too big a mountain to climb, and I am coming home.” And she talked me down from this panic.


Children can be wise.

Absolutely. And the last thing she said to me, which is what completely made me change my mind, and made me carry on was: “You can’t come home because I and my generation of girls are relying on you. So you better stay there and finish this thing.” She understood what was at stake here and the importance of it. And she understood it better than I because genuinely couldn’t take it anymore.


Personality traits are shaped early in life. I remember the moment that defined my courage—I was a child of 5. What and when was it for you?

Well, there was a moment, when I was about 12 or 13. My parents are Jewish, and they were religious Jews, and they sent me to a religious Jewish college in South Africa. And I discovered at a certain point, in part of my Jewish studies, a part of the curriculum that men say a prayer in the Jewish faith every day, in the morning prayer, they thank god for not making them a woman. Now, it’s extremely shocking, but it’s common to many religions.

Look it’s in the Quran, there are many verses which tell a man that if his wife disobeys him, then he can beat her. You know, religions are riddled with this kind of control of women with the notion that a woman is unclean when she is menstruating, she shouldn’t be touched.


Women are considered dirty when they are menstruating. I find that bizarre.

It’s absolutely disgusting that they should put that on the woman whose menstruation leads them to have their life. It’s an absolute disgrace. And of course, religion will sway with billions of people across the world. It’s part of the mindset and the culture—it’s part of the problem. And this thinking belongs in a society that is way beyond medieval, that is utterly primitive, utterly reductive, whatever your religion is, you better move with the times, or you are being a complete oppressive autocrat.


What happened once you discovered the prayer?

And so, when I discovered this prayer existed, I was so incensed. I was so disappointed that I marched up to the religious head of the school, his name was Rabbi Tanza, and said to him: “I have just discovered what you men say in your prayers in the morning, and I quoted it to him in Hebrew. And I said: “You can take your Jewish Torah, which is the equivalent of the Quran or the Bible, and stick it up your arse.”

And that was a defining moment for me, because then, of course, I was expelled. My father was forced to take me out of the school, but I insisted on my right to be outraged by that and insisted on my right to say so. And I suppose for me, that was the defining moment. I am the sort of person who will not be silenced and will not be silent.

It is a duty to speak up. I think it’s a duty to be true and honest to what you think and what you believe.

This is how Nirbhaya lived; she wanted the best for others’ through the end of her precious life. This is the true spirit of a survivor, the true spirit of life.

Yes, there is no question that she fought because she was a fighter all her life. There is amazing material that I learned but couldn’t use. A very close friend of hers told me how if a man used to stare at her, she would stop, go up to him, face him, look him in the eyes and say: “What are you staring at? I am not your property.” And she would be outspoken. She would not let these inequities pass. And of course, the tragic irony is that the better world that she was fighting for, the terrible world she was fighting against was the one that crushed her and took her life. And that is an unthinkable irony.