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Maria Shriver

One Woman’s Mission To Help Survivors Of Sexual Assault Heal

Image: Linor Abargil
Linor Abargil Kushi & Yariv Fein

Just six weeks before she was crowned Miss World in 1998, Linor Abargil was brutally raped in Milan by a travel agent purporting to help her return home to Israel. She was alone, far from family, and just 18 years old.

It would be a decade before Abargil would return to Italy, this time on a quest for justice and healing and with a documentary film crew by her side.

The resulting film, “Brave Miss World,” which was five years in the making, debuts today on Netflix. Its director, Cecilia Peck, whose prior credits include the Dixie Chicks documentary “Shut-Up and Sing,” says her focus as a filmmaker is strong, brave women, and in Abargil she found the embodiment of both qualities and more.

“At the beginning, we were all nervous about what a forceful advocate she was,” says Peck. “But we ended up so inspired by her persistence, her courage in not staying silent, her urging other women not to blame themselves, not to retreat, and to have a voice.”

During the course of the film, Peck and her crew follow Abargil as she crisscrosses the globe encouraging survivors to tell their stories, from the Teddy Bear Clinic in Soweto to the Princeton campus in New Jersey.

But in helping others, Abargil confronts her own pain, and the toll it’s taking becomes clear when she learns that her rapist has been granted a temporary pass from prison. Ultimately, her efforts to ensure he serve his full sentence prove successful, but in July of this year, Abargil, who is now a lawyer, advocate, wife and mom of three, will face his final release.

“I think Linor is working very hard to put it behind her and not allow him or his impending release to control her emotions or her life,” says Peck. She’s working on forgiveness and not giving energy to that man.”

Here, Peck discusses the toughest scenes to film, what she learned about sexual assault on American campuses, and explains why she was shocked by Abargil’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism during filming.

Linor is a towering presence in the film: resolute, candid, tireless. But the film also shows how pervasive her pain remains no matter the time that’s passed, and the scope of the suffering. Can you talk about that?

I hope the film does look at how you do pick up the pieces and move forward, because it’s a trauma that doesn’t go away. What you’ve said reminds me of when we showed the film to Hans Zimmer -- we always hoped he might do music for us even though it seemed so unlikely -- he said the film really changed him as a human being. He wanted to create a soundscape that was like a frozen lake that Linor’s walking on never knowing where the cracks are. He said the cracks are her own trauma that comes up and triggers her emotions. So, the film is about that landscape. That it’s hard to recover. That it takes a lot of courage to confront the need for an ongoing healing process.

Linor has a very interesting approach when she meets with survivors, which is to say: I’m not here to hold your hand, I’m here to push you to tell your story without shame. Were some challenged by her directness?

At times, we were so worried behind the camera about how confrontational she was. You know, she’s not a perfect advocate, she’s a wounded fighter who believes that you have to speak up, and that it’s hard, and that she’s there to push people towards healing, that it won’t help them for her to pat their hand and cry with them.

She’s not a perfect advocate, she’s a wounded fighter who believes that you have to speak up, and that it’s hard, and that she’s there to push people towards healing.

At times, it was uncomfortable, and I think survivors who had the courage to speak on camera sometimes felt accosted by her. But, in the end, they’ve all written back, they’ve all stayed in touch, they all correspond with Linor, they’ve all said that it was a huge part of their own healing process, and that they needed the push. It’s helped them so much to know that what they did might be of help to someone else, and that they wouldn’t have done it unless Linor pushed them.

During the film, we see the toll the advocacy work is taking on Linor. Did you have moments where you had to evaluate whether to continue filming?

Linor started the project thinking that she was ready, that she was healed, and that she was going to do a film about other women’s stories and urging other women to come forward. But it pretty quickly started triggering her own story, every time she had to tell it, we could see how hard it was.

We waited, and she did call back in 6 months and said, “I want to go on. I have to. It’s my mission.”

The first time she shut down filming was when she found out that the rapist was out on a furlough. So, we started to realize that it was going to be much harder on her than she thought, but we never pushed her. At one point, she said she was done, it was too hard, and she couldn’t go on, and that was a difficult period for everyone. My producing partner and editor Inbal Lessner had to take another job, I didn’t know whether to take one or to wait, but I felt that if I did start another film, I might not go back to Linor’s film. So, we waited, and she did call back in 6 months and said, “I want to go on. I have to. It’s my mission.”

Some of the most powerful footage comes towards the end of the film when Linor goes to Italy and retraces the events surrounding her assault. What was it like shooting those scenes?

That was the hardest part of the film. She hadn’t set foot in Italy for ten years since the rape, and I think she felt that in order to really put it behind her, and come to terms with what happened, get over that fear, she would have to go back there one day. And she wanted to document it.

It was very hard on her but at the end so many parts of her life came together, it was like a burden was lifted. And this extraordinary thing happened; the woman she had been searching for, who was raped by the same man in identical circumstances and had pressed charges in Italy but lost the case, appeared at a cafe where Linor was having an ice cream one day. Linor had been looking for her for years, and all of a sudden there she was. I still don’t know if it was fate. At the time, Linor was becoming more religious and praying, and she believes it was an answer from the universe to her prayers.

During the film, Linor visits American campuses to address sexual assault. What did you learn on those campus visits?

Women do not feel safe on American college campuses. They do not feel that they have access to someone who will respond appropriately to reports of rape and assault. However, a lot is being done right now. There’s a very active group of students on different campuses who have survived rape and are bringing attention to the issue -- the White House just announced a task force to combat campus rape. So, it’s changing right now, but there’s a long way to go.

In the film it’s clear that Linor has an exceptional support system with her mother, father and her fiance, now husband, Oron, all of whom are very honest about their conflicted feelings. Can you talk about them?

Linor was so lucky to have a great support system around her, and I think the film is really a guide of what to do if someone you know has been the victim of assault. Her parents were very worried about her making the film, and bringing up this issue which they had worked so hard to put behind her. But at the same time it gave them the chance and a safe space to communicate these things that had been silenced for so long. They never brought up those hard years or asked Linor whether she was fully recovered, because they didn’t want to raise the issue and to bring up the trauma. So, for the first time in 10 years they were able to talk about how the rape had affected her and all of them.

He loves her, he’s there to support her, it gets rough at times, but he is the role model of how to be present and patient and kind for somebody who has survived a rape.

There was a scene we didn’t get to include when Linor’s mother broke down crying to Linor’s brother and sister asking them for forgiveness for not being there for them during those years when she had to help Linor heal. Rape affects the whole family, it’s not just the victim. I think Linor had to go through a lot before she was able to find a partner like Oron, before she was healed enough to accept somebody who was so supportive, and it is a hard journey for him. He loves her, he’s there to support her, it gets rough at times, but he is the role model of how to be present and patient and kind for somebody who has survived a rape.

Linor’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism happens during the course of the film. Can you talk about witnessing her conversion, how much she relates it to her healing process, and whether it has brought her peace.

It took all of us by complete surprise, if not shock. I mean you saw her in the footage where she handed off the crown advocating for women to dress and behave however they want and no one has the right to do anything that’s not consensual; she was a very outspoken advocate for women’s rights. And by the end of the film, she’s this very modest, covered up, Orthodox mother.

Early on, when she started to dress differently and pray a lot and need Kosher food and shut down filming on Shabbat, we were wondering how this would figure into the film; it seemed like it was veering in a completely different direction. But in the end, I saw it as the story of the film: it’s a process, it might not look like what you expect, it might look very strange, but every survivor is entitled to their own way of healing.

Linor doesn’t connect it with the trauma that becoming an activist and making the film brought up in her. For us, it seemed very clearly that the harder things got during the filming, the more she turned towards religion as a source of strength, and I think the film suggests that. But it’s not how Linor would describe it. She feels that she found true spiritual peace and enlightenment, and she feels sorry for anyone who hasn’t. But I think the film portrays it as her particular healing process, and that everyone will have one, that just happened to be hers. And I hope that it gives other women strength and makes them feel less alone no matter what their process looks like.

This interview has been edited.

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