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Award-Winning Documentary Filmmaker Looks To Empower Survivors Of Rape

by on March 05, 2014 3:40 PM

It took Aishah Shahidah Simmons eleven years to produce write, and direct her film --  a riveting look at rape and other forms of sexual assault.

The result is, NO! The Rape Documentary. The film will be shown at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Freeman Auditorium inside the HUB-Robeson Center at Penn State University.

The Award-winning filmmaker is herself an incest and rape survivor. Her documentary explores the international reality of rape as told through first-person testimonials.

"My hope is that victim survivors in the room, male or female, feel empowered to name what has happened to them," says Simmons. "The shame is no longer on them. We all have a responsibility to work toward ending it. All of us have a role, and I hope NO! plays a role in igniting that fire."

As the child of two civil rights activists, Simmons spent much of her young life on the move. Traveling from city to city, she saw firsthand the struggles of those who were at the front lines of the movement, working toward a day when the African-American community would be treated as equals. Instead of family conversations at the dinner table, she ate most of her meals at meetings and rallies across the country.

Looking back now as a filmmaker, television and radio producer, published writer, international lecturer, and activist, Simmons says she didn't always feel the same dedication to protecting human rights that she does today.

"When I was growing up I hated the movement," says Simmons. "I said I wasn't going to have anything to do with it. I just wanted a normal life."

From a young age, Simmons had a passion for filmmaking. She studied at Temple University in Philadelphia, and at age 25, started working on a documentary that would shape her career as a feminist, teacher, and activist.

"The proudest thing for me is that I charted my own path after I was raped," says Simmons. "Being able to piece my life together and get back to focus in terms of studying films, making films, and still being able to move forward -- to really never lose sight of your vision. NO! is one of the results, the reward of that struggle."

Since it's debut in 2006, the film has received multiple international awards and has been screened in 38 countries worldwide. It's been translated into three languages, and is widely used by universities across the globe. This year, the film will be screened on March 8 in Budapest, Hungary to celebrate International Women's Day.

"For me, I'm stunned, because most films like this kind of have a shelf life," says Simmons, reflecting on the success of the film. "I hoped that it would have an impact in '06 and '07, but I didn't think this film was going to stand an eight year test of time in running. That for me is recognizing the power of cinema."

While working on the film, Simmons says she realized how prevalent sexual violence is in the United States. Through fundraising and traveling for the documentary, she saw a pervasive problem, and was grateful to the volunteers who were brave enough to tell their story.

Over the past twenty years, more people are speaking out about sexual violence, says Simmons. More men and women are getting involved in the movement, paving the way for more discussion and open dialogue about the issue of rape in our culture.

"It's nice to see new generations coming up, taking on this issue," says Simmons. "I feel like there are more people interested, and it transcends all types of differences."

Today, Simmons is an adjunct faculty member in the Women's Studies and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) Studies program at her alma mater, Temple University. As a teacher, she says it's important for the students to have discussions about diversity, and be well-educated on social issues in the community.

"My goal is for all us to see how many of us are marginalized, and how we have to power to marginalize others," says Simmons. "In class, when they recognize how they can experience homophobia and also be racist, or how black men who experience racism can also be sexist, I appreciate when they can see that and then move towards doing something about it."

Simmons will be the Erma Taylor O'Brien Distinguished Visiting Professor at Scripps College next semester, as well as a contributing writer to online magazine The Feminist Wire. While she says she doesn't have any plans for making another film, she will continue to build on the impact she's made in the community thus far.

"Whatever I'm doing, hopefully its towards advocating for social change."

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C.J. Doon is a frequent contributor to Onward State and is a former intern. A Long Island native, Doon is studying print journalism at Penn State.
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