Academic journal article Social Justice

Catalyzing Possibility: The NO! Film Documentary as Community Accountability Technology: Theryn Kigvamasud'Vashti and Aishah Shahidah Simmons

Academic journal article Social Justice

Catalyzing Possibility: The NO! Film Documentary as Community Accountability Technology: Theryn Kigvamasud'Vashti and Aishah Shahidah Simmons

Article excerpt

What does it look like to visually make central that which has been placed on the margins and on the periphery?--Aishah Shahidah Simmons, filmmaker (2006a)

ORGANIZING RESPONSES TO SEXUAL VIOLENCE THAT ARE IMAGINED AND DRIVEN BY the community requires that the situation of violence to which the community responds is legible as such. How do communities account for rape and domestic violence against black women when the construction of black women frames them as incapable of credibly occupying the category of "victim of violence from others," or asserting an engaged subjectivity (1) within the experience of surviving violence? How are black antiviolence activisms disrupted by the political risks taken by black survivors and others when publicly addressing intraracial gender violence under the gaze of a dominant culture that relies on pathologizing black people to justify a racialized politics of perpetual punishment? Community-based accountability processes can both produce and benefit from methods and mechanisms that help us to navigate through painful fault lines in anti-rape discourse, such as skepticism about the credibility of black women, fear of racialized demonization, and the threat of ostracism from one's community (for the person who is assaulted and the one who assaults).

NO! is a striking 2006 documentary that examines sexual violence against black women by black men. Focusing primarily on the vivid testimony and lucid analysis of black women survivors, it boldly contends with these difficult questions (Simmons, 2006b). Producer and director Aishah Shahidah Simmons, a black, Philadelphia-based, lesbian-feminist filmmaker, took 12 years to complete NO! and to generate the conditions needed to make the film possible. She contended with "racist, sexist, and misogynist economic censorship" in the form of rejection letters from potential funders, which asserted that the film's topic lacked importance. In concert with what became a global network of predominantly black women and survivors of violence, Simmons found herself conjuring space in which the film could even exist, materially and conceptually. Since its premiere, the documentary has had a planet-wide impact; it has traveled across nearly every continent and reached hundreds of thousands of people.

Theryn Kigvamasud'Vashti is the former co-director of Communities Against Rape and Abuse (CARA), a Seattle-based anti-rape organization. A black feminist organizer, scholar, and media maker herself, Theryn led the Black People's Project at CARA, which increased the capacity of black communities to develop strategies for support, safety, and accountability, particularly in the context of gender violence. In this role, Theryn organized multiple screenings of NO! in Seattle with the goal of instigating transformative dialogue and nurturing the potential for meaningful individual and collective responses to violence.

Having worked with Theryn at CARA, and having had the privilege of screening NO! many times, I was honored to engage both women about how this film is a community accountability artifact in its own right as well as a potent cinematic instrument that catalyzes critical reconsiderations of the problem, circumstances, and consequences of sexual violence against black women, manifesting the possibility for recognition and change. In the following conversation, Aishah and Theryn explore the manifold situations of violence against black women, the impact of NO! on engaged audiences, and the political, material, and spiritual conditions in which their work is leveraged.

Alisa: Aishah, please share with us the social and political context of the making of NO!

Aishah: I am a survivor of incest and rape, and a daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of women who have been sexually assaulted, raped, or molested in some form or fashion. So, it was very personal. When I first started making NO!, I did not think it was personal. …

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