How do you get people to listen to things they don’t want to hear? How do you get them to understand things they don’t want to contemplate? Human blindness to uncomfortable issues is not limited to one realm of grief and suffering, of course, but it’s a particular problem when it comes to sexual harassment, intimidation, and rape that so many women (and some men; but far more women) are subjected to. Women who speak about their experiences at the hands of predatory men are often gaslit by our culture: cops and lawyers, even friends and family may ask, “Why did you let yourself be alone with him?” “What were you wearing?” “Why didn’t you say no?” And we women gaslight ourselves: “Did I inadvertently lead him on?” “Why didn’t I leave?” “Is this my own fault?”
Coping with the aftermath of such an encounter can be confusing, anxiety-inducing, and angry-making. So it’s hardly any surprise that the intimate, internal Tape — based on a true story; undoubtedly many true stories — is similarly messy, furious, and sometimes even deeply at odds with itself. That does not mean that it is not absolutely necessary, nor that its rage is not absolutely vital. That does mean that this uneasy film reflects, if perhaps accidentally, a state of mind that is itself uneasy.
Tape is so personal and so direct that it may be intensely unpleasant to those who’ve endured the likes of what aspiring actors Rosa (Annarosa Mudd) and Pearl (Isabelle Fuhrman: The Hunger Games, From Up on Poppy Hill) do here. Rosa is fostering a powerful pain the context of which we don’t quite understand at first, though writer-director Deborah Kampmeier gives us a solid idea via a quite graphic depiction of the self-harm she engages in order to cope with it. (This may also be triggering to some viewers.) We begin to comprehend as Rosa starts to stalk — there isn’t a kinder word for it — Pearl as Pearl comes under the influence of film producer Lux (Tarek Bishara: Barely Lethal), and even sets up hidden cameras to capture what Pearl believes to be private interactions with Lux.
This is where an argument might be made that Tape trips itself up. Rosa knows what is going to happen to Pearl at Lux’s hands, because Rosa has experienced it herself, and yet Rosa doesn’t attempt to rescue Pearl from what will be a terrible encounter. Why not? Is Rosa herself too traumatized to think straight? Does Rosa imagine that Pearl would not believe her? Both may well be true. What is nevertheless indisputable is that by capturing on video Lux’s manipulations of Pearl, any dismissal of Lux’s behavior, any explaining away of it as anything other than entirely his responsibility, is impossible: for Rosa, for Pearl, for us. The extra layers of observation — Kampmeier observes Rosa observing Pearl — adds another layer of evidence, of a lack of interpretation: this is, no bullshit, no justifications, straight-up what is happening. Lux knows precisely what he is doing and precisely how to protect himself as he takes advantage of Pearl… and now it’s all on tape and incontestable.
Or is it? Surely some will find a way to come to Lux’s defense and excuse his crimes. Tape is essential viewing only because no one ever seems to listen when women scream our truths from the rooftops, or the celluloid. How often do women have to keep telling the same stories over and over again before the world hears us? Maybe this will be the time we are heard? I’d love to think so, but I doubt it. That’s no fault of Tape. That women filmmakers — and women from all walks of life who stand up and demand to be taken seriously when we talk about how men prey on us — will simply not shut up about this is a testament to the resilience of women. But why should we have to be this strong, over and over again?
Tape was the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for March 27th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.