A small group of women and men gather in a private screening room for a preview of Trauma is a Time Machine, a new and independent film written and directed by Angelica Zollo. The film ends, lights are up, and the faces in the audience are noticeably different. Most women are deeply touched and are in tears as they hug, hold, and talk to each other. Meanwhile, most men are composed as they congratulate the filmmaker for her excellent work, and then walk out for a drink or a cigarette in the brisk cold of a New York night.
The movie deconstructs a woman’s emotions after she encountered a sexual violation from a man with whom she was in a relationship and had willingly, even excitedly, gone to bed with. Things did not turn out the way she expected and she was left with a trauma to deal with and process on her own. If there were any moments that show the obvious difference of how women and men are processing the discussion around the #MeToo movement, it was these moments captured in that small screening room where Trauma is a Time Machine was shown.
Beyond the film being a sensitive and even innovative way of dealing with a woman’s body throughout, the director brilliantly gives language to emotions that are hard to explain otherwise. Zollo uses a host of methods at her hands to deconstruct pain women face. She shows it vividly in the relationship between the female protagonist and her body, her confusion and anger at what happened, and even her silence. If anger is what has been heard in the #MeToo outcry, then Zollo, in Trauma Is a Time Machine, explains the pain behind the anger.
Still that left the small audience watching the movie with the wonder and division that the larger world is experiencing:
“Is it rape if she went to bed with him willingly? Or is it not?”
“But it must not be as painful as she knew and liked the guy.”
“Why didn’t she stop him and get out?”
These are only some of the sentiments audience members whispered. But these whispers are not strange to the larger discussion about sexual violation that was brought up in the last few months through the #MeToo movement. Perhaps Sean Penn’s poem in his new book, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, makes the case in point so vividly clear. He writes, “Once crucial conversations / Kept us on our toes / Was it really in our interest / To trample Charlie Rose?” And, “Where did all the laughs go? / Are you out there Louis C.K.?” Penn is one of many men who demonstrate the lack of understanding of women’s grievousness and sorrows around violation. Beyond that, he and many others demonstrate a lack of acknowledgment that something wrong has happened and a violation has indeed taken place.
Simply put, there is a huge disconnect between how women and men are seeing, processing, and even explaining the pain around issues of sexual violation in the nuanced and clear ways they happen. What women see as crossing the line, harassment, and sexual exploitation, many men and indeed some women are dismissing, questioning and denying. The underlying pain that a great percentage of women experience is not seen at a fundamental level. It is that lack of “seeing” and “acknowledging” that leads to the rage that the world has witnessed in the last few months. The dismissal and the ridicule adds to the pain women feel. It makes their screams silent, their feelings seen as unfounded, and their pain misunderstood.
Yes, women do flirt. And, yes, they do show their interest in men. And, yes, sometimes they are too polite to define clear boundaries — a habit fed by centuries of messaging women receive about being “nice.” And, yes, women do at times give mixed messages, and are not always clear in communicating what they want. And, yes, they do wear flirtatious dresses. And none of that is a reason not to believe them or not to understand that a sexual violation does takes place despite all of these yeses in relationships, and in work, and in the streets and more often than many think.
The #MeToo movement started a conversation and I hope that conversation does not fade in the face of new headlines about gun violence and Russia’s latest expulsion of diplomats. Now that women’s outcries have been heard, it is time to understand the movement beyond legal actions against perpetrators. The issue at hand goes beyond the individual acts of certain people. It is, rather, about a pattern of assumed behavior men have adopted as the norm. It is that “norm” that needs addressing, understanding and changing for healing to occur. For that understanding to take place, we all need to take a moment to understand the pain behind the rage. That is precisely what Trauma is a Time Machine so brilliantly explains.
Zainab Salbi is an author, media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures and the host of PBS’s #MeToo, Now What. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.
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