The Gift of Consent

by Jennifer Huang, Treeclimber Media

 

In 2015, I sat down in a hot, sunny cottage in Cebu, Philippines with “Sara” for my first interview with a survivor of sex trafficking for my documentary film, The Long Rescue. Even though she barely knew me, Sara poured out her story, including experiences she hadn’t yet shared with her family. I quickly realized that she was entrusting me with a precious, fragile gift, and that by sitting down with her, my first duty was to protect her. Even if that meant that in the end, my film might never be released.

 

In light of the current conversation regarding consent for survivors of sexual trauma, I want to share what I have learned. It is an issue I have devoted a great deal of concern, energy and sleepless nights to. I have been filming eight sex trafficking survivors since that first shoot six years ago. But by no means do I claim that my approach is comprehensive or that I am an expert. In fact, in spite of the efforts that I’ve detailed here, I know there is much more I can do. So at the end, I’ll share some of my thoughts on how I, and the industry, can improve.

 

When I started working in documentary and nonfiction television, my training had been focused on getting the footage – on producing. Consent was a necessary but tiresome chore that involved passing around release forms and hoping no one objected. But I knew when I embarked on a documentary about teen sex trafficking survivors in the Philippines, seeking informed consent would be a very different thing. I was working with minors who had experienced the most brutal forms of violation. My foremost concern was that my film did not leave any survivor feeling reexploited. But I didn’t fully grasp the layers of cultural, psychological, and interpersonal nuances that complicate the very concept of consent.

 

I met the girls when they were living in an aftercare facility called My Refuge House (MRH). MRH’s staff understood that one of the central pillars of healing for survivors is the restoration of personal agency. So before I arrived, they encouraged each girl to decide if she wanted to participate in the film. They gave the girls a month to consider it, and then asked them to write a short paper with their reasoning. (Two residents were eleven and deemed too young to make this decision.) The others, age fifteen and up, all decided to participate. MRH then had the girls create rules for the film crew. We were not to film the girls asleep, in the bathroom, or in any state of undress. We were to ask permission to film.

 

I was glad that the girls had given this process so much thought. But even then, I felt cautious. I wanted the girls to truly understand what it means to be filmed. So I held participatory video workshops to demystify the process. In the morning, I would film the girls’ school and activities, and in the afternoon, they would learn to use the cameras, microphones, and tripods that I had brought for them through group games and activities. On a second trip, they learned to edit. I donated the camera and editing gear so that the girls could use it as they wished when I was gone. (To be honest, though everyone had a great time, I don’t know if this process ultimately helped inform the girls’ decisions on participation. It definitely made them more comfortable with me, the gear, and hopefully, ultimately with telling me “no.”)

 

I also created a further opt-in for the girls, telling them, “if you want to tell me your story, please come and tell me.” That was all. I didn’t approach any individual girl to make an interview request. Sara was the first girl to volunteer.

 

Throughout Sara’s first interview (and all the interviews that followed), I made it clear that the girls didn’t have to answer any question they didn’t feel comfortable with. I kept my questions general at first, giving each girl control of the direction, depth and detail of the conversation. I found that many girls were eager to share their stories, and the thought of sharing with the wider world and having an impact on other survivors like themselves was their motivation.

 

My goal was to observe the healing process over time. So I returned to the Philippines five more times from 2016 to 2019. With MRH and the girls’ lawyers, we developed several additional guidelines:

 

  • Until the girls were no longer minors (and usually after they turned 20 and no longer lived in the shelter), I did not make filming requests directly to the girls. A social worker would act as an intermediary so that the girls would not need to say no to my face, something they may have found difficult. On my second trip, one of the seven girls I’d initially interviewed withdrew. 

 

  • I won’t release the film publicly until after each girl turns 18. (They all have, now.)

 

  • Some of the girls are testifying against their traffickers or customers. I agreed not to release the film until all court cases are resolved. 

 

  • I will not show any identifying images of the girls or use their real names before the film’s release. 

 

  • I will not release the film in the Philippines. (Given the current state of pirating, I no longer believe it is possible to make this guarantee. Several girls have now said they would be okay with a Philippines release, but the topic requires a great deal more discussion). 

 

  • The girls will be able to review rough cuts of the film.

 

  • The girls can withdraw from the film until picture lock.

 

What I’ve learned is that consent is a conversation, an ongoing process. As the years go by and the girls grow up, we check in. We discuss what they’re comfortable with, how they would feel if their neighbors saw the film, and how their feelings may have changed. I’ve shown them fundraising reels and asked for permission to show their faces to potential funders. 

 

I have also learned just how much our substantial power disparity creates its own kind of pressure. I am shown deference throughout the Philippines as an American, but add in the relative wealth displayed by my video gear and international travel, plus many of the girls’ inherent eagerness to please, and it may be very difficult for a girl to say no. I am still learning more ways to be more transparent, let my protagonists be part of the creative process, and to make sure that they are prepared for the film’s release. And I know that means, after a 6 year (and counting) process, that I may end up without a film to show the world, if that is what is best for the safety, mental health, and empowerment of the girls.

 

This is antithetical to the operating principles of most producers and our mandate to produce. I have been told by many helpful people not to mention my process to potential funders because it will scare them away. Who wants to back a horse that may end up sidelining itself? But I believe I’m simply doing what is required by the situation. I certainly don’t hold myself up as a paragon of the consent process. But, when I consider the value of the gift that has been given to me, I know it’s the only ethical way for me to handle it.

 

These questions of consent are only part of the larger question: what, if anything, do we owe vulnerable, traumatized, impoverished people who share their stories with us, sometimes at great personal risk? Old-school journalism demands that no compensation be given, because that could be construed as coercion as well. But when filmmakers and journalists have substantially more power and resources than their protagonists and can be seen in some way profiting from their narrative (even if not financially), it can also be seen as unethical not to provide some kind of material relief. (Some filmmakers set up funds for their film’s participants after release, but this can lead to its own complications as seen with the film Honeyland.)

 

We also need to examine the effect of this sharing of trauma on the participant’s psyche and in their community. We need to talk about our responsibility, where we should draw boundaries, and if there are times when the ethical uncertainties are so great that the film should not be made.

 

I was deeply moved by Sabaya when I saw it – both by the courage of the women and the access of the film crew. I was very troubled to hear reports that some of the women did not consent to the final project or feel fully informed, consulted, and supported. Now, with the filmmakers and some of the film’s participants denying these claims, it’s impossible for me as a bystander to know what really happened in the field. I don’t wish to stand in judgment of them, but rather, I hope that we can take this as an opportunity to dig deeper into these difficult questions and push for a different approach that centers the relationship with the participants rather than the drive to produce.

 

Unlike me, Sabaya’s filmmakers had funders and institutions who were expecting a film to come out of their investment. We need to take a harder look as an industry at the expectations we have for filmmakers who are working in conflict zones or who are filming deeply traumatized people. We need to continue to develop and publicize best practices for consent in these areas. (The guidelines Reporting on Sexual Violence in Conflict and the practices used by Maya Newell are a great place to start.) And we need to be able to walk away from a film (or turn it into a podcast or animation) if that’s what’s best for our participants.

 

Additional strategies to consider: 

 

  • Facilitate conversations between previous film protagonists and people who are considering the journey. Ideally, these would be frank conversations that happen without the filmmakers present.

 

  • Training in trauma-informed approaches for filmmakers and journalists working with vulnerable protagonists. 

 

  • The creation of sunset clauses, so that after a set number of years on the market, filmmakers must seek consent to continue distribution of the film. 

 

  • Inclusion of survivors on a film’s production team or advisory board.

 

I have been learning on the job and have often felt like I was struggling alone with these issues. I welcome this moment to broaden this discussion. I hope it brings about a higher standard of care for the people that we film.

 

 

 

Jennifer Huang

As a Chinese American child growing up in Kansas, Jennifer was bullied relentlessly. This foundational experience led to her lifelong commitment to justice, especially for women and children. Her work has brought her to unexpected places: scrubbing for a kidney transplant at the Mayo Clinic, leaping from a crashing snowmobile in Aspen, and being detained in a shipping container in Papua New Guinea. She is making her directorial debut with the recent release of a documentary short about a labor trafficking survivor, This Adventure Called California, and is in post production on a feature-length documentary about teen sex trafficking survivors in the Philippines, The Long Rescue.

 

Sherizaan Minwalla

 

 

Sherizaan Minwalla is a human rights lawyer and researcher who has been based in Iraq for more than a decade. She has worked closely with the Yazidi community and survivors since the 2014 genocide.

 

 

In one of the scenes of Sabaya, a woman who was just rescued … was pressured to remove her face covering in order to confront a female ISIS member … Legally, the filmmakers may be correct … she … consented … Yet beyond bare minimum legal requirements, the film raises serious ethical questions.

 

 

[In] Voices of Yazidi Women … 90% said it was a problem when the media exposed their identities….

 

 

Telling stories about sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence in conflict zones presents unique concerns about survivors, who may face and retaliation and rejection, stigma and shame, and emotional and psychological revictimization.

 

 

The fact that some of the women portrayed in Sabaya said they did not give their consent is a clear indication that a more comprehensive ethical approach is needed when documenting sexual violence and other sensitive topics. This current debate about the ethics of consent provides an opportunity to listen to the voices of the survivors in an effort to reform the current minimum standards that are exposing them to risk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

BY SHERIZAAN MINWALLA

 

After a New York Times article revealed that several Yazidi female survivors of sexual violence and genocide portrayed in the documentary film Sabaya did not consent to being in the film, the filmmakers responded and rejected those claims, stating they followed Swedish consent law and obtained legal consent. Sabaya documents heroic efforts by Yazidis with few resources to rescue women and children who were abducted in August 2014 by ISIS. While it is difficult to determine an exact number, estimates are that as many as 250 are being held as slaves and abused in Al-Hol Camp in Northern Syria by families affiliated with ISIS.

 

In one of the scenes of Sabaya, a woman who was just rescued from Al-Hol Camp after five years in captivity was pressured to remove her face covering in order to confront a female ISIS member suspected of enslaving women and girls. Legally, the filmmakers may be correct if at any point before showing the film, she and the other women consented, because the law only seems to require that agreement be obtained verbally, in writing, or filmed before the film’s distribution.

 

Yet beyond bare minimum legal requirements, the film raises serious ethical questions about whether the women were provided with the necessary information in advance, in a language they understood, with proper context, and without any undue pressures so they could make an informed decision about what they were agreeing to, including a discussion of how the film may expose them to risk.

 

Human rights experts, advocates, filmmakers, and mental health professionals have flagged concerns about how the media has reported on conflict-related sexual violence following the Yazidi genocide. In 2016, my colleague Dr. Johanna Foster and I published Voices of Yazidi Women, in which we explored the perspectives of 26 Yazidi women, including survivors of sexual enslavement.

 

We found significant ethical violations, including pressuring female survivors to talk to journalists, as well as questions about rape and enslavement that triggered extreme emotional distress. Of the female survivors, 90% said it was a problem when the media exposed their identities, including names, faces, tattoos, or clothing, because of negative consequences.

 

In the aftermath of such egregious violations of how Yazidi survivors were treated, a number of guidelines addressing conflict-related sexual violence were developed. The Global Code of Conduct for Investigating and Documenting Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (the “Murad code,” after Nadia Murad), captures minimum standards for documenting such violence in a survivor-centric manner and can be used by documentary filmmakers and journalists. The Dart Centre Europe created Reporting on Sexual Violence in Conflict, a set of eight key principles developed with guidance and input from survivors, advocates, researchers, print journalists, photojournalists, editors, filmmakers, and broadcasters.

 

Survivors speaking to the New York Times about Sabaya suggest that several ethical violations arose when documenting the rescues of women held captive by ISIS, including a failure to obtain informed consent, disclosing their identities that could put them at risk, and interviewing them about traumatic details involving sexual violence and enslavement without mental health services available. In Al-Hol and in the “safehouse” in Syria, these women and children were not safe due to the constant presence of ISIS as survivors waited to return to their families. In one scene, ISIS set fire to the fields near the safehouse in response to rescue efforts.

 

Telling stories about sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence in conflict zones presents unique concerns about survivors, who may face retaliation and rejection, stigma and shame, and emotional and psychological revictimization. The medium for narrating stories – written, audio interviews, or documentaries – is not relevant. What matters is that there are people involved whose very safety is being compromised in order to tell a dramatic, sensationalist story, ostensibly to help those very people, while trauma-informed, survivor-centered, or gender-sensitive approaches are being disregarded.

 

To ethically document a story involving sexual assault survivors, the filmmakers should have obtained meaningful informed consent in advance of filming, if in fact that was even possible in a conflict zone. Consent should be given by a person who has capacity, it should be voluntary, and it should provide material information to allow the person to decide whether or not to agree to be included. Capacity refers to the ability to understand what the person is being asked to do and evaluate the risks and benefits. Narrowly speaking, consent is assumed when a person is an adult. However in this context, one would consider whether a person who was just released from captivity has the ability to meaningfully evaluate these factors. Given these conditions, a full and frank conversation prior to filming should give all relevant information about the film and the rights of the survivors. Additionally, the consent process should be revisited to allow someone to change her or his mind during and after shooting.

 

Informed consent is a conversation that involves an ongoing relationship, centering the safety, legal rights, rehabilitation, and integrity of the survivors. This process can reduce the likelihood of undue pressure and intrusive filming without permission. Ethically-obtained, informed consent can empower survivors to regain control over their lives and bodies in unique ways. However, the well-being of survivors cannot be compromised in the telling of their traumatic stories.

 

In many dramatic scenes in Sabaya, it could not have been possible to obtain consent beforehand, giving survivors the only option to consent after the fact. The survivors found themselves in a coercive situation, where those who rescued them were closely affiliated with the filmmaker who resided at the safehouse. After capturing their rescues without their permission, the filmmaker interviewed the survivors at this safehouse in Syria where they may have felt obligated to “agree” as a result of being rescued.

 

In one scene, a survivor is forcibly separated from her child born in captivity as she prepares to return to her family, because children born of war are not accepted back into the Yazidi community and the women who choose to keep their children are also rejected. I would question whether she was able to refuse being filmed, and whether there was a conversation about the potential risks of her inclusion in the film since she did not want to give up her child.

 

The fact that some of the women portrayed in Sabaya said they did not give their consent is a clear indication that a more comprehensive ethical approach is needed when documenting sexual violence and other sensitive topics. This current debate about the ethics of consent provides an opportunity to listen to the voices of the survivors in an effort to reform the current minimum standards that are exposing them to risk. We can all continue to share and learn from our experiences. I hope the Sabaya filmmakers can contribute to this important conversation.

 

 

A GUIDE TO ETHICAL REPORTING AND MEDIA

A team of journalists and filmmakers who regularly work on issues of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) wrote the guide “Reporting on Sexual Violence in Conflict” to prevent the kinds of issues found in the making of Sabaya.

This guide describes the following key principles in detail.

 

Ask 3 Foundational Questions:

1. Am I sufficiently prepared for this?

2. Should we be interviewing this person, in this time, and in this place?

3. Does my interviewee fully understand what they are signing up for?

 

Conduct 3 Essential Practices

1. Allow survivors to speak in their own way and in their own time.

2. Understand trauma’s continuing impact on memory and feelings of safety.

3. Understand how your own emotional wellbeing is part of this too.

 

Tell the Story Carefully

1. Remember: Sexual violence is never the only dimension to the story.

2. The images don’t fade: Be careful with visual choices.

 

 

“I told them I do not want to be filmed,” said one of the Yazidi women. “It’s not good for me. It’s dangerous.”

Their objections have raised issues about what constitutes informed consent by traumatized survivors and about the different standards applied to documentary subjects in Western countries.

– From the New York Times

Especially for abuse survivors, we believe the matter of consent is more … It involves a process of free, informed participation without the hindrance of fears of retribution … from those in positions of authority and power.

SABAYA CONTROVERSY

On September 26, 2021, the New York Times published an article, Women Enslaved by ISIS Say They Did Not Consent to a Film About Them” by reporters Jane Arraf and Sangar Khaleel. They are referring to Sabaya, an award-winning film about Yazidi women and girls who escaped sexual slavery.

In this article, several Yazidi women spoke anonymously, for fear of repercussions, that they did not consent to being in the film. As survivors of sexual slavery, to have their images and stories used without consent is exploitative and retraumatizing. The article describes additional troubling issues, such as sending written consent forms to participants after the film had already screened, a woman being told the film was for personal uses, and other unethical practices.

We stand against the exploitation of sexually-abused women through these filmmaking practices. Especially for abuse survivors, we believe the matter of consent is more than obtaining written forms and verbal agreements. It involves a process of free, informed participation without the hindrance of fears of retribution, endangerment of basic survival needs, and other potential negative consequences from those in positions of authority and power.

Because abuse survivors have been conditioned to fear authority figures and accommodate others’ wishes, their degree of consent can be questionable when they are recovering from traumatic experiences. We call upon the documentary community to set a higher level of accountability when working on films involving sexual abuse and slavery.

 

 

 

 

CALL TO ACTION

The New York Times recently reported that Sabaya, a film about Yazidi sexual slavery survivors, included women who did not give consent to appear in the film.

Earlier this year, the Sundance Institute awarded the film its 2021 Directing Award in World Cinema Documentary. We believe this award is inappropriate for a director who failed to uphold the safety, well-being, and agency of all abuse survivors as his foremost concern.

On September 29, 2021, we submitted this letter to Sundance requesting to revoke this award, as well as making reparations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We received the following response from Sundance on October 8, 2021.

 

Sundance response 10-8-2021

 

 

 

 

To which we responded with the following on October 12, 2021.

 

 

Response to Sundance 10-12-2021

 

 

 

 

We are also aware that the film is distributed by MTV Films.

If you would like to adapt the letter to send to their attention and action, please contact:

MTV Documentary Films
Sheila Nevins – President
@thesheilanevins (twitter.com)
+1 212 846 6000 phone
1515 Broadway Ave.
New York, NY 10036 USA

 

 

 

 

You can also contact the Swedish Film Institute, which provided significant funding for this film.
 

 

 

 

The film is currently in the nomination process with the European Academy Awards.  You can oppose this process by contacting:
Mike Downey (Chairman of EFA): [email protected]

 

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