Review: ‘Rape in a Small Town: The Florence Holway Story’

On Easter Eve, 1991, a 75-year-old woman, asleep in her bed, was brutally attacked, beaten and raped in a small New England town. The aftermath of that night and the subsequent actions of the woman, who refused to remain a nameless, silent victim, form the basis of Jeffrey Chapman's docu. Skedded to air on HBO.

On Easter Eve, 1991, a 75-year-old woman, asleep in her bed, was brutally attacked, beaten and raped in a small New England town. The aftermath of that night and the subsequent actions of the woman, who refused to remain a nameless, silent victim, form the basis of Jeffrey Chapman’s docu “Rape in a Small Town: The Florence Holway Story.” The angry eloquence with which Holway evokes the terror and trauma she underwent resonates and clarifies the extraordinary impact this frail old lady has had on New Hampshire rape law. Currently skedded to air in January on HBO, strong advocacy docu should make waves.

Though Holway’s rapist was apprehended in her bed after she managed to escape, legal technicalities, which demanded semen as proof of rape, led the prosecution to offer a plea bargain to her attacker. Furious and anxiety-ridden (her whole family confesses to having become fearful after the attack, buying guns and behaving in ways they can no more help than they can condone), Holway crusaded to change the statutes.

Taking her fight to the media, Holway made a formidable case. Residents of her town admitted in interviews that they knew there had been a rape, but knowing it was Florence who was attacked made the horror immediate and inescapable.

Her detailed, articulate account of the experience and its never-ending emotional echoes — plus, implicitly, the fact that at her age, and under the circumstances, no one could accuse her of “asking for it” — stripped the crime of its titillating aspect and brought home the realization that, as Holway herself stresses, rape is not a sexual act but an act of hatred and violence.

Docu opens with Holway, now in a wheelchair, traveling to the penitentiary to testify at her rapist’s parole hearing. The scene is revisited sporadically as docu fills in the 12 years since Florence’s rape via media clips, interviews with friends, lawyers and family and, especially with the outspoken, indomitable grandmother herself.

Watching Holway in action at the parole meeting and seeing the way in which her testimony is able to swing the three-person parole board (at least one of whose three members had seemed quite ready to decide in the prisoner’s favor) over to her camp, provide some of pic’s best moments. The hearing also retroactively illuminates how her earlier testimony was able to exert such a profound influence on New Hampshire lawmakers.

Helmer Chapman alternates between scenes in the house, still haunted by the rape that took place there (Florence walks the viewer through the experience in her bedroom, with police photos of bloody pillows and the badly beaten Florence strategically interpolated evidence) and clips from media coverage of the lengthy legal battle that took the incident out of the bedroom and into the world at large.

Rape in a Small Town: The Florence Holway Story

Production

A HBO/Cinemax presentation of a ginnymacjack production in association with VanSant Prods. Produced by John Hoffman, Charlene Chapman. Executive producers, Hoffman, Gaby Money, Sheila Nevins. Directed by Jeffrey Chapman.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Maryse Alberti, Ken VanSant; editor, Juliet Weber; music, Joseph Vitarelli. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Showcase), May 2, 2004. Running time: 73 MIN.
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