“Hold Me Right,” a documentary by first-time Serbian director Danijela Stajnfeld, is certain to shake this year’s Sarajevo Film Festival with its exploration of sexual assault and its impact on survivors.
Stajnfeld, a celebrated actress in Serbia, left the country for the U.S. a few years ago after she was sexually assaulted by a powerful and well-known industry figure. The attack left her traumatized and unable to speak about it for a long time.
She ultimately made “Hold Me Right” about the experience and those of other victims of sexual assault who she met in the U.S. The film, which screens in Sarajevo’s documentary competition section, highlights the plight of survivors whose voices still go unheard even in today’s post-#MeToo era.
Still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder when she arrived in the U.S., Stajnfeld says she slowly recovered with the help of friends. “I was struck by the fact that just me speaking about it, I can actually start to be okay. That is the healing. It was a huge revelation for me.”
The experience of recovery inspired Stajnfeld “to create something that can help others. If a survivor can speak with another survivor, maybe they will feel safe to share their story and in that way get empowerment.”
After connecting with survivors’ organizations like RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) and applying to be a speaker, she contacted other survivors for what she initially planned as a short YouTube video.
“I wanted to make a 10-minute piece of just people sharing their stories, because I realized we all have very different stories about how we got to be assaulted, but we all share similar pathways because we all suffered stress in this space of silence and shame where you cannot speak about it – the consequences of being in that [confinement] are very similar.”
Stajnfeld interviews a number of victims of sexual violence, both female and male, including a former Philadelphia police officer who lost her career after she was raped by a superior officer, and a former Navy sailor who spent 20 years living in silence and denial after being assaulted in the military at the age of 17. She also interviews several perpetrators in the film, even discussing her own experience with the unidentified man who assaulted her.
Stajnfeld didn’t initially plan to include her own story in the film, but once she had made a first rough cut, she realized she needed to add her own voice to the work, lending the film a more intimate and personal tone. She found video diaries she had recorded following her assault and included the material in the film, which is also intercut with stark animated sequences.
In seeking to expand the project into a feature documentary, Stajnfeld met producer Mike Lerner of London-based Roast Beef Prods. through a mutual friend, the late producer Avram Ludwig.
“I think we have to say that Avram Ludwig was a very important person for both of us and a very creative and amazing person,” says Lerner. Recognizing the seriousness of the project, Lerner agreed to produce the film.
Stressing the timeliness of the subject matter, Lerner notes that recently published statistics in Britain show a massive decline in the prosecution of sexual assault and rape cases.
“In a way this film is a really obvious thing. But nobody really tackles it in the way that Danijela has. I think the simplicity of its message is really powerful, and the fact that it’s not only obviously Serbia or America, universally we’re just so far behind in really understanding this issue and finding ways to A) make it happen less, and B) how to really deal with the aftermath. I’m very delighted to be working with Danijela on this and I hope that it will achieve everything that we set out to do.”
Stajnfeld says making “Hold Me Right” has given her a “huge sense of empowerment.” She is sharing her story and the stories of others to inspire and help other survivors around the world, most of whom are still in silence, she says. It’s very important for them to see that there are people like them who have not reckoned with these crimes publicly or sought justice in court “but who can still find healing, because for most of us, unfortunately, justice is not possible, but healing is.”
She adds: “I don’t need that personally, I don’t need justice. I got my justice through making this film. I got my peace.”
To achieve that peace, Stajnfeld also needed to find compassion and understanding, something she realized was necessary to explore in the film. A comprehensive understanding of the issue was not possible without exploring the experiences and mindsets of perpetrators, she adds, noting that many perpetrators were themselves abused as children.
Stajnfeld takes issue with the often simple and widespread view in Western culture and society that perpetrators are monsters to be locked up.
It’s essential to hear them “because these people are not Martians, they are not our enemies. These are people in our communities,” she stresses. “Perpetrators are our neighbors, our teachers, our bosses, our superiors, our family members, and until we as a society really accept that, we won’t get anywhere.”