The Ms. Q&A: Why Feminist Filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman Went Back to Steubenville

The theme of the 2019 National Sexual Assault Conference—Beyond the Breakthrough—sought to inspire the collective movement to end sexual violence and build on the momentum of the #MeToo movement. Ms. was the media sponsor for the conference—and expanded the discussions happening on-site with this dedicated series. Click here to read more posts. You can also watch interviews and conference sessions from #NSAC2019 on the Ms. Facebook!


I first met Nancy Schwartzman in 2009, when she was designing the impact campaign around her short film The Line. That documentary leveraged her own experience as a survivor to spark conversation around consent and sexual boundaries back in the era of Yes Means Yes, and a groundswell of new activism that demanded a sex-positive movement to end violence.

Ten years later, Schwartzman’s groundbreaking anti-violence work is back on bigger screens. Roll Red Roll, her feature-length true-crime documentary thriller, takes viewers to the frontline of the infamous Steubenville rape case, in which heinous accusations of rape against football players in a small town made national headlines—and put rape culture on the map.

Schwartzman’s film is now on Netflix following theatrical releases across the country and a debut TV release with PBS’ POV series. Before the 2019 National Sexual Assault Conference, where Roll Red Roll will screen and be followed by a discussion, she talked to Ms. about what that case—just as disturbing, jarring and shocking all these years later—can teach us about the roots of rape culture and what it will take to shift it.

Tell me about the moment you realized you were going to make this documentary. What led you to Steubenville, and what kept you there?

I’ve been an activist in the anti-violence movement for many years, leveraging film and interactive media and tech to do this work—I made a short film, “The Line,” that explored consent, and developed the White House 2011 Apps Against Abuse Winner Circle of 6. When the Steubenville story broke, people started sending me information and urging me to do something.

I first heard about the story when it broke in the New York Times. But blogger Alexandria Goddard already captured social media, found deleted evidence and kicked it up to a larger audience. Rachel Dissell, an investigative reporter at the Plain Dealer had been reporting on it, too. Then Anonymous came in, after Alex was sued by a local family trying to silence her blogging about the case, and blew it onto the New York Times home page.  

Ultimately, it was the public nature of the crime, the social media documentation and the rare ability to tell a story about rape that focused on the perpetrators and the larger culture that drew me to the story. 

When we were in conversation at the Laemmle Theater in L.A. you said something that stuck with me—that you wanted to make a rape documentary where the survivor’s story was not at the center. Where, instead, cultural forces and circumstances were under the spotlight. Can you talk a little bit about that decision, and how it shaped your process as a filmmaker?

What made this story different were the elements that were not explored in film before—rape culture laid bare, published in hundreds of social media posts, hackers, an amateur crime blogger, the ability to look into perpetrator behavior and the context that enabled it. Without scrutinizing the victim, we can look at the language these boys are using, the seeming acceptance of folks in town.

Which begged the larger questions: Why did no one stop it? What was happening in that community that made it “ok” to joke so publicly about rape? 

We crafted the film to engage men and boys—we worked in the true crime genre, a popular genre that usually fetishizes victimhood, flipped that trope, and put the spotlight on the behavior; we used football imagery, football energy and music to echo the energy of the young men during the night of the assault and afterwards. But set in this context and laid bare, the “excitement” or celebration is horrifying.

Context is everything. I wanted to make a film that no one could watch and still minimize what occurred or blame the victim.

I remember Steubenville not only because it was such a defining moment in my own activism, but because I was convinced, I think, on some level, that it was an outlier, and I was wrong. In what ways is Steubenville—and when I say that word I mean the town, and also the crime that’s come to define it—a lasting case study in rape culture? 

To quote Jimmie Briggs: “Rape culture is American culture.” We live in a culture that dehumanizes women and queer people – that objectifies and shames, and ultimately laughs at and makes light of sexual violence. In many ways, Steubenville was the horror story that brought the term “rape culture” into mainstream conversation. And in the process, Steubenville has become synonymous with the ugly realities of that culture. 

I’m wondering if you had “a-ha” moments while you were making the film. What lessons can advocates and activists take away from this film? What did you learn making it?

I traveled back and forth to town quite a bit, and got to know folks from all corners. What I learned was that everybody was impacted by the rape, the effects were so far reaching, everyone felt close to it and hurt by it. It really solidified my understanding that rape is not just a crime between victim and perpetrator, it reaches and ripples out to en entire community. 

But we are truly in a transformational moment. Finally people are listening, are enraged. We are seeing more men stepping up as allies, calling out the behavior as unacceptable. Can we harness that for change?

The epidemic of sexual violence needs multiple solutions, strategies and stories. It can be tempting to see legal and policy changes as a “fix,” but these are left vulnerable and unsustainable without long-term cultural engagement. We want to stress the importance of the anecdotal feedback we have received from our audiences about how Roll Red Roll has changed the way they think about sexual violence and has inspired them to be a part of positive change. These attitude shifts lay important groundwork for sustainable cultural impact.

In the midst of #MeToo, what happened in Steubenville also doesn’t feel like it was nearly a decade ago, not anymore—yet it was a groundbreaking moment for digital activism, for anti-rape activism, for survivors speaking out. What conversation are you trying to spark with Roll Red Roll—and what impact are you hoping to make with this story in the current moment?

I hope we are creating pathways for men to challenge toxic masculinity and harmful tropes that create the context for gender-based violence and harassment. I think we’ve deepened audiences understanding of rape culture, from the subtle to the extreme.

I also know the work doesn’t end here, and it hasn’t for you, either. You’ve already released a short film follow-up with The Guardian. What are your next steps—as an activist, as a filmmaker, as a feminist?

Roll Red Roll just went live on Netflix in 138 countries, so we are connecting with a global audience with tweets pouring in—in Spanish, French, Norwegian—and our impact team is really working hard to meet the demands for resources. We are continuing to bring the film and our impact campaign to communities around the world, including implementing the free and available Roll Red Roll interdisciplinary high school lesson plan in schools around the U.S.

I am also developing new film projects continuing to explore the intersections of gender and technology, and I’ve joined the APB Speaker’s Bureau—so I’ll hopefully come chat in more schools and communities moving forward, too!

About

Carmen Rios is the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. and has spent over a decade raising hell in feminist media. Her work has been published by outlets like the Atlantic's CityLab, BuzzFeed, ElixHER, Feministing, Girlboss, Mic, MEL and Everyday Feminism; and she also spent six years writing and editing for Autostraddle, was a founding blogger and activist with the SPARK Movement and was the inaugural managing editor of THE LINE Campaign blog. Carmen is additionally a co-founder of Webby-nominated Argot Magazine.