The combination of increased news coverage of sexual violence and the #MeToo movement has made it easier for survivors of all kinds of abuse to come forward and tell their stories. Their bravery has shed light on a taboo issue that’s incredibly difficult to understand. The effects of sexual abuse manifest in so many ways—in the form of PTSD, depression, anxiety, the inability to have meaningful relationships later in life, and much more.

But even as society is starting to comprehend what the aftermath of sexual abuse looks like, the culture that allows for such violence to occur in the first place steadfastly persists. Rape culture excuses, normalizes and tolerates sexual violence—and it is all around us.

And never before has a film so expertly captured these complicated and nuanced dynamics as Nancy Schwartzman’s Roll Red Roll, which pieces together the assault of a teenage girl at a party in small-town Ohio. You won’t see or hear the victim in this film; what makes Roll Red Roll special and important is that it is focused on—and exposes—the collusion of teen bystanders, teachers, parents and coaches to protect the assailants. It digs into the deep-seated “boys will be boys” culture that’s at the root of sexual assault in America and repeatedly and unflinchingly asks, “Why didn’t anyone stop it?”

We had the chance to speak with Nancy Schwartzman and Eliza Licht, the film’s impact producer, about Roll Red Roll and its impact campaign, and what funders can do to move the needle on sexual abuse.

We also invite all funders to the offices of Philanthropy New York this week, on Thursday, April 25, for a screening and discussion of Roll Red Roll and about how the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors are trying to change the culture around sexual assault. Register here.

Media Impact Funders: Can you describe the main objectives of your impact campaign?

Nancy Schwartzman: The Roll Red Roll impact campaign is shining a light on “rape culture”—or a culture that allows sexual assault to be normalized and dismissed. We are creating pathways for men to challenge general thinking about masculinity, accountability, and male leadership by inviting them to be changemakers in this issue. By centering perpetrators, bystanders and witnesses in this dialogue, we are also shifting the burden off of victims to drive the movement. We are calling upon key partners and influencers to become visible positive role models to demonstrate healthy relationships and illuminate our message.

Eliza Licht: Through theatrical, grassroots, campus, community and school screenings paired with toolkits and facilitator materials, we are opening up a national dialogue around rape culture, healthy masculinity, accountability, and bystander intervention. This film is the first of its kind to focus on the broader culture and institutions that allow systematic patterns of sexual violence to thrive. We are using Roll Red Roll as a teaching tool to incite these critical conversations that enable communities to bring together parents, educators, thought leaders and grassroots activists to carve pathways to sustainable change.

MIF: What’s missing from the conversations around sexual assault?

NS: Oh god. Where to start? Men’s engagement, community accountability, the toxicity of our culture in general, media’s complicity in fanning and spreading rape myths, over-reliance on a racist and dangerous justice system, how we scrutinize victims at the peril of actually shifting and transforming rape culture.

What’s so often missing from the conversations around sexual assault is who is enacting the violence? How are the perpetrators behaving and setting up the crime? Who else enabling it? What are the larger systems, allegiances and privileges that allow for this culture to thrive? By shifting the focus and scrutiny off of the victim and the traditional questions about a victim’s behavior (as if that had any bearing on why people commit or are subjected to sexual violence), we are inviting all of us to look at ways in which we look the other way or enable this behavior.

Additionally, for many people, “rape culture” is a new concept. Instead of explaining it with talking heads or experts as an abstract concept, in the film we show it. We show teens using language that minimizes and mocks sexual violence, and we show adults who enable, chastise and support it.

EL: We need to begin by acknowledging that rape culture is everywhere, in our jokes, in our turns of phrase, in our privileging certain groups over others, in the cultural belief that “victims make it up” or somehow deserve sexual violence In our inability to allow our boys and men to be fully human and vulnerable. All of these behaviors are rape culture.

We have been screening the film across the country, and as part of our impact campaign, we are collecting audience evaluations. We have seen that many people check that they were not previously aware of rape culture, their understanding has deepened and they are drawing the links to toxic masculinity, victim blaming and a lack of gender equity as factors in the culture.

MIF:  You make a point in the film to focus not on the victim—who we never see or hear—but on the boys accused of the crime and the adult men around them who tried to rationalize or excuse their behavior. Why did you choose this focus?

NS: From the beginning, I wanted to make a film about rape and sexual violence that did not center around or burden the victim. As a survivor myself, I’d explored at length coming to terms with my own assault in my first film The Line. I investigated the cultural context in which I was raped, what I lost in the process, and went a step further to speak to men—including my own perpetrator. This was in 2009. The end of that film, coming to understand that really the only person that could answer my questions about “why did this happen?” was the man who assaulted me. Where The Line ends, functions as the jumping off point for Roll Red Roll.

The Steubenville, Ohio, story enabled me to look carefully and closely at multiple perpetrators, through the use of their publicly available social media. I wanted to look at teenagers, their language, their motivations to understand what makes an otherwise “normal” young man behave this way?

If we truly want to shift rape culture, we must look at those who enact the violence.

EL: In reframing the discussion to focus on what men and boys can do, we are shifting the burden of social cultural change off victims/survivors while empowering men and boys as stakeholders. We are promoting the importance of bystander intervention on an individual and community level, particularly at the K-12 schools and colleges. Alongside the film at many screenings, we are inviting powerful and thoughtful male allies to join in dialogue with us on stage and in classrooms.

MIF: You’re coming up against some deeply embedded behaviors that you’re trying to change. What sort of challenges do you see and how do you plan to address them?

NS: As you see in the film, the microcosm that is the town of Steubenville was reluctant to really address what happened, for example, the coach did not want to punish his players for drinking for fear of that making the perpetrators look guilty, the radio DJ dismissed the case as a “he said/she said.” This reluctance and these behaviors mirror our larger culture’s unwillingness to acknowledge the endemic levels of sexual violence and its long-term implications.

We’ve been invited to over 40 film festivals, and have booked over 75 grassroots screenings around the country, all gearing up toward our June 17 broadcast on PBS’ POV.

Yet while many students and some parents are clamoring for the film as part of orientation or mandatory screenings for all students at their schools, we have been disappointed by some high schools’ reluctance and in some cases refusal to screen Roll Red Roll, stating that their students aren’t ready to address sexual assault. Some high school administrators have told our team that they are not the “target audience” because they don’t believe their students are capable of sexual assault, or because they haven’t had any cases of sexual assault reported in their school community. This position ignores data cited in a CDC report that found 1 in 10 high school students experienced some form of sexual violence in 2017 (1 in 7 for female students). We want to honor the courage and grit of the students, advocating for change in their institutions, who are going against the grain and receiving harassment. Unfortunately, a toxic byproduct of being an upstander can be backlash for shining a light and demanding change. I face it now during the release of the film, and Alexandria Goddard, the blogger who broke the Steubenville case, faced it throughout.

Beyond the unwillingness and fear of many institutions to look the problem squarely in the face and address it, we are also working with a very different administration without the focus and support of an Office on Violence Against Women, or a survivor-centered Department of Education. Now more than ever, grassroots and local efforts are essential, and this requires more outreach, time and investigation on our part to find, join and create these cohorts.

MIF: What does success look like? Can you talk about any successful outcomes so far?

EL: We are currently in the midst of our impact campaign, and believe that we are succeeding in our goals for media, curating public conversations and engaging men and boys:

Media: One of our main objectives with the theatrical release was to elevate the conversation about rape culture and the importance of centering perpetrators and the bystanders to a national level through the press. We were thrilled with the response, including Nancy’s conversation with Christiane Amanpour that was broadcast both on CNN and PBS, her segment on People.com, an interview on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour, and a number of insightful reviews The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, and Variety.

Public conversations: We curated a total of nine thought-provoking panels in tandem with our theatrical release in both New York and Los Angeles. We have been centering men in the conversations, and those have been by far some of the most engaged and powerful events. For example, our theatrical premiere was followed by a discussion featuring me, former NFL player and thought leader Wade Davis, comedian and podcast producer Mark Pagan on “How Men Can Challenge Rape Culture.” Culture critic and writer Lena Wilson moderated the panel, which was featured on the Film Forum’s podcast.

A high school in Bethesda, Md., denied students permission to screen the film, so they got together to find an alternative location and ended up hosting a screening attended by over 350 students and parents. The students organized a panel discussion following the screening, where sex educator Twanna Hines discussed the general state of sex education in this country: “It’s not required to teach consent. It’s not required to teach healthy relationships…we’ve got to change the culture and the way that we think and talk about sex.”

Men and boys: From an audience perspective, we are thrilled by the response we have been receiving from men, below are just a few responses:

“I will say simply: I was floored by this documentary. From a male’s perspective, it is often difficult to understand how widespread rape culture truly is. I consider myself to be generally aware of rape culture and what surrounds rape culture, but this documentary truly opened my eyes even more. I hope that those who are not as aware of rape culture will be able to understand the seriousness of rape culture.” —Jonathan Ediger, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS

“Beautifully shot, directed and organized. Takeaways: Addressing toxic masculinity at the local, community, and national/international level. Particularly fascinated/mortified by the victim blaming that was implicit or unrecognized.” —Justin Preddie, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS

These are precisely the kinds of conversations we hope to inspire through continued and well-curated screenings of the film.

MIF: Who were your main funders and how were they involved in the process?

NS: Production and post-production funding was provided by the Ford Foundation, Artemis Rising Foundation, Silicon Valley Foundation, Fork Films, Bertha/Doc Society, IDA Pare Lorentz Documentary Fund, NYSCA, The Fledgling Fund, The Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, Perspective, Tides Foundation, The Harnisch Foundation, and Chicken & Egg Pictures, Executive Producers Barbara Dobkin, Chandra Jessee, Regina K. Scully, Geralyn Dreyfous, and Patty Quillen. We were blessed to have funders who believed in me and the vision of this project and allowed for the time and process the story needed.

The Fledgling Fund, Threshold Foundation, Ford Foundation, the Wellspring Philanthropic Fund, and the Bertha Foundation have funded our impact campaign. These funds have allowed us to develop the campaign, enabling me to travel with the film to festivals and build local coalitions around the film, and hire an impact producer to deepen and expand our partnerships, strategy, and impact.

Executive producer Chandra Jessee funded our theatrical run, the Threshold Foundation allowed us to hire Picture Motion for a six-month grassroots screening campaign, the Ford Foundation funded our discussion guide, and the Bertha Foundation funded our pilot screenings campaign with Men and Boys and our upcoming Capitol HIll screening.

We have been fortunate to be part of the latest the 2018-2019 Fledgling Engagement Lab. Through this lab, we have been able to develop and hone our impact and engagement campaign with the help and expertise of both Fledgling, issue area experts, and the fellow filmmakers and impact producers in our cohort.

MIF: Some advocates in this space say philanthropy has been slow to respond to the #MeToo movement, and to this country’s sexual assault epidemic overall. Why?

NS: Perhaps this is from a gap in understanding the importance and the impact films can make on an issue. We think it involves a special combination of a great film, a passionate advocate/director, and a well-thought-out impact campaign.

Also, things move so quickly, the speed of internet activism and the rapid pace of the conversation calls for adaptability and faster turn around, then is usually allowed for in funding cycles. For example, the Bertha Foundation had the vision to give us pilot funding, to test how the film worked and determine how to build our study guide. They supported the Research & Development that led us to a deeper understanding of what we needed to include in the study guide to reach as many young people as possible.

MIF: What can funders learn from this work? How can philanthropy better support work to end sexual violence?

NS: Trust creatives! Trust storytellers! If the film is working, and changing hearts and minds, help us build from there. Work with us to craft our networks, expand, convene and support us to build the time and space to take our campaigns and plans to the highest level possible.

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.

We want to connect with funders to learn more about what they need to feel confident to support this work. In collaboration with the Fledgling Fund, we have developed and tested our campaign strategy to reflect this. We want to support mission-driven organizations to meet their goals, while also reflecting the needs of the populations this film can serve

MIF: What’s next?

EL: Roll Red Roll will open PBS’s POV season on June 17, and will also be broadcast on the BBC. With this new public access to the film on the horizon, we’re looking to deepen our impact.

We have ambitious goals for the next 12 months that include organizing screenings and larger scale events, creating a network of male allies who can join us as speakers, seeding men’s groups on various campuses, hosting a screening for new allies on Capitol Hill, and making inroads to the higher level sports world, such as the NCAA.

This work will ensure sustained use of the film in classrooms with our lesson plans, and in college athletic departments as trainings for coaches and athletes. All of these efforts will help move us toward our larger goal to engage men and boys in disrupting rape culture.

About the Author
Nina Sachdev

Nina Sachdev

Communications Director

Nina is a many-hat-wearing multitasking extraordinaire. She brings more than 15 years of journalism, news editing and marketing experience to her role as MIF’s communications director. Before joining MIF in 2016, Nina worked on the brand creative team at the corporate offices of Petco Animal Supplies, editing and auditing internal and external marketing communications. In her career as a journalist, Nina has worked at The Dallas Morning News, The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, The Philadelphia Daily News and The Philadelphia Weekly in almost every editorial capacity imaginable, including senior editor. Nina is the creator and co-editor of the award-winning The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse, a book-length work of nonfiction that utilizes first-person storytelling to address the reality of healing from the effects of sexual abuse. Nina holds an M.A. in journalism from Temple University.