A few weeks ago, Los Angeles filmmaker Jessie Kahnweiler released the short film Meet My Rapist onto the internet. It's a dark comedy that begins with Jessie encountering her rapist at a farmer's market, and then attempting to get through her day as he follows her—first to a job interview, then to meet up with a friend, for dinner with her parents, and finally for a therapy session. It's uncomfortable to watch, even when you're laughing. Jessie and I talked this week about her movie and her 94-year-old grandma's online shopping habits.
Emma: Hey, Jessie! I thought it might be helpful to hear you explain why you make a short film like this, as I’d imagine you’re hearing a lot of different reactions from a lot of different people. Because it is so funny, but also so, so dark.
Jessie: This film is not about my actual rape, but more so about the process of "getting over it,” along with the role my rapist has played in my life. So much of that has nothing to do with that actual, awful night; it only really exists in my imagination—which can be a scarier place than anywhere else in the world.
Emma: When you say your imagination, are you referring to that sense you get in the movie that he is looming behind you in all of these conversations you have or as you go about a given day? That discomfort is made really clear, I think—like when you’re sitting in a job interview and he’s there, touching your shoulders and crinkling the bubble wrap.
Jessie: Exactly. I only realized the extent to which I felt that in my personal life after I’d gone through the process of making the film—I really thought I was over it and then, when I started writing this, I was like, "fuck, I’m so not over this thing and I don't know if I ever will be, and that's totally OK.” Life is not a movie and I’m not a character; I’m a person.
It was also really empowering because I am the one who imagines this guy—I created my rapist’s persona. I only knew him in my real life for about three hours total. But I knew that if I could imagine him, I could also maybe say goodbye to him in my own way. It’s not that he is ever fully gone from my life, but I think it's possible to reach a healthy level of detachment, and making the film gave me just that.
Emma: Right, so you could sort of create your own version of a happy ending?
Jessie: Yea. And to me, what’s so happy about it is that its an ending that's dripping in beginnings—with my sexuality, my identity, and my confidence. It’s not that there is this big mega shift in me, but there is maybe a moment of like, "Yeah, this girl's on her way." And that’s so how life is. Any big change happens in a billion seconds over a trillion years.
Emma: Can you tell me a little bit about how you were able to bring humor into it? A few times in the movie, for me and for friends I shared it with, at least, we're laughing but also grimacing.
Jessie: Well, my whole goal for the film was to stick to the truth of my experience, and for me humor is the natural fuel for so much of my reality. That, too, has been much of my experience in the process of dealing with my rape. It’s not just one, comedy or tragedy, but everything mixed together at once. That's life to me, or how I was brought up—laughing through the tears.
It does upset me that people get offended by the use of humor here, but to leave it out wouldn’t be honoring my personal healing process, and that just doesn't feel right.
Emma: Did you have to experience a certain amount of distance from the experience, though, before you were able to bring humor into it? Or was that your immediate reaction?
Jessie: I think the distance between making the film and the actual rape (which occurred eight years ago) and the frustration came with this feeling, like, "what the fuck, it's been eight years and I’m STILL not over this? what the hell, man?!" The film deals a lot with my frustration and trying to reconcile being a "strong/ badass feminist" with a "hurting victim,” and being a sexual being as well. There is such a certain amount of guilt and shame around my own body with this experience, and the film was a chance to confront all these lurking fears.
My immediate reaction was just that: a reaction. I was formulating my feelings around my rape based on what other people felt and thought about it. Does that make sense? Like, I was so busy making sure my friends and family knew that I was "OK" that I forgot to ask myself if I actually was “OK.” Perhaps I used humor to skip over the pain and move straight to the hero rape victim, but obviously that shit caught up with me.
Emma: The confrontation is really interesting to me, because you bring the actual words—“my rape,” “my rapist”—and the trauma into all of these otherwise normal interactions, with a potential employee, your parents, a friend. You're making everyone deal with it. And it can be important, because otherwise I think that shame you referenced informs a lot of reactions to a sexual trauma. And you don't see much of that in your movie.
Jessie: Yea. Your healing can come from the inside out, not the outside in. Do you have any idea how many people told me not to make this movie? Like, "that’s going to really piss people off or offend and upset people." And I thought about it a lot, because I didn't want to do any of those things; that’s not what I aspire to do with my films. But I just had to go with my gut, and my gut was screaming for me to get my ass to set.
A lot of people have been like, “I really wanted to hate this and hate you for making it, but then I watched it and I don't know how to feel about it but its really making me think." That is like filmmaker orgasm to me. But I for sure just want people to know that this is not “the” rape story, it’s my rape story, and I want it to open up this dialogue. It’s so easy for people to get out of talking about it.
Emma: One moment I had—I was wondering about that line near the end when you say to him, “I understand why you did it, I'm fuckin' adorable.” What made you write that in?
Jessie: It's speaking to all of the insane rationalizations I tried to make for why this had happened to me—what I told myself, what society told me. Like, “fuck, maybe if I hadn’t worn that skirt or hadn’t had that drink..." I was trying to show that it doesn't matter why, but also that I am a human and so my mind will sometimes go, and it's OK to get lost on my head or "go there."
Emma: Yea, that's what I was wondering, if it was a reflection on victim blaming, and also sort of a reclamation, I guess? It’s complicated.
Jessie: I know, man. I should've just stuck to making a short about painting my nails. I'd be getting a lot more sleep right now. But I’m embracing the praise and the disdain because it's serving a larger purpose. It's a personal movie, but also it's so not about me. My 94-year-old grandma loves it and and the president of my college sent me a note. I mean, these moments I try to cherish.
Emma: I’m impressed your grandma got on YouTube.
Jessie: Please. My Jewish grandma has been working the shit out of of eBay since the ‘90s. She's got sass. Where the hell do you think I get it?