Over the course of this past year, many women have come forward about sexual assault and faced the backlash head on—from Emma Sulkowicz holding Columbia University accountable with her Carry That Weight performance art piece to the women accusing Ian O'Connor of sexual assault to the anonymous ex-Spelman student who called out the Morehouse administration for not handling her report properly to Brock Turner's case that continues to develop in real time. Today, we are honored to premiere the trailer for And Nothing Happened, a short film by Naima Ramos-Chapman about the psychological trauma of sexual assault.
In-between screening her short film at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Ramos-Chapman told us that people have been really receptive to the film so far. One of the first viewings happened to coincide with the release of the Stanford rape victim's letter.
"I remember reading it right after my screening, and feeling super heartbroken but also very proud of [the victim] for speaking out and confronting—even though she’s still reeling from the trauma—and being able to talk about it so profoundly," said Ramos-Chapman. "That’s exactly why I made my film—being really frustrated with the idea that we should not speak, or feel ashamed enough to not speak about it. It’s something that’s a crime, it’s something that’s wrong and happens to so many women, and men too."
As much as the film focuses on sexual assault, Ramos-Chapman emphasized that it's also about PTSD and mental health. "Seeing that imaging, especially in the black community, I don’t think it’s very common. It is a part of everyday life, and it doesn’t make you a monster. There are levels of it."
As a survivor herself, the topic hits very close to home for Ramos-Chapman. In addition to directing and writing the film, she also plays the starring role in her production. "I had some trepidation about that, but the bottom line is that I felt like I wouldn’t know how to communicate to an actor on how to hit the right tone," she said. "It’s like a poetic amalgamation of me and survivors I’ve met over the years... It is a world I know too well."
By having complete control over the production, Ramos-Chapman was also able to regain agency, which she mentioned is a huge deal for anyone that has dealt with trauma.
"I think in some ways being all up in and around this film was my own way of trying to regain control of my life post-sexual assault," she added. "Being able to say ‘Yeah, this thing happened to me,’ but in some ways take back that which this person tried to take," she said. "Own it, examine it, and confront it head on, and not let it change me for the worse. What can I build out of this so I’m not ruminating in the tragedy of it all?"
Prior to producing And Nothing Happened, Ramos-Chapman was a journalist working at a think tank in Washington, D.C. During that time, she wrote for reputable media companies such as Huffington Post, The Nation, NPR, Colorlines, Postbourgie, and Saint Heron.
"I was trying to figure out how to rebuild my life," she said. "It was my first time out on my own, in a different city—a really exciting time in my life. I was going through typical life stuff—my then-boyfriend and I were kind of shaky, I was in a new job, making new friends, and then, I was sexually assaulted."
The psychological damage forced Ramos-Chapman to leave her job and move back home to New York with her mother. During this reset phase, she tried to pick up acting again through an apprenticeship at The Barrow Group
. However, she grew frustrated about the lack of diversity in terms of the parts that she was offered to audition for. A filmmaker that she befriended recommended that she take matters into her own hands and write her own script instead.
"I was studying at this restaurant, pulled out a notebook, and just started writing and thinking," she said.
About 20 minutes later, a script for a "slice of life" film based on her experience materialized.
"It is not about what happened to me when I was sexually assaulted. A re-enactment does not interest me. It’s more about the internal struggle that I and many women go through days, weeks, even years after they’ve been raped—how things change on the ground of their psyche and spirit, and how they’re forced to deal with the world differently once their physical wounds heal but the ones unseen remain," she explained. "Rape is brutal and one of the many tragedies one might have to confront is this intense desire for a return to normalcy—to be able to react to the same things, love the same things, and be in the world the same way you used to before. To be unafraid of walking into a bar alone, of bumping into a man on a crowded train and not immediately fearing he will violate you, or venturing down a street alone without fearing for your life are real privileges lost."
Sexual violence is a heavy topic, and the way that it is covered in films tends to lean on the over-dramatic and sensationalized side. Ramos-Chapman pointed to Law & Order: SVU as an example of how the intensity is often very loud, in your face, and centralized around the rapitst's actions instead of focusing on the turmoil. She was tired of these narratives where women were brutalized or subjected to violence. Instead, she explores what happens internally after the fact—the layers of violation, the loss of control, and all of the things that can’t be seen or touched.
"I cared about the topic, and wanted to make a film about it but was struggling with how to successfully do it without subscribing to rape tropes. I wanted it to be a piece that you can viscerally understand without having to be shown a woman with a black eye strewn across the floor bleeding, because not all rape looks like that but all rape is worth putting an end to," said Ramos-Chapman.
While her film might be triggering for some viewers, especially those that have experienced sexual assault or domestic violence, Ramos-Chapman wanted to challenge herself with this project.
"I wanted to show that it’s way more complicated than people understand and won’t know until it happens to them—and hopefully it doesn’t," she said. "Not showing the same thing you’re used to seeing when it comes to brutality is important. Human beings deserve your empathy because they do, not because of what they look like."
Though fictional, And Nothing Happened has documentary-esque qualities with hints of surrealism. It makes the production come across more personal as viewers are given a lens into this cinematic version of her life, which Ramos-Chapman describes as "visually distilled vignettes" of what it's like to wake up in a post-rape world.
"As a woman you’re instructed by society to walk through this world on edge but once you’ve been raped there’s this feeling that you have completely fallen off the cliff. Patriarchy has pushed you off it and there is no going back," she added. "And Nothing Happened is about this cliff, this surrealist chasm where the psycho-spiritual world is that nobody can see exists. Where past, present, and the future of what happened to you somewhat collide in space. "
Another major aspect of And Nothing Happened is that it contained an all-female crew and cast from start to finish. Ramos-Chapman wanted women involved at every stage of production. "I feel more at home with women. I come from a family of all women. Women run my world so it didn’t seem unusual to have all women on set," she said. "Getting women involved at all levels is important."
As she elaborated on the level of comfort within this environment, Ramos-Chapman perked up as she mentioned how filming took place in her actual childhood home. She refers to the production as a "familly affair" with everyone being super hands on. In the scenes between Ramos-Chapman and her mother, she touched on how she gained a new perspective of growing up with trauma. Ramos-Chapman went on to talk about how rape and sexual abuse are often cross-generational occurrences.
"My mom told me stories when we were young about having to walk down a dirt road with a knife in her book to ward off predatorial men who would drive up. Trying to get her into their cars, some would show her their dicks," said Ramos-Chapman. "She grew up to be pretty badass though. She bodyguarded for Angela Davis during the black power movement, got two degrees, raised two girls on her own, and taught us what it means to be a fiercely protective mother for better and worse."
With this film, Ramos-Chapman is not trying to trick viewers into thinking a certain way. As someone who dislikes preachy movies, the last thing she wants is for people to feel a moral obligation to do something. She wants them to draw their own conclusions.
"If you respect your audience, you shouldn’t have to tell them how to feel. You should present something and they should participate, interact with the film, and come up with their own conclusions," she said. " I want them to have to work through feeling uncomfortable, confronted, confused. I want them to feel everything."
While it is often difficult for people to confront sexual assault, especially if someone is fortunte enough to not have experienced it firsthand, that doesn't mean you can't help to deconstruct it. Ramos-Chapman hopes that we can prevent potential rapists from "throwing their humanity away by violating someone else."
As far as allyship is concerned, Ramos-Chapman thinks that it is everyone's duty to talk about rape culture instead of reverting to silence. By being quiet about it, she says we are complicit in perpetuating it. We have to dismantle the patriarchy.
"I think we really need to teach boys and men how to not rape," she said. "We are always dealing with 'How do we take care of us? How do we bounce back from this thing that’s happened to us?' but we need to also pay attention to the people who are doing the raping. We need to figure out how to root out rape culture, starting with the men."
Another thing that Ramos-Chapman recognizes is the illusion of safe spaces. She notes that people can feel triggered anywhere, even at home in a space where they are supposed to feel safe. Instead, we need to avert our attention to the spaces where the work actually needs to be done.
"I want women who this has happened to to feel inspired to speak out, and like they’re not alone. This happens to everyone, this happens in quiet spaces that you don’t think to secure," added Ramos-Chapman. "Really, there are no safe spaces in the physical world, so my task it to figure out how to accept that reality while continuing to move through the world in search of all that is still beautiful in it."
In addition to filming And Nothing Happened
, Ramos-Chapman has been reaching out to anti-rape organizations in an effort to give back in the same way that she was treated. While she is not 100 percent ready to step into the role of something as impactful as a RAINN
—"those people are heroes, and you leave and may never see them again"—she thinks that she'll reach that point someday.
"I give back in my own different way. For some of us, it is making a film. For some of us, it’s doing that anonymously at night with an organization, or just being on the phone, or connecting someone with a lawyer who can help them litigate and figure out how to get retribution," she said. "I’ve been trying to reach out to yoga professionals. If I could find someone to bring it to a psycho-spiritual place... holistic healing specialized for rape victims, I’m sure it’s out there, I just have to find it. It’s a matter of time before those partnerships happen, but I definitely want to do more in that way."
Ramos-Chapman's coping strategy has been what you might expect from someone who becomes depressed after experiencing trauma—therapy, meditation, self-help books, and constantly reminding herself that "nothing that happens to you in this world is worth closing your heart for." She recalled a moment where she felt triggered when someone touched her arm and after she freaked out, she felt more upset by her reaction to the interaction. Instead of closing herself off, she aims to be open to opportunities that inspire hope. The support from her family and friends has also played a huge part in her healing process.
"Self care is also very important, especially as a black woman. There are people telling you you’re not beautiful in one way or another... you have to worry about your weight, what you wear, or you’re never going to be good enough," she said. "I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was cathartic to make this film, though I do think it’s hard for me to watch and have it screened. I need to do self care every time I screen it. I cannot get too attached to how people receive it, positive or negative. I have to let it go. It’s out in the world. It’s not mine anymore, it’s whatever people want to see."
For her next project, Ramos-Chapman is interested in unpacking normalized violence in the form of a stalker revenge film. "Unfortunately, a lot of women have been stalked. It might have been 10 minutes, it might have been a year. We all have that unfortunate situation where we do have to figure out how to get out of it," she said. "I’m interested in the complexities of what it means to be your own hero, someone else’s hero, or a failed hero."
As a filmmaker, Ramos-Chapman hopes to shift culture to be more welcoming toward complex female protagonists. While there are more women involved in film now, she wants to see more Ava DuVernays and Dee Rees and be a voice for that audience.
"Lena Dunham doesn’t speak for me, and she doesn't have to. The more women that actually get their stories out there the better," she said. "I want to be a part of the movement to tell our stories in a unique, nuanced way, push the needle on culture, and change the way we see female protagonists. The way we relate to each other in art, on the screen, and in mass media has an influence in how we do off the screen in profound ways."
Through her work, Ramos-Chapman hopes to continue tapping into people's emotional heart spaces. Furthermore, she wants to show young girls and women that their voices on these issues is essential to the conversation.
"We are not weak, we do not have to go it alone, we should not have to feel shame, we can choose to confront sexualized violence head-on," she said. "We can do it through art, or we can do it by reading a letter aloud during the sentencing of your convicted rapist."
And Nothing Happened premieres at the BAMcinemafest in Brooklyn, New York on June 22. To purchase tickets, click here.