Talking With: Documentary Filmmaker Miryam Rabinowitz
Miryam Rabinowitz had no background in film, no experience, and no connections when she decided to make a documentary film about childhood sexual abuse. What she did have was a conviction that communicating experiences of trauma through art is a vitally important act for both the person who experienced trauma and for their family, friends, and the community at large because it fosters connection. In Miryam’s experience, that connection is paramount for victims of abuse, yet it is rare, and seldom forged through words alone. As someone who herself experienced childhood sexual abuse, communicating that truth has been a driving need. She has longed to be truly heard and to feel genuine connection. Yet, she has found that words fail and the connection she craves is elusive.
When she was nineteen, a therapist asked her what she would do if she could do anything. The answer was clear—she loved film. If she could do anything, she’d work in film. The idea grew—perhaps she could, through film, find a way to communicate stories of trauma and to create connections between trauma victims and others. In the intervening three years—she is now twenty-two—she pursued that dream with impressive intensity and focus. In those few years she succeeded in producing a documentary and, in the process, gaining an intensive education in the world of film production. At the same time, her appreciation for the arts and their power has transformed her life for the better, and she hopes to spark that awareness in others. As someone who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community and who identifies as Orthodox today, her exposure to the arts was limited until she took matters into her own hands.
Miryam’s documentary Still Feeling is now in post-production. She continues to fundraise as she moves forward in the process of seeking distribution and submitting it to film festivals. The fifteen-minute short follows Israeli musician Yuval Goldenberg, whom Rabinowitz first met about seven years ago when they were both in the same treatment center in Israel. Targum Shlishi helped support the film in the hopes that increasing awareness of the grim reality of childhood sexual abuse will help prevent future occurrences in the Orthodox community and in the world at large. Here, Targum Shlishi’s Andrea Gollin speaks with Miryam about the film, her motivations for making it, and next steps.
“Talking With…” features conversations with Targum Shlishi’s grantees and with people of interest. Click on the image below to watch the four-minute trailer for Still Feeling. Images are stills from the film.
Targum Shlishi: What is your film about?
Miryam Rabinowitz: This is a short documentary about communicating the experience of trauma for the family and friends of victims so they can connect. The pain the victims go through is in part about connection. With this film, we are using the arts to connect victims to their families and friends and to heal through connection.
TS: You have been working on this film for a while now. When we first spoke to you and awarded the grant, I believe filming had been completed but there was still a lot of work to do.
MR: The film is a short. The final film is fifteen minutes, and it was edited to that out of fifty hours of filming. We filmed for eleven days, and it took more than six months to edit—of that, six weeks were very intensive. It was a long haul to flesh out the story.
TS: And your ideas about the final product changed along the way, didn’t they?
MR: Yes, very much so. Originally, we aimed for a feature documentary that would include various artists and would touch on four different artists and their lives, including a male painter, a dancer in Australia, and a female multidisciplinary artist from Chicago. All different artists in different mediums, and all with different stories of abuse. As I started to develop this, people advised me to focus on one story. They said that since this was my first film, it would be best to work with one person. That was really good advice. We had so much footage. It took a long time to discover what we wanted to say.
TS: How did you pick that one artist to focus on?
MR: I wanted to start with Yuval’s story and with Israel. I had spent time with Yuval in a rehab center, so I knew her well. I had a personal connection with her. I knew her art and was aware of how her music touches people. I had ideas and thoughts of how the film would work. Fifty hours later, it has developed into a lot more than what I had thought. I had to ignore my thoughts and see what the film was saying—it is a breathing, living thing, and it had a mind of its own.
TS: A large part of the film centers on rehearsals and a performance.
MR: Yes, Yuval was performing at Habima Theatre in Tel Aviv for International Women’s Day as part of a women’s group that focused on women sharing their experiences. It was cool being able to capture the rehearsal process, and I felt that there was a dire need to get this process on film. These women have suffered from abuse and we see them [in rehearsal] share their experiences, and then we see them [during breaks] smoking or dancing to Britney Spears’ music. So we see them giving voice to the trauma, and then taking a break, and then being silly. There are a lot of emotions that are running wild. For the production team, it was a metaphor for the lives of these women, this back and forth, this kind of in-between life that they live.
TS: At this point, many people have seen your film or talked with you about it. What has the response been like so far?
MR: It’s been very interesting for me personally. Going into this project, I thought that people’s response to the topic was more malicious than it actually is. I thought people were maliciously insensitive to this kind of trauma. In fact, what I learned is that people are actively not dealing with it. People don’t understand this topic whatsoever. People don’t understand childhood sexual abuse and they don’t understand the long-term effects. What I have learned is that people will sympathize immediately if you tell them about the topic. But if you go into anything deeper, they can’t comprehend. People may look at someone in their teens or twenties and wonder why they are an addict or why they can’t keep a job. That point of view is judgmental. When you try to explain to people that these can be long term effects of childhood sexual trauma, they don’t understand.
TS: What do you wish that people understood about childhood sexual trauma?
MR: It changes your entire life for your whole future. The way you see the world, the way you build your life, it’s all sort of based on the childhood trauma. People want to think that you can put it behind you, that you can get over it. But it goes deep. It is who you are. The most you can do for a survivor is acknowledge their pain.
TS: What has your experience been like in terms of trying to communicate this to people?
MR: A lot of times people will shut me down when I would like to open the conversation further. I would like people to ask me questions because that means they are acknowledging it and that they are validating it. But people are not willing to do that. People who are young, in their twenties, they don’t want to hear about it because they think it will fog their rose-colored view of the world. There is a shallowness that has surprised me and that I am very sad about.
TS: You went into this film with no background or training in the field. What were you doing professionally and educationally before this? And what catalyzed your decision to do this film?
MR: I was in real estate. I went to an Orthodox Jewish day school and then when I graduated from high school I went to a year of seminary in New York. One night I was with an older gentleman who was very prominent in the community and he sexually assaulted me in his own home. It shook me to my core, because I am a survivor of childhood sexual above. I thought I had gotten over it. I thought it was like chicken pox. But it was like ripping open a wound.
TS: How did you respond?
MR: I just started working more. I worked all day in real estate and then went to school full-time at night. After about a year I went skydiving because I wanted to see if I would feel anything, and I couldn’t feel a thing—and I’m scared of heights. So I knew I had to do something. I quit my job and I started going to therapy. My therapist asked me what I would do if I could do anything. I said I would work in film.
TS: Did you know what you meant by that? Did you know what kind of work you wanted to do?
MR: I knew I wanted people to acknowledge the pain that I personally have experienced. I wanted people to acknowledge that we are all connected. It was a soul-searching period for me, and I was figuring out what was important. All I wanted was acknowledgement and connection so that I could find the power to keep moving forward. The way that I was communicating with people was not helping. People didn’t want to talk about it. And there were documentaries already about the topic—of people spitting out these stories, and these horrible re-enactments that made you not believe in humanity. A lot of the films about the topic focused a lot on the predators. It’s like focusing on the terrorists and not on the victims of terror and their loss.
TS: So at that point you had realized you wanted to work in film in some way, and specifically to work in documentary filmmaking. You wanted to do something on the topic of sexual abuse, but to communicate in a different way. And I know from talking with you previously that artists were key in your next steps.
MR: Yes. The trigger for me was to go out and talk to artists. They are the ones who can communicate. They can make people listen and make people see. Rather than trying to explain with words the experiences that people have gone through, the art forms can communicate and people can connect to the feeling being expressed. So I saw that you can bridge that gap in communication through art. And I was trying to find the right artists.
TS: How did you find Yuval Goldenberg, who was ultimately the subject of your film?
MR: When I was fifteen, I was in a rehab facility in Israel, and on my way in, I met Yuval. I was going through a very hard time, and she said to me, you’re here, embrace it. And all I remember about her from then is that she was always singing. So almost five years later I was starting on this film and I sought her out. I found out she was on her way to putting out an album. And each song was a deeper part of her pain. It was a perfect time for her.
TS: What were your next steps? How did you go from the idea to the film, especially considering that you had no experience in the field?
MR: I did a Kickstarter campaign. I connected with film students. I hired crew people in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and for fifteen days we followed Yuval and filmed her. A lot of people asked me if this would be hard [emotionally] for me. I had no idea what it would be like for me. I just knew it was important for me to follow Yuval for many reasons. She was so connected to her family and they were so there for her. I went in thinking that once you have connection you are all good. Her family was very open. But pain is still pain. Now [at the time of this interview] Yuval is in another facility because she is having a very hard time. What we captured between the lines was a bit of disconnection. Her parents were there. Her siblings wanted to get past it. People want others to get over their trauma because it is a burden, and you feel that. There was a lot that I learned.
TS: Can you comment more on that—what do you feel you have learned?
MR: In one way it is the relationship to art. I grew up in an Orthodox community and art was not promoted. There was no space for it. We didn’t learn art making or the history of art. I didn’t know there was a place to be expressive. I was opened up to this whole world of art. There is art all around us. It is expression. It is a mouthpiece. I came to it so late, and I’m so happy I did. It is the key to connection and it is the key to happiness. It is everything. It is such an important piece of culture and cultural expression. I don’t know why our Orthodox community is so deprived of it. I feel that it has to do with fear and power—that the community is afraid of art and the power of art.
TS: I have a feeling your relationship with art will continue to grow and deepen in ways that you can’t even imagine yet—there going to be much more to that story! As for your film, is it now finished?
MR: Yes, it’s complete. It’s in post-production. It’s being submitted to various film festivals, and I am researching distribution platforms in the U.S. and Israel.
TS: What are next steps?
MR: I am still fundraising. That is in order to apply to more film festivals, and I would love to be able to travel more for meetings.
TS: What is on the horizon for you in terms of future work?
MR: I have some different projects in the works on different topics. One I’m very excited about is a documentary about Leah Forster, who is a Jewish woman, ex-Hasidic but still Orthodox, and lesbian, and a comedian in New York. She was outed and fired from her job as a teacher. She married a woman and she has a daughter. There was controversy around her performing at venues that were kosher—there were rabbis who protested and who said they would ensure that the venues lost their kosher designation. This is an exciting project for me. She turned down a Netflix documentary, but she said yes to me, and she is giving me open access to talk to her and to tell her life story. I just started fundraising for that.
TS: Do you see the project with Leah as related to Still Feeling in any ways?
MR: Yes, in a way. There is so much shame about being gay in the Jewish community. And shame is disconnection. I had shame, and I am still uncovering layers of shame from my childhood. When you express things they become less shameful.
TS: And you’re also working for other people now on film projects, is that right?
MR: Yes, I started getting hired for production jobs. For music videos and short films. I’ve worked with Def Jam and Atlantic Videos. I just directed my first music video. It’s incredible. I’m learning a lot. I’m working on other people’s projects, and I’m working on my own.
TS: Ultimately, what do you hope the audience takes away from Still Feeling?
MR: It has changed so much. It used to be that I hoped people would realize the long-term effects of trauma. Now it’s that I hope people will relate to the pain of it. I hope people will feel more sensitive to their own pain and to others’ pain. I hope people have an emotional experience. I hope people will wake up and give themselves the opportunity to experience emotions.
For more information about the film, contact Miryam Rabinowitz at email@example.com.
All images are courtesy of Miryam Rabinowitz. From top, all are film stills except the bottom image of the film crew; Miryam Rabinowitz is second from right.