"Fight the fear if you believe in your art": Phoebe Montague, 100 Women I Know
"The potential to make change matters more than any fear of being judged..."
Hailed as ‘the laboratory of cinema’, demand for short films has never been higher. Short film can be compelling, impactful and, importantly, accessible - an entire story succinctly told in thirty minutes or less. So it was that I found myself needing to take a time out after first watching 100 Women I Know at November's Underwire Film Festival. The film gives four up-close and personal accounts of rape, told by the survivors in the settings of their own homes, accompanied by the statistic that 92 out of 100 women surveyed had been sexually assaulted. It’s difficult but arresting viewing.
Creator and director Phoebe Montague eloquently answered questions after the screening, discussing a need for change and the importance of education when talking about rape awareness. If we’re talking about positive role models (check our recent hashtag campaign), it’s difficult to think of a better example. Phoebe kindly talked us though the making of the film, understanding consent, the concept of art as therapy and the importance of just putting yourself out there and getting shit done. Essential reading!
What gave you the idea to make the documentary and why did you choose this subject matter?
I think I made this film as a way of moving on from my own experiences. I had felt alone for so long and I hoped making this film could encourage a sense of solidarity between survivors. When I began the project, Me and my friends had only just started openly discussing some of the things we had been through. Most of us had blamed ourselves, and felt too embarrassed or ashamed to share. I wanted to try and change the perception of rape survivors, to show people that they are not victims, but instead strong women. So often we hear accounts of rape from people silhouetted in a dark room, or with their face blurred out. I wanted a more human approach. The portrayal of rape in our media is often violent and committed by a “creepy” stranger; I wanted to show other perspectives. I want to encourage a more open conversation.
How did you get into film-making? How long have you been doing it?
I made my first film, during my GCSE’s. I didn’t find the education system very engaging, I was a bit of a flop to be honest! Once branded as “bad” or “naughty”, teachers only expect you to do badly, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. My media teacher was the exception to this. She believed in me. I found Media and Film Studies interesting due to the sociological aspect; it helps your understanding of situations. I’m overly observant – sometimes annoyingly so. Filmmaking allowed me to use observation as a skill.
For 100 Women I Know, I started in 2014, with research - basically, I used Facebook, putting out feelers. At first, not many people were responding but people were messaging me in private. I felt like there was a big taboo. As more people started engaging, there was a ripple effect. I had no idea it would be called “100 Women I Know”. I thought I’d get maybe 20 responses, but they just kept coming.
I actually made an early version of this film during in 2014 whilst on a foundation course. In a way, that version is even more heart wrenching than this one. Everyone is younger and it’s more raw. Some of the contributors were still barely able to say the word rape. I’d made this film entirely on my own, so the technical side of it wasn’t polished – I had just been given the kit and told to make a film, with little training. I’m still winging it now! But I have more understanding.
I started again in 2016 and re-made the film for my graduation project. I carried out the research and interviews in a similar way, but with all the knowledge of where I had gone wrong the first time round. I had spent a year on my course and had kept myself to myself. It dawned on me – I needed to push myself, now or never. When pitching my film to my tutors I stood there all clammy and shaking as I read from a piece of paper covering my face. My pitch wasn’t the best, what I realized though, is that everyone could see I wanted to make this film because I care so deeply about the subject. I was so happy when my film was chosen. It was a really transformational period. I really learnt you have to fight the fear if you believe in your art.
Are all the women in the documentary friends of yours, did you already know they’d been had these experiences or did that come out during the process?
Yes, the women featured in the documentary are my friends. I went to school with three of them and I met the fourth when I was 18. People have asked me how I managed to get them to speak so honestly, and I believe it’s because of the pre-existing connection and trust. Trust is so important.
In terms of the questionnaire - people could give their details if they wanted to, but the majority chose to remain anonymous. The respondents aren’t best friends of mine – obviously nobody has 100 best friends. But they are all women I know personally or are friends of friends.
The statistic you uncovered - that 92 out of 100 women had been pressured or forced into sexual activity – this is really high. Was that shocking to you?
I was shocked… but… at the same time, once I’d opened the conversation, and began research, I started to understand how big the issue really is. I was more shocked reading the experiences though. Initially, I was so deeply affected - I still am, but at the same time, I’ve become a bit desensitized. I think you have to try and use the emotion as a driver to make a change.
The documentary really captured the raw emotions of these women – was it hard to film?
It was a therapeutic experience. And I was stronger second time around. Everyone involved in the film felt that sharing helped to lift a weight. For one of the women, it was the first time she’d ever spoken about it. I consider her one of my best friends – when we were younger, she’d told me that she’d lost her virginity at a festival with a guy. In actual fact, she was raped in a park whilst paralytic, by someone she thought was a friend. She’d romanticized it because she was ashamed. I told nobody about my experiences when I was younger. So many teenage girls feel lost and feel that they are unloved – they go looking in the wrong places. You think you’re a big woman, but really you are naïve and often you are preyed upon. Making the film was very consuming, not just the content but having a sense of responsibility to the contributors, for them to feel at ease and to portray them truthfully. Documentary films can be voyeuristic, it was important for me to bring to light the detail in these cases.
Obviously, it was incredibly hard for the women to share their story, but these women selflessly contributed, because they understood the potential to create change. That matters more than any fear of being judged.
You’re planning to tour the film around schools and community projects, with an accompanying workshop – what happens during the workshop? What are your aims for this?
I want the workshops to be inclusive – “People We Know” is the title of the workshop organisation. Although my film focuses on the rape of young women. The aim of these workshops isn’t to vilify boys and men, “look at all these bad things men are doing to girls and women”. My desire to do these workshops stems from the shortcomings within our current sex education system, we CAN do better as a society, to prevent young people from becoming victims or perpetrators. We need to talk about enthusiastic consent, relationships and respect. We must acknowledge that young people do have sex and empower them to have autonomy over their bodies. We need to have open and honest conversations. A lot of young people watch porn and think that it’s reality. They don’t know what to expect or accept.
We are piloting the workshops, this year on a voluntary basis. Our first workshop is next month (February), with a youth offending group. I’m really excited. All workshops will include a screening of the film, and then discussion and activities designed to encourage conversation and Independent thought.
I aim for all the facilitators to be under 35. Some of the women that were interviewed in the documentary are keen to facilitate the workshops, which will be incredibly powerful. It’s important to have male facilitators too; I think boys and young men would benefit from someone who can relate to their experiences.
I see the potential to expand the workshops, in the future I’d like to run workshops with survivors. But young people are the future and the key to change. Even if I change the perspective of just one person in a group, that can have a knock-on effect. It’s all about planting seeds.
How can we positively bring men and boys into conversations about consent? Do we need to?
It’s so important to speak to boys and men about consent – as I said, it needs to start from an early age. There’s pressure on boys and men to be masculine, to be strong figures, to be dominant. But reaching them before they might get sucked into lad culture, explaining consent will help prevent toxic behaviour. Society is growing to better understand consent. It’s been a monumental year for women. It feels like people are becoming more conscious of social issues, but there’s still a very long way to go. There are a lot of young men that want to support the cause but don’t know how to. We need more male activists and men to speak up! I’m sure there are some but they’re not so visible.
You won an Editing Award from Underwire Film Festival – congratulations!
Thanks – It was a shock to be honest! And an honour, the other films nominated in the category were of such a high standard! I feel like I’m an instinctive editor and I enjoy piecing stories together but things like export settings are mind-boggling… I hadn’t intended to edit the film, but my editor dropped out, so I stepped in. It was affirming to see that people appreciated and understood my vision. A lot of documentaries that are based in the home use cut-aways… lots of shots of people making tea. But I wanted the focus to be the women, period. To me, it felt wrong to cut away when they were talking about such delicate things.
Overall, has this process changed you?
Yes, for the better. It has given me a purpose. I’ve always known that I wanted to make films that say something. It’s cool to watch a comedy or whatever, I understand the need for escapism. But films cost money – if you’re going to spend money and time and energy, do something that will shake things up and make people think. I’ve had to push myself. I’m not naturally confident, I’m not naturally likely to speak to people I don’t know, but making films and trying to build a community… you just have to. It’s given me that push to just go for it.
It has also given me confidence as an artist and helped me work through some of my demons and issues. When I’ve needed to escape from film, I’ve found writing lyrics a helpful way of expressing myself. I actually recently formed a band, 'tyD' (@teachyourdaughters). I wrote our song (of the same name) “Teach Your Daughters” about my experiences as a young woman with no guidance.
Overall I’ve chosen to step out of my comfort zone and do things that I thought I was incapable of doing. And I encourage others who have experienced any type of trauma not to doubt themselves as a result of their experiences.
What’s next? Tell me about your book!
So when I made the film, I always intended to do something with the research but I didn’t know exactly what. I had all of these women’s accounts, I felt people needed to hear these stories. I bumped into Kezia, an old school friend on the tube, she was working in publishing. She and her best friend were in the process of launching an indie publishers - Break the Habit Press, with the intention of publishing books on subjects of social interest. 100 Women I Know is the first book they’ll publish! I didn’t think this would even be possible, but it’s happening! Right now, I’m working on it every day. It’s an overwhelming and mad time, but I believe this book has the capability to really shed light on the issue. When I started this project, sexual violence was really stigmatized. I feel we’re moving in the right direction. I hope to continue to make art that matters and makes people think.
Phoebe is selling t-shirts with all proceeds going towards the development of “People We Know” workshops. Use the code "ASH" on check-out for 25% off. Find out more here.