Stephanie Beatriz had never seen a film about rape that was actually told from the survivor’s perspective. Then, the Brooklyn Nine-Nine actress read director Jessica M. Thompson’s script for the indie film, The Light Of The Moon. “Most of the story is about her internal journey," Beatriz tells me over the phone about her character Bonnie, a Brooklyn architect who is sexually assaulted after a night out with friends. “It’s her struggle with what she’s lost and her being able to find her way back to herself.”
Unlike so many films about rape, Light Of The Moon isn’t a revenge thriller or a legal drama, but a deeply personal story that puts Bonnie in charge of her own journey. “It felt like it was beyond time that we hear from a victim and give her the power to tell her own narrative,” Thompson writes in an email. “This portrayal is told wholly from [Bonnie’s] perspective and we get to delve into her psyche and go on her journey with her.”
Beatriz says it’s that emotional side of sexual assault stories that gets “swept under the rug and forgotten. We forget the actual human being that it happened to.” And she believes that's one of the reasons why people have such a disconnect with sexual assault survivors: Their voice isn’t a large enough part of their story. “You hear about a rape in the news or something and you think, ‘Oh God, that sounds so awful. I’m going to stay away from that block,’” the actor says. “But what we lose is the focus on that person."
That lack of empathy for the survivor is an example of how rape culture has allowed society to trivialize sexual assault and blame the victims, questioning their integrity instead of questioning the alleged attacker. It’s happened in the initial slut shaming that occurred during the Bachelor in Paradise scandal and again in the reactions to the Bill Cosby sexual assault trial. But when survivors get a chance to speak, it’s a powerful thing.
And that's something Beatriz saw firsthand during the first few days of filming, when Stanford rape victim Emily Doe wrote a letter to Brock Turner, the man who sexually assaulted her in 2015. The 23-year-old addressed Turner directly in court, letting him know he had taken away her “worth” and her “own voice” that night when he raped her, but, now, she was taking it back. “Even if the sentence is light, hopefully this will wake people up," the last line of her letter read. "I want the judge to know that he ignited a tiny fire. If anything, this is a reason for all of us to speak even louder.” Turner would be sentenced to six months in jail, with the judge saying a longer sentence would have "a severe impact on him.” (He only served three.) But Emily Doe’s letter would put the focus back on the survivor.
“So many people had such a strong response to that letter,” Beatriz says. “And I really think it’s because we don’t really hear the survivor talk about how it affected her and how it’s going to affect her for the rest of her life.”
There’s no mistaking that Thompson’s feature film debut, which premiered at SXSW earlier this year and will be released in theaters this fall, is entirely focused on how this assault affects Bonnie. For one thing, Beatriz is in every scene, which allows the audience to experience everything through her eyes. We’re also seeing it through the eyes of cinematographer Autumn Eakin and a mostly female-crew, which was Thompson’s way of making sure the “male gaze wasn’t present” in Bonnie’s story. “The truth is,” Thompson writes, “most portrayals of rape on the big and small screen are completely inaccurate and tend to revictimize the rape survivor.”
In film and television, rape is too often “used by male writers, directors and cinematographers as a backstory,” Thompson continues, “in order to make a woman more ‘mysterious,’ ‘dark,’ and ‘complex,’ which is utter bullsh*t.” What’s also bullsh*t, in the director's opinion, is how other “directors tend to shoot the rape scene like a sex scene, and then the plot quite often leaves the victim, and we do not see how it affects them down the line.”
In her film, the rape scene happens less than 10 minutes into the film, and the rest of movie focuses on Bonnie as she figures out how to live with this trauma that far too many women will experience in their lifetime. (One out of every six American women have been victims of attempted or completed rape, according to RAINN.)
The film’s rape scene is hard to watch; not because it’s too graphic, but because it’s uncomfortably real. Eakin focuses on Beatriz’s face throughout the assault, giving an unflinching look at the terror Bonnie feels. You can't help but feel it too, which was the point. "I had several friends go through this horrible experience," Thompson writes. "I felt compelled to tell a realistic and raw portrayal of a rape victim/survivor, to make their experience known and so they felt represented fairly."
Beatriz says she felt safe while filming, noting that they choreographed the scene as if it were a fight, but she went home later and cried. “It was awful," she says. "And all I could do was think about my friends who had actually been through this thing that I was just playing pretend."
Thompson wants the audience to leave this film with a real sense of how rape victims feel, but to also walk away questioning their own bias. In fact, she opened the film with a "clubbing scene," where Bonnie is "drinking, flirting, wearing a short skirt, wearing headphones while walking home at night," to have the audience judge her and then judge themselves for judging her.
"We need to be conscious that victim blaming and rape culture is so deeply ingrained into our subconscious and at all levels of our society,” Thompson writes. “So we need to start with ourselves if we are going to change the dialogue.” With Light Of The Moon, the director does just that, forcing you to look at sexual assault from the survivor's point of view.