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Silent no more: documentary draws from video diaries and journals of sexual assault survivor

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/6/2018 (537 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the law community, there's a crude nickname about a strategy used to discredit sexual assault complainants: slut or nut.

Now, it's also the apt title of a new feature-length documentary that follows Toronto activist Mandi Gray as she does something many sexual assault complainants do not: navigate the criminal justice system.

Gray, a PhD student at Toronto's York University, alleges she was raped by fellow student Mustafa Ururyar in January 2015. In 2016, Ururyar was convicted of sexual assault, a conviction that was later overturned on appeal in 2017.

The case was highly publicized, and Gray was subjected to harassment by strangers desperate to paint her as both a slut and a nut.

Directed by Kelly Showker, Slut or Nut: Diary of a Rape Trial draws from video diaries and journals Gray kept during the trial, interviews with legal and medical experts, as well as other survivors who weigh in on the barriers to coming forward. The doc also includes narration and insights from Jane Doe, the sexual assault survivor who successfully sued the Metropolitan Toronto Police for negligence in the late 1990s.

The film, which was an official selection at the 2018 Hot Docs festival in Toronto in the spring, makes its Winnipeg première Thursday night at the Asper Centre for Theatre and Film at the University of Winnipeg. In advance of the screening, Gray, who grew up in Winnipeg, spoke with the Free Press about why she wanted to make a documentary about her experience, the harassment she faced for going public, and why she's apprehensive about the #MeToo movement.

Mandi Gray recounts her legal journey in the documentary Slut or Nut: Diary of a Rape Trial. (Calla Evans photo)

Mandi Gray recounts her legal journey in the documentary Slut or Nut: Diary of a Rape Trial. (Calla Evans photo)

Free Press: Your case was well covered by the media. What was it like for you to be able to tell your story on your own terms?

Mandi Gray: It was really empowering. I worked with the director Kelly Showker, who is amazing. Right up front when I talked to her about doing it, I was like, ‘I really want to be involved in the process in terms of what it’s going to look like,’ and she was interested in doing a collaborative documentary with me. We had a similar vision, and although it’s primarily my story that’s at the forefront, pretty much everybody who worked on the film identifies as having experienced sexual violence. They also contributed in other ways, whether it was through art work or animation. It was a really collaborative community that was created. When someone else is writing the story, you get sound bites and pieces, but there’s so much nuance that’s left out.

FP: Your story is at the heart of Slut or Nut, but it also offers a look at what the process of reporting sexual assault — from the hospital to the police to the university to the courtroom — actually entails and the toll it takes. Why was including that piece important to you?

MG: Early on, Kelly and I decided that we want to make something that not only told a story, but also was instructional and had all the information both of us would have liked to know after we were assaulted. It’s very much a resource we can share with people who are making these decisions about what they want to do, or people who are supporting somebody making these decisions. It provides concrete information about what to expect, as well as the reality, through my story. The cross examination, the constant delays in the court — you see all the seasons changing and how long it took. That was our primary objective: to create something tangible people could walk away with and have the information they might require.

Mandi Gray stands with supporters as she talks with media outside a Toronto court on March 14, 2017, as Mustafa Ururyar appealed his sexual assault conviction. (Chris Young / The Canadian Press Files)

Mandi Gray stands with supporters as she talks with media outside a Toronto court on March 14, 2017, as Mustafa Ururyar appealed his sexual assault conviction. (Chris Young / The Canadian Press Files)

FP: I think some pieces of information will be surprising to viewers. For example, that the Crown doesn't represent the complainant in a sexual assault case, but the state.

MG: Absolutely. I think there’s a lot of expectations that the Crown is representing the best interests of the victim. Even in my case, the Crown was great — she had a really solid analysis of sexual violence — but at the end of the day, she wasn’t my lawyer. There were tons of really problematic questions she never objected to. She did apologize and said, 'I do think that these questions may cross the line, but I have to appear objective.’ That was a really hard pill to swallow. There were so many moments where I just wished I had someone who could jump up and say, ‘This is inappropriate.’ But having a lawyer was really helpful because there were points where I just turned to the judge and asked, ‘Do I have to answer this?’ and he would say no.

One thing we have in Ontario now since I was sexually assaulted, they did create an Independent Legal Advice Program for sexual assault survivors so they can meet with a lawyer and get some information. That’s one good thing that’s happened, not necessarily as the direct result of the film, but as a result of collective advocacy around this issue.

FP: You chose to waive the publication ban on your name, which is rare in Canadian sexual assault cases. Why was it important for you to attach your name and face to this case?

MG: Honestly, a large part of it was I didn’t want to be excluded from the conversation. I wanted to be able to talk about what happened to me and be present for these conversations and discussions, whereas if I had taken on Jane Doe, I wouldn’t have been able to identify myself. On the next level, it was desperation of wanting to return to campus and needing to go to media. It was around the time that Lucy DeCoutere (an accuser in the Jian Ghomeshi sexual assault trial) had came out, and I really admired her. That really pushed me to do the same. I didn’t really realize how unusual that is until now. There’s still so much shame and stigma around this crime. Very few (people) end up asking to have the publication ban removed.

A placard left outside court by a Mandi Gray supporter in Toronto in 2017 while Mustafa Ururyar appealed his conviction inside the building. (Chris Young / The Canadian Press Files)

A placard left outside court by a Mandi Gray supporter in Toronto in 2017 while Mustafa Ururyar appealed his conviction inside the building. (Chris Young / The Canadian Press Files)

FP: And it wasn’t easy for you. You had strangers making YouTube videos calling you crazy.

MG: They still do. On some days it’s hard, but on other days, having a sense of humour has been the biggest saviour in all of this. Some of the stuff they come up with is hilarious. That’s not to minimize the fact that sometimes scary harassment occurs and unfortunately the way social media is set up, it’s really hard to stop it. I have a really good support system. Luckily, the threats haven’t actually been anything I’ve been worried about in my day to day life. For the most part, it’s the same stuff over and over again.

FP: Since your trial, the #MeToo movement has brought conversations about sexual assault to the forefront. What are your feelings about his movement?

MG: I’m a little apprehensive because of my own experience. I reported very shortly after Jian Ghomeshi was arrested, and everyone was encouraging us women, like ‘Come forward, we believe you, we believe survivors.’ And then I was sexually assaulted, I reported, and it was like I was living in an alternate universe — like, this isn’t what everyone said would happen. It’s hard to have hope because I am still very much working with folks who are trying to report, who are going through the legal system right now, and these rape myths are so deeply entrenched in the legal system, in the police departments. The one thing that does give me hope are these widespread discussions, and people I never really thought would be talking about these things are talking about it.

In terms of legal reform — all the laws are there. We actually have extremely progressive sexual assault laws in Canada, so it more so comes down to the attitudes and tactics within the legal community that need to shift. There’s just so much resistance to it.

Mandi Gray in 2016. (Chris Young / The Canadian Press Files)

Mandi Gray in 2016. (Chris Young / The Canadian Press Files)

FP: What message do you hope people take home from Slut or Nut?

MG: I hope people feel a range of emotions from sadness to rage to laughter, because that’s exactly what I felt going through everything. I hope it makes people think about sexual violence and this constant desire to tell people they need to report, that they need to go tell the university, without knowing what that entails, and recognize that not everybody has the resources or luxury of doing that.

Aside from the educational stuff, I really hope that people who are the types to say, ‘If it was really sexual assault, she would have reported,’ to take a step back and really think about what reporting entails, and why it’s not an option for the majority of people.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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