'Brave Miss World' tells rape victim's journey of hope

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Cecilia Peck has no problem recognizing courage when it comes calling -- whether in her late father Gregory's signature role of Atticus Finch or an Israeli beauty queen who was raped at 18 and refused to suffer in silence or shame.

Linor Abargil helped to put her rapist behind bars and has emerged as a global figure of hope, as Ms. Peck documents in her movie "Brave Miss World."

In a recent phone call, the director said she wants audiences to know: "This film is full of hope, that it's about how you pick up the pieces and move forward, that you can heal. But you need support from family and friends. This really is a journey of hope and healing, and victim blaming is disgraceful!"

In "Brave Miss World," you see Ms. Abargil as she travels to South Africa -- where girls statistically are more likely to be raped than educated -- sits down with actresses Joan Collins and Fran Drescher as they recount their assaults and listens as a young woman reveals she felt like a "walking corpse" after being raped. Others recount how they turned to alcohol, food or the self-destructive practice of cutting.

The documentary has the hallmarks of a fictional film with a heroine who survives a horrific event and emerges stronger and transformed spiritually, emotionally and physically -- although not immediately and not without terror, tears and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The inspirational movie, which has been making the festival rounds, will come to Pittsburgh Thursday with special guest Ms. Abargil. When "Brave Miss World" aired on Israeli TV to robust ratings, it prompted a spike in calls to rape crisis centers there.

"Linor, through the film and wherever she goes in person, really gives women the courage to seek help and to lift the burden of shame they might have been under," the filmmaker says.

Ms. Abargil was raped in Milan, Italy, roughly six weeks before being crowned Miss World in 1998.

"She believed those two events must have happened in such close proximity for a reason," Ms. Peck says. "When she was crowned Miss World ... she had made a commitment to herself to one day tell the story and reach out to other women.

"She had to spend most of her year as the reigning Miss World battling the rapist in court, but she ended up getting him convicted and when she was 18, she made one public statement right after the trial. She spoke out to all the women in Israel and said, 'If I can do this, you can, too. Don't be afraid to tell someone if this happened to you. Get help and press charges.' "

Women all over the world wrote to her saying how much she helped them. Ms. Abargil wanted to make a film, but it took her a decade to muster the strength that required. It was Ms. Peck's previous project -- "Shut Up & Sing" about the Dixie Chicks -- that prompted the Israeli woman to meet with her in a Los Angeles coffee shop.

"What made such an incredible impression on me was how unashamed Linor was to speak about rape and having been raped. She said, 'Why should I be ashamed? The fault is his, not mine.' I thought that was a very powerful message."

Ms. Peck and her producing partner, Inbal Lessner, also were interested in the crucial role Linor's mother had played in bringing the attacker to justice.

"From the moment Linor called home, her mom said, 'Linor, don't take a shower, just go to the police and go to the doctor. We'll help you and it's not your fault.' " Those words changed the then-teen's life.

"Those were some of the things that motivated us to make a commitment to tell this story, but it was a very difficult film to make because it was very hard to fund, to raise the financing. And, also, it was very hard on Linor, much harder than I think she imagined."

At one point, Ms. Abargil says she feels like she's "drowning" under the weight of the stories she's hearing, the need to repeatedly recount her experience and the possibility that her attacker might be paroled.

The project stalled for months and so did any money for it. That prompted the small crew to edit some footage into trailers and launch an Indiegogo campaign that was "very energizing and motivating for the production because we found out how many people out there really did want to see the film and needed the film.

"And I remember the day when we got a donation from someone who wasn't in our circle of friends and family, the people we'd been begging for donations, $100 here, $1,000 there to do the next shoot. It started to go beyond that circle. So we felt like this is important enough to keep fighting for."

Ms. Peck raised $23,000 -- $3,000 more than the goal -- enough to edit the first rough cut.

Also instrumental in finishing the film were executive producers (or "angels" as she calls them) Lati Grobman, Irv Bauman, Regina Scully and Geralyn Dreyfous. The latter two backed "The Invisible War" about sexual assault in the military along with Egypt's "The Square." Sharon Stone came aboard as an enthusiastic supporter later in the process.

For three or four years, Ms. Peck followed Ms. Abargil, tagging along to speaking engagements and (when appropriate) meeting with survivors and attending key family events. "Brave Miss World" charts her embrace of Orthodox Judaism, her return to Italy where serendipity or a higher power leads to a fateful encounter, and a change of profession and marital status.

"She went through such an evolution from this teenage victim of a violent crime to this empowered lawyer and mother by the end, that we felt that it had reached a natural ending.

"Of course we could have filmed all over the world, but we hope that the film portrays that rape exists in every culture and every city and village and country. That it affects boys, girls, women, men and that you can't survive it alone, that you need to get help.

"I think the film is really about the courage that it takes to speak out, and also I think it's a kind of guide for anyone who knows or loves someone else who has been a victim."

Ms. Abargil's family, fiance turned husband Oron Calfon and best friend Motty Reif are "really the role models of how to support somebody who's been a victim of assault or rape. ... Her dad's so moving in the end when he talks about how proud he is that she can really make a difference in other women's lives."

Ms. Peck was influenced by her famous father, who not only starred in "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Gentleman's Agreement" but also hosted the first event for a Los Angeles rape crisis center.

"I just hope that he rubbed off on me, and that I can live up, even in a tiny way, to what he tried to do in his work and his life."

JFilm Festival will host Ms. Abargil and show "Brave Miss World" at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Rodef Shalom, 4905 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. Tickets, $10, film only; $50, for 5:30 p.m. VIP reception and film. Call 412-992-5203 or visit www.JFilmPgh.org.

Separate showing Thursday night is part of a Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh's Women's Philanthropy Event. See www.jfedpgh.org.

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.

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