No past to speak of: making a child the face of infant rape?

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The documentary’s subject matter could not have been more important: an epidemic of brutal assaults on children. One mother wanted her young child’s face shown in the documentary, but was that sufficient consent?

Case study by Erin James-Abra, Erin Byrnes, Emily Loewen and Kasia Mychajlowycz

December, 2012

No Past to Speak Of is a documentary film about infant rape in South Africa, directed and produced by two Canadians, Jeremy Gans and Wilson Lee. It premiered at Hot Docs in 2006, and also aired on The Passionate Eye, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) television program. The film follows the adoptive mother of a three-year-old girl who was raped when she was five months old, and seeks to explain the epidemic of infant rape in South Africa. This baby’s case was one of over 20,000 reported child rapes in South Africa in 2001 alone.

Lee and Gans met as roommates in Johannesburg in early 2003. Gans was there to work for a non-profit organization and Lee, formerly an employee of CTV News, was working as a freelance journalist. A few weeks after Gans moved in, Lee approached him with an article from the Johannesburg Star. The piece detailed the story of a black-American woman, Alice* who had moved to South Africa in 1994. An academic working at Wits University, Alice was making news for taking in a five-month-old rape victim, Princess*. The two young journalists wanted to make a documentary about infant rape, and decided to see if mother and child would be willing to act as main characters.

Three years before meeting Gans and Lee, Alice got a phone call from an international journalist and friend. The journalist was at a hospital, visiting a five-month-old rape victim and invited Alice, who had a background in midwifery, to join her. The infant’s biological mother had disappeared, and social workers at the hospital were talking about putting the child in a home. Alice, who described the child as “stunningly gorgeous,” decided to take the baby home. She then became the infant’s foster mom and later her adoptive mother.

Soon after bringing Gans into the project, Lee showed up on Alice’s doorstep and asked if she would be willing to participate in a documentary film about infant rape. The child’s trauma was already well documented in the news: her assault had happened on the heels of another high profile infant rape, both of which had caught the attention of national and international media. The Mirror, a British tabloid, interviewed Alice for a two-page feature about Princess—identified using her African first name, Thandiwe—published in February 2003. The article reports a disturbing statistic: “The BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] reports that a woman is more likely to be raped in Johannesburg than she is to learn to read.”

Moreover, following her adoption, the mother had also voluntarily spoken to the press, both in South Africa and Britain, about her daughter’s experience and was authoring a book on the subject. The book, Why do I Scream at God for the Rape of Babies?, was published in 2004, two years before the documentary aired. As the mother’s already public presence might suggest, she agreed to participate in the film.

*Alice is a pseudonym; the woman asked that we not identify her or her daughter by name in this case study. Princess is the nickname Alice gave the baby, and it has been used as a pseudonym in several international news articles about this case.

Next: Perspectives

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