When Molly Manning-Walker was a teenager, her favorite film was Gaspar Noé’s “Irreversible.” In a recent interview, she remembered being impressed by the film’s infamously brutal, nine-minute rape scene, and how “immersive” it was.
But now 30, and a director herself, she questions Noé’s approach to that scene. With such graphic — and prolonged — violence onscreen, she said, “you’re almost abusing the audience.” When it came to depicting sexual assault in her debut feature, “How to Have Sex,” which won the Un Certain Regard prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Manning-Walker resolved to do things differently.
“How to Have Sex,” which opens in theaters in Britain and Ireland on Nov. 3 and in the United States in February, follows three British teenagers on a party vacation in Greece. Manning-Walker said that, like Tara, the film’s protagonist, she was sexually assaulted when she was 16, (though in a different scenario) and that she wanted the audience to understand what was happening “through Tara’s face and her reaction,” rather than putting the act onscreen.
Manning-Walker’s debut is one of several new films directed by British women that offer fresh perspectives on sexual assault by focusing on its varied impacts. Adura Onashile’s “Girl,” which opens in theaters in Britain later this month, asks what happens when women don’t talk about their experiences. And in the documentary “The Taste of Mango,” which recently played at the London Film Festival, Chloe Abrahams discovers her family’s buried history of sexual abuse and domestic violence, which triggers a revelation about herself.
In an interview, Onashile described this climate of violence against women as “an epidemic.” Her film, “Girl,” centers on a young immigrant mother, Grace (Déborah Lukumuena), and her 11 year-old daughter, who live in a Glasgow tower block. Grace’s erratic behavior implies a traumatic past, but Onashile doesn’t make this explicit. As part of her research for the film, Onashile said she learned from social workers that you can spot sexual assault survivors by their body language, which gives the “sense that something is held, and tight, and wound up.” In the film, Lukumuena plays Grace with stooped shoulders and a downcast gaze.
Abrahams said that the act of recording her family members gave her the courage to ask difficult questions about long-hidden abuse. With “The Taste of Mango,” she was seeking to heal divisions between her mother, Rozana, in England, and her maternal grandmother, Jean, in Sri Lanka, but along the way she learned that Rozana is suspected to have suffered at the hands of her stepfather.
The movie pairs audio of her mother’s testimony with poetic images, including the moon and a road rushing by, glimpsed from a car window. Its meditative pacing was designed to allow the audience “to breathe, and not get sucked down by the heaviness of it,” Abrahams said.
But equally, she added, she wanted to show how her mother “finds joy in life” — including in country music and manicures — so Rozana isn’t defined by the things that were done to her.
All three filmmakers considered the impact of the subject matter on the people making their movies and had support on hand from therapists during production. Manning-Walker, who also works as a cinematographer, recalled filming an assault scene for someone else’s film, in which there was no acknowledgment of the toll it might take on the person behind the camera. On her film, she said, her team could stop filming if they felt uncomfortable, which they did several times.
Manning-Walker said she didn’t want the character of Tara, who goes on vacation intending to lose her virginity and flirts her way into an unwanted scenario, to be a helpless victim. At the end of “How to Have Sex,” she picks herself up and carries on. But that doesn’t mean she’s not affected by what happened, Manning-Walker added.
Sexual assault “happens everywhere, and in all situations,” she said. By making a film that confronted it, she said she hoped to challenge a culture of shame and silence around a common experience. All three filmmakers described tearful, post-screening encounters with male and female audience members who saw elements of their lives reflected onscreen.
After one screening, Manning-Walker recalled, a women in her 70s had told her that watching “How to Have Sex” had made her reconsider a teenage sexual encounter: “‘I just realized that I’ve been assaulted, from watching your film,’” Manning-Walker remembered the woman saying.
There was “a lack of conversation around female pleasure and what sex is for women,” Manning-Walker said, which also meant a lack of education about consent. If people aren’t taught that sex is an act of negotiation, she said, “of course it’s going to go horribly wrong.”