I was savouring the delights of a couscous salad drenched in basil pesto when the email came through. Would I like to be on a panel after the screening of the film Alison? I had such a deeply emotive response to reading her name. I still recall following her story when it first emerged more than twenty years ago. Alison Botha, twenty years old, had been out on the night of 18 December 1994 to drop her friend at home and pick up her laundry. When she returned, a man suddenly emerged at her side and held a knife to her neck. He threatened to kill her if she did not cooperate. So began an ordeal that was to last 90 minutes, but the effects of which will be with Alison for the rest of her life. She was driven to the outskirts of town and raped by two men. They slit her throat seventeen times, cut her abdomen and left her for dead. Miraculously, Alison survived. Somehow she managed to walk to a road where she collapsed. She was saved by people who happened to pass by.
The email was an invitation to watch the screening of the film Alison as part of the Encounters Film Festival and to then talk about Alison’s story in the context of sexual violence in South Africa. I decided to take three dear friends as well as my 14-year old daughter along with me. On the way to the Labia, we all talked on top of each other and laughed out loud. How different to how we emerged from the film, which silenced us, something required to process its underlying messages. We talked about how the movie had affected each of us in gendered ways: As women, it brought to the fore the fear associated with violent sexual crime. Each of us went to bed that night with the film etched on our hearts and minds. For me, it evoked a deep sense of always wanting to keep my daughter safe, yet knowing that I have to increasingly release her to the world, to allow her to claim space in it and to live in a way that transcends fear.
The predominant message of the film is one of hope. It weaves together a story of how bad things can happen to good people. It shows how sexual violence is all about power. Alison’s rapists do what they do to her because they claim the power to do so. It is not enough to inflict suffering on her. It is Alison’s experience of this suffering that gives meaning for them. She becomes what they want her to be as they inflict injury.
But the beauty of Alison’s story is about how she turns this power on itself. She fights back. If she is to die lying in the sand, then she will do so trying to write their names. Against all odds, she survives. She transforms her life, emerges out of the pain and ensuing depression and finds her passion in making a difference in the lives of others. She becomes a sought-after motivational speaker, touching the lives of many with her courage and spirit. She publishes a book about her ordeal, one that becomes a source of solace for others who lives have been marked by gendered violence. She makes her mark in such a poignant way that one of her rapists decides to claim this power back from her. He offers to be interviewed for the film on condition that Alison apologises to him and gives him half of the monies earned as a result of her ordeal, given his role in making all of this come about. The offer is obviously turned down.
Each of us knows of a woman who has experienced violence. An estimated 35% of women globally have experienced gender-based violence. We all have a role to play in creating a different kind of society with different social norms. We all have the power to decide how we respond to violence, to claim our power back and to transform our lives in ways that challenge the status quo. Alison is a living testimony of how power can be claimed back and how we can all be agents for social change.
Alison will be at Nu Metro cinemas from 12 August 2016. Watch the official trailer below:
Written by Joy Watson