Sadism, misogyny and ignorance: that’s the toxic mix of individual and societal ills that came together to bring down 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons, Canada’s most famous (and most maligned) victim of a rape-supportive culture. No Place to Hide: The Rehtaeh Parsons Story, a new documentary about the teenager’s tragic trajectory from spirited young woman to tormented target, brings that message home most powerfully.
No Place to Hide, which just made its world premiere at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto, patiently documents what happened to Parsons from the night the then-15-year-old said she was sexually assaulted by four young men to her experience with police when she went to file a complaint to her untimely death by suicide in August 2013 and the unexpected intervention of hacktivist group Anonymous after her death. (In the days following her death, Anonymous threatened Halifax police that they would release the names of the young men accused of sexually assaulting her if they didn’t reopen the case.)
It’s a bleak and unflinching tale, but it’s an urgent and necessary narrative that underlines the need for widespread change in how the public perceives sexual assault, the community responds and treats victims, and police investigate these crimes. “My film was about who failed Rehteah and how we’re all complicit in this rape culture,” says Rama Rau, the Toronto-based documentarian who directed the film.
Rau talks to FLARE.com about her early obsession with the Cole Harbour teen’s tragic story, the insidiousness of rape culture, and how we may best serve Parsons’s memory in the years to come.
When did you first hear about Rehtaeh Parsons?
I’m a bit of a newshound so I was following the story when it broke. And then I followed it over the months and months as it became about bullying and then I realized, “Holy cow, I really want to make this film.” But I think it was when she committed suicide that I said, “This is a documentary,” especially when Anonymous threatened the RCMP. I got obsessed with this story, really.
What was it about her story that compelled you?
This could happen to anyone. It could happen to any kid, and that’s the most frightening thing about it. The whole cyber-bullying issue that is so hidden and yet so much in front of us—that’s the scary part. It captured everyone’s imagination that this girl could descend into such a private hell that no one could help her, which is why my film is called No Place to Hide.
Rehtaeh’s parents, Glen Canning and Leah Parsons, feature heavily in the film—they are the film, really. What was their response to you when you first approached them?
Glen has a blog and it’s very easy to find him because he wants to talk to people, he wants to tell the story; he doesn’t want to be silenced. So I emailed him and said, “I’m sorry for your loss. I’m a documentary filmmaker who makes films about social issues.” He replied after two or three weeks and said thank you for reaching out. I said, “I’d really like to make a film about this,” and I asked if there had been anyone else who’d contacted him about making a film. He said, “No, no one has approached us; you’re the first…”
I also wanted to talk to her mom and that was a little more difficult because she didn’t really reply at first. She didn’t want to be in the documentary, which is totally understandable for a person in her situation. She’s spoken to so many press people. Why would you want a camera in your house and people asking questions? I did exchange a few emails with her. I said, “I’m coming to Halifax to film; I’d really love to see you and to tell your daughter’s story.”
What do you think she was opposed to appearing in the film?
I think it was reluctance more than opposition. She was just sick and tired of talking about it, and I completely get it. She wasn’t ever antagonistic at all; once she realized that the documentary was going to help keep her daughter’s name alive, keep her daughter’s memory alive, that’s when she really got into it. Now, after the screening here at Hot Docs, she just wrote an email to me saying, “I’m so happy with the response it’s gotten.” We all want to keep Rehtaeh’s name alive, and I think that’s the least we can do.
Did her parents ever tell you what they wanted from the film?
No, they didn’t have any agenda. They didn’t say, “I want you to do this and I want you to do that.” And I absolutely admire them for that. All they really wanted to do was talk. And I think for me, too, it was never an investigative film. It was never saying, “You said this” or “How come you did that?” I really just wanted to talk to everyone around her and just retell the story of a life that was taken away from us.
Anyone familiar with Rehtaeh’s story gets the impression that the Halifax police department didn’t handle her original complaint well. The police declined to be interviewed for the documentary, but when you reached out did anyone say anything or offer any explanation for how it was handled?
No. I called and said I’m making a documentary about Rehtaeh Parsons. I told them what the film was about and said, “I’d like your point of view because we have Rehtaeh’s father who talks about the RCMP—would you like to be in the film?” And they were like, “No, we’re not interested. Sorry.”
What about the people of Cole Harbour—how does the community feel about this story?
I think they are very sympathetic towards [Rehtaeh]. I didn’t meet [the boys accused of assaulting Rehtaeh] and I didn’t attempt to talk to them at all because my film wasn’t about that. The film was never about being investigative. It was never about speaking to the boys or getting them on camera; I didn’t want to do that kind of film.
One of the things that becomes clear from watching the documentary is that there appears to be a fundamental and widespread ignorance about the nature of consent and what constitutes sexual assault at every turn in Rehtaeh’s story, from the police to the young men accused, to the kids at school and the school administration. What accounts for this ignorance?
I don’t want to be simplistic and say “rape culture” because it is just pure ignorance. I think people don’t know enough. I think there’s a lack of education in schools when it comes to teaching consent. That’s my main focus for the film, in a sense—it’s right at the root of that, families, mothers, teachers, police. The RCMP talking about consent would help change things and help prevent more victims from falling the way she did.
One of the things that bothered me most in the documentary was hearing that the harshest critics and bullies of Rehtaeh before her death were other girls. What’s the message there for girls?
I’ve been trying to figure it out. We’ve talked about it a lot. I’m hoping that just by knowing that, girls may be kinder to each other. I don’t think they know that they’re doing it. They’re kids. It’s kids doing it.
It’s an ugly truth that viewers have to figure out, though.
Yes. I don’t want to go back to clichés, but I do think that’s really the root of rape culture. These girls are not even aware of what they’re doing. I think we’re all complicit [in Rehtaeh’s suffering]; it’s not one or two people or just the RCMP.
In the film, Leah Parsons says that there will never be justice for Rehtaeh. What’s your view?
I may have to agree with Leah and say that there is no justice for Rehtaeh, but having said that I think that all of us, the ones who remain, have to take a lesson from that. Let’s do something now so that there are no more victims like Rehtaeh. That’s why her parents don’t keep quiet, that’s why they keep talking, because the more we talk about this, the more awareness it will create, and hopefully it will bring about change.
Her parents are very optimistic in spite of having been through such an ordeal. Yesterday [at a special screening of the film for school kids] they told the children, “We all have to be stronger and gentler and kinder.” That’s all I want the film to do: I just want it to turn the sadness and anger people feel to something positive.
No Place to Hide is showing at the Royal Cinema in Toronto on May 3 at 1 p.m.
This story is part of #Project97—a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit project97.ca for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #Project97.