A new documentary shining a light on sexual abuse and rape on college campuses focuses on Amherst College’s past troubles and hopes for the future.
When film producer Marjorie Nielsen began the project, called “It Happened Here,” she said she knew she wanted former Amherst College student Angie Epifano to be involved.
Epifano, who did not return requests by the Gazette for an interview, wrote a letter in 2012 revealing she had been raped on campus at Amherst. Her letter, published in the student newspaper, asserted that following her rape the college was not supportive and compelled her to sign herself into a psychiatric ward.
Nielsen, of Los Angeles, said she wanted Epifano in the film because her letter “launched a movement.” Nielsen came up with the idea for the film in April 2013, and said she was interviewing Epifano by May 7.
“She galvanized so many students from around the world,” Nielsen said of Epifano. “Her letter, it crashed the server. It went viral that day. It reached so many survivors; it was like wildfire.”
When the film was first being shot, Nielsen said there were only three institutions facing sexual violence investigations under Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sexual discrimination in all educational institutions that receive federal financial assistance. Now, less than two years later, there are nearly 100, she said.
Amherst College, the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Hampshire College are among them.
The film follows five rape survivors, including Epifano from Amherst. The other four are from the University of Connecticut in Storrs and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
It also features experts in the field of sexual abuse and some college administrators, including Amherst College President Carolyn A. “Biddy” Martin.
“When the filmmaker asked me whether I would be willing to be interviewed, I agreed in the hope that this documentary will help spur further change,” Martin wrote in an email to the Gazette. “Angie Epifano and the many student activists from other colleges and universities across the country have given the problem of sexual assault and the requirements of Title IX much needed attention at the national level.”
The interviews are interspersed with bucolic shots of college campuses and news reports of sexual assault and violence on those campuses. Statistics — one in five women are sexually assaulted on campuses — also flash across the screen.
One of the film’s first scenes shows Epifano stating that Amherst College was “her home” and the first place she was happy. Later, as she describes her rape and the college’s reaction to her seeking help, she says that the institution hurt her more than her rapist.
Other rape victims told stories similar to Epifano’s — that they were not believed and were discredited by the universities.
“We want to show that this is something that is happening everywhere,” Nielsen said.
Since the documentary was released last month, Nielsen has received numerous requests to screen the film, though none yet from Amherst College, she said.
Martin said Epifano’s letter had a profound effect upon campus. Amherst overhauled its judicial review process for sexual assault complaints to make them more professional, remove unnecessary burdens on victims and ensure fairness. The college also improved sexual misconduct reporting procedures, hired two full-time administrators whose jobs focus on preventing sexual abuse and responding to complaints, added more counselors trained in sexual misconduct to the counseling center and created intervention and prevention programs throughout campus, Martin said.
Since Epifano’s letter was published, “Amherst College has made significant changes in its efforts to prevent, address and remedy incidents of sexual assault,” Martin wrote.
Laurie Frankl, Amherst’s full-time Title IX coordinator, joined the college in December 2013. Previously, the athletics director at Amherst also served as the Title IX coordinator part time.
Frankl called the “It Happened Here” powerful and “incredibly moving,” adding that the students are making a difference.
“It is absolutely a movement and it is student-led,” Frankl said. “It is one of the most powerful and effective student movements we’ve seen lately.”
This past fall students at Amherst completed a “sexual respect and misconduct” survey about the environment on campus, which will be studied in the coming months, Frankl said.
“In the next three to five years, we will listen incredibly closely to students and work with them to understand how the new personnel, how our reinvigorated responses and how our new robust program is working for the campus,” she said.
Now that the “It Happened Here” has been released, Nielsen said her favorite part of the process was gaining the trust of the rape survivors and giving them a venue to talk about their experiences, even at the risk of retaliation.
“I was so encouraged and inspired by these women,” Nielsen said. “It is very brave to do what they’ve done.”