“What She Said” is a new film that tackles the perils that a rape victim endures when they bring a criminal case to trial.
Actress Jenny Lester stars as Sam, a rape victim whose siblings and friends all seem to have an opinion on how she should proceed, when she suddenly reveals that she wants to drop all of the criminal charges against her rapist.
The film begins just after Sam retreats to a family farm house in Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains to get away from all of the stresses of the trial. It’s Thanksgiving week, and her brother makes a surprise visit. Discovering that Sam plans to drop the charges, he convenes a support team of Sam’s friends to make her consider the repercussions.
Lester, a San Fernando Valley native, is not only the star, but also the writer and music supervisor for the film. She conceived the story in the fall of 2017 during the emergence of the #MeToo movement.
“During #MeToo, when I was reading all these stories [of assault victims], my writer brain went ‘Hey, that’s horrible that it happened,’ but I couldn’t help but wonder who this woman was before this all happened,” Lester told the Journal.
She said that the stories of victimhood and survivorship made her want to present the experience of a scarred and traumatized woman who has difficulty communicating her most painful feelings to the people who care about her the most.
“I was really struck by these cases. When they make it to court—which is usually never—but when they do, it’s usually the person who committed the assault who has letters from their elementary school teacher and pediatrician bolstering up their character and talking about how they’re amazing,” she said. “The woman gets torn apart and [the defense presents] all of the reasons why she deserves this to happen to her or why her character isn’t flawless, and that’s why she did this to herself.”
Although Lester herself is not a survivor, she interviewed several sexual assault survivors to make the film as authentic as possible. And it made all the difference in making Sam a believable, overwhelmed and conflicted character. In her orbit is a compassionate therapist sister and a short-tempered brother who wants to kill Sam’s rapist. The family is Jewish, but still puts up a Christmas tree in the farm house.
Sam’s feelings are bottled up for so long that when they’re finally expressed, they come out as anger. With Sam on the verge of further breakdown, Aaron, a Muslim friend, recites an Arabic proverb to remind her that she is not alone in fighting the trauma that replays over and over in her mind.
Lester pointed out that she wanted Sam’s support team to be a blend of millennial, culturally-specific but not necessarily religious group of people, because the New York community she currently lives in has a very strong sense of their culture that transcends religion.
“There are Yiddish phrases that I know that are just innately part of me,” Lester said. “But I wanted to get the feeling from the other side.”
In the film, there is heavy scrutiny when it comes to the words “should” and “no.” There is also much discussion of what happened in the past, but no flashbacks. When it comes to court testimony about an event that only the plaintiff and defendant witnessed, the legal battle becomes a battle of words: one person’s words versus another’s. That’s why the film is called “What She Said.”
“My drive to keep going comes from empathy,” Lester said. “I feel really strongly that we as humans learn empathy best when there is a story that we can get behind. So many people don’t understand.”