“If we want to understand what is ‘rape culture’ - then, here it is, laid bare”
- Nancy Schwartzman, director of Roll Red Roll
Roll Red Roll is a powerful and devastating account of the assault of a teenage girl at a party in Steubenville, Ohio. She was brutally attacked and humiliated by members of the town’s beloved high school football team.
The case would garner national (and international) attention thanks to the social media evidence uncovered by crime blogger, Alexandria Goddard. She discovered an incredible number of posts about the incident. Police would go on to find 400,000 text messages and hundreds of tweets.
The shocking messages and videos that we see in Schwartzman's documentary raise powerful and chilling questions - not only about the rapists themselves, but also about the collusion of teen bystanders, teachers, parents and coaches who protected them and sought to discredit the victim.
As journalist Rachel Dissell asks in the film: “is this football town putting its daughters at risk, by protecting its sons?”
Roll Red Roll examines why these boys behaved in the way they did, why they were protected and, crucially, why the girl - called Jane Doe - was both blamed and shamed and, as a result, victimised all over again.
In Roll Red Roll we see young men acting with total privilege and without accountability. It is outrageous and extremely upsetting. A video by Michael Nodianos is almost too horrific to watch.
However, as difficult as it is, this is an issue that we have to confront. We have to look this evil in the eye because what happened in Steubenville is far from a one-off incident.
“This was a pattern of behavior that went beyond just a juvenile criminal trial and led to a Grand Jury investigation of school officials,” Schwartzman explains. “There should have been no question about what happened, and yet: the entire town was divided.”
Schwartzman has worked for over ten years to transform culture around gender-based violence, using film and technology. “I was amazed at the power of social media: to incriminate, to empower and to shine a light on darkness,” she says.
“This entire thing was documented on social media and shared publicly. The bravado and the language used by the kids to talk about their classmates and young girls was astonishing. Anyone could see it. And the lack of empathy was chilling.”
There is, of course, a conversation to be had about the use of true crime for entertainment. Schwartzman considers this in her documentary. Did the activism surrounding the event - as well meaning and supportive as it was - exploit Jane Doe's experience?
Goddard certainly finds this a difficult and upsetting question and so did I. There is a fine line between seeking justice and raising awareness and causing additional distress by indulging in shock value ‘entertainment’.
By keeping her focus on the perpetrators and the issues that their behaviour exposes, Schwartzman keeps Roll Red Roll on the right side of this line. By asking questions about rape culture, the protection of the priviledged and victim shaming, the documentary creates a space for further discussion, education and - you have to hope - change.
“The bottom line is that rape is preventable,” Schwartzman concludes. “Watching and studying the police interviews, the story shows clearly that rapists and bystanders are not “monsters,” they are us – our sons, our fathers, our coaches, our friends.
“When we turn them into 'monsters' it makes rape hard to 'see' and eradicate. We as
individuals and communities have to take responsibility and teach accountability to our
children so that they understand this is wrong. And that speaking up and intervening is the
right thing to do, even if no one else is doing it.”