On May 7th 2013 at about 0215am Julian was sexually assaulted outside his home in East London. As the assault was taking place, a huge shift was happening within, and the gates of memories- thought lost- began to be retrieved. “I don’t know your name” is a psycho-dramatic re-staging of that night.
This is a short film made by a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. The film was made whilst I, the director, was experiencing the long-term effects of dissociation which had been instigated by the events depicted in the film. I used the film to explore the difficult sensation of being held back by my past, of being utterly unable to live in the present moment.
The film attempts to create and explore the tremors of dissociation normally experienced by those who suffer from PTSD/C-PTSD. In effect the action of the film is a reenactment not just of an assault but of the moment of being triggered, in which one or multiple traumatic event(s) gets re-lived in the present. The experience of this “re-living” changes from individual to individual, as do the triggers, but within this film it’s experienced visually through a repetitive re-enactment, and through the lens of emotions which affected me daily for many years.
The film offers a creative space to reflect on the lived experience of abuse, whilst also offering an uncomfortable look at what it means to be sexually assaulted and not realise it’s happening.
I remember castigating myself for not being brave enough to ‘hook up’ with guys on apps. I knew guys who were ok with it, why was my experience so difficult? Unless I was fully drunk I never felt truly safe or able. I hadn’t as yet come to terms with my history of abuse and didn’t connect the two up.
The hook-up presented in the film, was an assault and the lines of consent were blurry due to a preconceived notion that being picked up in the street was not only desirable but wanted. Hook-up culture is based around how we have sex, rather than how we might love. The idea of loose encounters is not something seen as questionable in the community, it’s almost expected, if not desired. This doesn’t necessitate that there is in fact a safe sexual space being made nor an understanding of consent either. Consent requires both participants to be fully present to make that decision, and traumatised people can’t always see that we are in fact not in a position to give consent, and we don’t feel safe. A lot of traumatised people are not “present”, they live in ripples of the past and may in fact feel safer in abusive situations, as they feel familiar.
Physical or mental abuse, or neglect, is strikingly common within the queer community, and unless it’s recognised and dealt with can perpetuate dangerously into unhealthy coping mechanisms and reactive tendencies. For many queer youth, growing up is difficult, and with or without a safe foundation to move from it’s incredibly easy to become emotionally vulnerable or in fact traumatised.
The effects of abuse can alter one’s personality and sexuality. My own sexuality has taken years to come to terms with and is still something I am having to negotiate with myself. My body has never felt like it truly was mine to own, it belonged to the men who touched me. My pride has come through my ability to face my abuse head on, and reclaim my mind, my body and my sexuality. Without me first realising that I am survivor I am not able to fully be all of my queer self either.
Sexual abuse in TV & Film
I made this film, as I was not seeing my story being told. No one was talking about the long term effects of abuse, and the difficulty of navigating a queer life amongst that background. With the statistics in the UK currently stating that one in five children experience abuse, the long term effects are akin to pandemic proportions.
The current strain of sexual abuse stories seems to be for powerful people who have fallen from grace- Michael Jackson, R Kelly, Osho (Baghwan), Bikram, Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen etc. As a society we love to place powerful people on a pedestal, even as we claim to be tearing them down.
Landmark documentaries like “Leaving Neverland” listened to the intense testimony of two survivors. The act of trusting in survivor’s testimony was profound in its action. Given the period of time it takes from original incident to reporting (this can take 15+ years) this documentary went some way to untangle the effect that abuse can produce over time- especially seen in the second part. The backlash was severe as audiences, especially fans of the musical artist, found it hard to trust the survivors accusing them of money-grabbing and only speaking after the star’s death. The effects of this films were a fascinating display of society’s problems with facing abuse head on.
Michaela Cole’s “I May Destroy You” opened a public debate and explored in searingly clear language the effects of assault and consent not only on one person but on the community that surrounds them. Cole’s account is based on personal experience and it shows- it’s an accurate account of the effects of PTSD. She also dips into a queer male perspective, of sexuality, the blurred lines of consent and the difficulties of police reporting.
Mae Martin creates a heartfelt depiction of the effects of childhood abuse in the second series of “Feel Good”. Exploring the difficult associations that can be had with feeling othered in your own body, of having your sexuality tampered with. This is a vital non-binary representation and helps to explore the difficulty of navigating addiction, sexuality, identity and past experience through the lens of C-PTSD.
“A Teacher” created by Hannah Fidell puts forward the rarely seen image of male experienced abuse at the hands of a female authority figure. Centred on the perspective of the female abuser, it’s an unsettling look at how we see abuse in society, and how the line of sexual provocation is seen differently from where you’re standing. The young man, technically a child here, is presented as an adult by both the teacher and the cameras whilst we as audience battle with our conscience.
How “I don’t know your name” was made
This film is a hybrid-documentary, meaning it plays with both fiction and documentary cinema as a means to tell a story. It was part crowdfunded, part funded by a small grant from Edinburgh Uni Student Union and the rest funded by myself, the director.
A safe space was first constructed with the participants. The participants you see were the group that showed up for an open audition. We worked over 3 months to create a safe space for all of us, and to become familiar with one another before using the method of psychodrama to perform the final assault. [The entire process was recorded and included in a longer version of this film called “I remember once you needed me”].
We shot over two days in the Leith Theatre, Edinburgh. On the first day the psychodramatic process of recollecting the assault was recorded; this was not pre-rehearsed, there was no direction from myself and it was a closed set. Part of this process was playing out all of the roles myself, including the abuser. In one scene I confront myself through the actor playing the abuser.
One of the main results of abuse is that you yourself end up playing the abuser in your own life, repeating conditioned behaviour to limit yourself in the void of where an abuser used to be.
On the second day, the roles which had been “rehearsed” the day prior in the psychodrama were “performed" in the making of a short film. The short film set and lighting was designed to emulate the melodramas of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. An iconic queer filmmaker he has helped to create a cinematic image of queerness in films like Querelle. I chose this reference to be double edged, as he himself was known to be abusive and manipulative to his participants (and yet still lauded by the community). As the director of my own assault I could play with the ideas of what it looked like from my own skewed perspective; the fantasy I thought I was experiencing.
The film was edited over 2 months and delivered initially as “Man in the Dark” for my MA in Film Directing; that film was premiered in the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival in 2020. The film was subtly re-edited in the end of 2020 (the films ability to recall the traumatic episode was a little close to home for me, and so I had to make the film softer so I myself could watch it without being emotionally triggered) and the new film was named “I don’t know your name”.
What makes this film different?
Stylistically this film walks a path of originality, which comes from my background in art filmmaking. Ethically- it questions both it’s own right to exist as well as proudly walking the path of authenticity; but should a film like this have to be made? It doesn’t offer any easy answers, and it doesn’t claim to be telling the truth. It asks for its audience to stand back and survey their own lives for moments of injustice, for moments where they too may have turned a blind eye to their own boundaries or others. Are we truly looking out for one another, or could we all do better?
Final film for public sharing, can be embedded on your site:
Images from the film and director are available here: