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I agree with Brave Miss World that rape should be taken much more seriously than it is. Victims should not have to fear speaking up. Prosecution — both here in America and around the world — should be more severe and more successful.

That said, not every documentary on the subject of rape will be as good as every other documentary. And as admirable as the subject of Brave Miss World is, the documentary focuses too much on Miss World and not enough on her work.

What the Emcees Did Not Know

Linor travels the world listening to survivors
Linor travels the world listening to survivors

Linor Abargil won two beauty pageants in 1998: first Miss Israel, then Miss World. What the emcees did not know was that she had been raped by an Italian travel agent only weeks before. She kept silent for a long time, but after a decade she decided, not only to tell her story, but to establish a web site where other women could tell their stories, too. When the stories started rolling in, she decided to travel to meet some of the women who had written to her. Soon she was giving speeches at events and on campuses, and offering moral support to anyone who needed it.

I don’t know when director Cecilia Peck got involved, but there is footage in Brave Miss World of Linor reading some of these early messages as they arrive. Peck has great access, and we really get to know Linor over the course of the film.

Linor comes across as gregarious, charismatic, and involved. She seems to have an unstoppable energy — the kind that would lead from “I decided to start a website,” to being the center of a large movement of rape survivors. It doesn’t hurt that she has the spark of celebrity, a self-confidence that immediately wins people over, even complete strangers.

The Celebrity or the Work?

The film is mostly a profile of Linor, peppered with facts, figures, and stories about rape around the world. She visits Fran Drescher and Joan Collins, and even some men who have been victims of rape. She shows us footage of the reprehensible “No means yes” fraternity chant at Yale. She travels to South Africa which had the misfortune to rank at the top of per-capita rapes.

There are also some personal plot points that seem to give the movie some movement and direction: Linor’s attacker is up for parole and she want to testify against his release. She meets a new boyfriend with the potential to become a fiancé. She travels back to Italy to look for other victims of her rapist — they exist but they haven’t gone public. Toward the end she undergoes a religious transformation that threatens to change her friendship with a gay man whom she will no longer be allowed to hug or touch.

As charismatic as Linor is, and as essential her story is in lending structure to the film, I found the excessive focus on Linor to be distracting. Before I saw the credits I thought she was a producer, so I even found the film self-indulgent. Turns out I was wrong about that, so the decision to include so much of her was probably Peck’s. In any case, the film winds down with Linor’s religious and romantic changes, which I felt distracted from the story of the work she had done. Over the credits, there are videotaped personal thanks from survivors, as though Linor’s help, and not their own survival, not their sisterhood, was what was important.

If I admire Linor, it’s not because of her pageant wins or her personal transformations, it’s because of the work she’s done. Brave Miss World seems to lose that perspective toward the end.

  • Cecilia Peck: With all due respect, your film critic didn't understand or experience the documentary "Brave Miss World" in the same way that its audiences and other renowned critics are reacting. Below are reviews from the esteemed critic Ernest Hardy (The Village Voice, LA Weekly,) and from Sheri Linden (The Los Angeles Times.) I don't think it's right to publish a superficial response to a brand new film which goes deep into a courageous central character's four year journey and fight for justice. If other critics and audiences are agreeing that a film just doesn't live up to its potential, it might be understandable. But documentaries take blood sweat and tears to make, and when a film is leaving audiences cheering and other critics raving, and the filmmaker brings it to a city like Denver early in its life to honor an invitation from the Denver Film Festival, it's so mean spirited and damaging for a critic to adopt what seems like a superficial and perhaps biased view of a film. Early reviews count so much and can influence subsequent critics in our digital age. The Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly critics saw Brave Miss World at the same time as your critic saw it, and had a radically different experience. They too watched it on DVD, and didn't need to see audiences standing and cheering to appreciate it, as has been the experience in festivals worldwide. Your critic was invited to view the film at the Denver Film Festival, but he declined. Here are the reviews from the Los Angeles theatrical run of Brave Miss World:
    LA Weekly: "How do I protect my daughter? I couldn't protect myself." That impossible question and sobering comment, from a mother at a gathering of rape survivors, is one of many gut-wrenching moments in Brave Miss World. The doc's spine is the story of beauty queen Linor Abargil, who was raped at the age of 18. Six weeks later, representing Israel, and having told no one what had happened, she won the Miss World contest. Footage of her win shows her crying, distraught even as she smiles; a pageant official assures a crush of paparazzi and supporters that "these are tears of joy." Director Cecilia Peck has crafted a subtly complex film that takes its cues from its subject. Linor emerges a survivor, creating a website for fellow survivors to connect, traveling the world speaking out against the horrors of rape, and doling out tough love while encouraging women (including Joan Collins and Fran Drescher) to share their stories of sexual assault and its aftermath. It's utterly gripping, especially as Linor struggles to keep her head above the pain to which she's bearing witness. But Brave is also moving in unexpected ways. Linor's parents try to understand as their daughter becomes increasingly religious following her assault -- including changing the way she dresses and how she interacts with men. Peck is respectful of Linor's newfound faith, even as her camera picks up that the former beauty queen's devout spiritual practice at times seems somewhat joyless, a coping mechanism that helps her move out of victimhood but is also a reminder of her life-changing ordeal. Ernest Hardy

    Los Angeles Times Review: 'Brave Miss World' charts a rape victim's new path.
    Cecilia Peck's intimate documentary portrait follows 1998 Miss World Linor Abargil, who was crowned shortly after being raped.
    By Sheri Linden
    November 14, 2013, 3:17 p.m.
    Linor Abargil's emotional response to being crowned Miss World in 1998 was more than just a case of tears of joy: Weeks before the event, the reigning Miss Israel had been raped at knifepoint in Milan, Italy. An 18-year-old with remarkable inner strength and a supportive family, Abargil refused to submit to shaming silence and fought to bring her attacker to justice.
    "Brave Miss World," Cecilia Peck's intimate documentary portrait, illuminates the ways the attack changed the course of her subject's life — and shows that, in this supposedly enlightened age, rape victims who speak out are still often stigmatized rather than championed, even on U.S. college campuses.
    The film begins as Abargil launches a website where victims can share their stories, and follows her as she travels the globe to visit with survivors of rape, Joan Collins and Fran Drescher among them. Lesser-known women offer direct-to-camera testimony in some of the documentary's strongest sequences. Their horrendous stories take a toll on Abargil, who's compelling in her vulnerability and compassion as well as her toughness and anger.
    Given considerable access over a period of four years, Peck celebrates Abargil as an impassioned and inspiring advocate while making clear the emotional complexities of her single-mindedness. With typical decisiveness, the beauty queen leaps into action to oppose parole for the serial rapist who attacked her. The conversation in "Brave Miss World" never touches on rehabilitation for the perpetrator; Abargil's focus is those who fall prey, and her empowering example is the refusal to internalize such victimhood.

    Yours sincerely,
    Cecilia Peck
    Director, Brave Miss World
    December 1, 2013 reply
    • Marty Mapes: Hello, Cecila. Thanks for writing.

      I was sorry to read your reaction to my review, so I re-read what I wrote. I don't think my review is biased or mean-spirited (I don't even think it's very negative). I also don't think it was any more superficial than your average movie review of 600 words, but I wouldn't necessarily argue.

      I honestly hope everyone who sees your film, likes it, and I genuinely wish you and your film every success. December 3, 2013 reply