We film lovers are blessed with a medium capable of excavating real-life emotion from something seemingly fictional. Yet, for all that film is—in the oft-quoted words of Roger Ebert—an “empathy machine”, it’s also capable of deeply hurting its audience when not wielded by its makers and promoters with appropriate care. Or, for that matter, when not approached by viewers with informed caution.
Whose job is it to let us know that we might be upset by what we see? With the coronavirus pandemic decimating the communal movie-going experience, the way we accommodate each viewer’s sensibilities is more crucial than ever—especially when so many of us are watching alone, at home, often unsupported.
In order to understand how we can champion a film’s content and take care of its audience, I approached women in several areas of the movie ecosystem. I wanted to know: how does a filmmaker approach the filming of a rape and its aftermath? How does a magazine editor navigate the celebration of a potentially triggering movie in one of the world’s biggest film publications? How does a freelance writer speak to her professional interests while preserving her personal integrity? How does a women’s film collective create a safe environment for an audience to process such a film? And, how does a publicist prepare journalists for careful reporting, when their job is to get eyeballs on screens in order to keep our favorite art form afloat?
The conversations reminded me that the answers are endlessly complex. The concerns over spoilers, the effectiveness of trigger warnings, the myriad ways in which art is crafted from trauma, and the fundamental question of whose stories these are to tell. These questions were valid decades ago, they will be for decades to come, and they feel especially urgent now, since a number of recent tales helmed by female and non-binary filmmakers depict violence and trauma involving women’s bodies in fearless, often challenging ways.