When we say we’re not going to talk about a thing, it’s killing us inside.
“People in our community, most of the time, they don’t talk about it,” says Thuli Sibiya. “[In the] Zulu nation, a little child cannot say the private parts just openly, the child has to go around the word, just give you an outline of what she wants to say.” Unable to speak, victims of abuse are also unable to heal. The women who work at Operation Bobbi Bear in Durban, South Africa offer alternatives to such silence, encouraging children to describe their experiences so the offenders might be prosecuted.
The dynamic is delicate and difficult, and remarkably revealed in Kim Longinotto’s Rough Aunties, premiering on HBO2, 19 May. Observational and respectful, the documentary follows the Bobbi Bear workers over 10 (long) weeks, as they meet with survivors (some children so young they can barely speak), go along with police as victims are asked to identify their assailants, and support one another during harrowing ordeals (a member of one woman’s extended family is shot dead in his home, in front of his wife and children, another loses her own young son in a drowning accident). Again and again, they face impossible, horrible circumstances, and find ways to articulate and share pain, as well as hope.
The film opens on a conversation between Mildred Ngcobo (nicknamed Sbo) and a traumatized girl. Sbo hands her a magic marker, band-aids, and one of the brightly colored teddy bears the organization uses, and suggests she can tell her story without having to say the words for her private parts, but instead to point to and mark or write on parts of the bear. The child is tentative and then quite clear about what has happened (“He broke into my house by smashing a window, then he got me by the throat”). Sbo hugs her, for a long, quiet moment, and then heads out with the police, arriving at the home of the rapist, the girl’s neighbor. Here you see another side of Sbo, who argues with the man’s mother (“Didn’t that girl’s father do it to her first? Why didn’t you arrest him?”), holding her accountable for her son’s atrocities. “You don’t talk like a parent, old woman,” Sbo says sternly. “Shut up or you’ll be arrested.” The police officer with her agrees, the woman will be punished too if she doesn’t get out of the way.
As Sbo takes the lead here, she reveals the ways that the Bobbi Bear workers—or “aunties”—must transform themselves in order to achieve their goals. During a bit of downtime, as several women reminisce around a table at the office, Thuli and Eureka Oliver narrate their effects on one another. Eureka, who is white, says, “I used to be quiet,” until she and Thuli chased a perpetrator “through the streets with Thuli. I said to him, ‘Come here, you fucking bastard.’” The group explodes in laughter, as Eureka continues, “You people said to me, ‘It’s the Zulu culture to use the f-word. I used to go to Sunday school every week. I’ve become a rough auntie since I’ve been at Bobbi Bear.’”
In art, being rough is a survival strategy, but it’s also an unspoken policy, a way to model for victims potential resistance to expectations that they suffer in silence, that hey accept their lot or allow aggressors to abuse them or their children. While the majority of the offenders are men, the Aunties also come across other cases, as when a woman is convicted of putting a pipe up inside her child’s vagina, and sentenced to five years n prison: Sbo and Eureka’s joyful response to this news suggests how personally they take their work. They also take it seriously, discussing possible resolutions or interpretations of sometimes hard-to-parse testimonies. One woman, Nami, is so traumatized she has trouble distinguishing between the men in her house: Thuli calmly, persistently, and so very gently presses her for clarification, holding and hugging Nami until she is able to say what she means.
The film is finely attuned to the repeated slippages between knowing and saying, meaning and feeling. Trauma affects individuals differently, and so the women at Bobbi Bear adapt to situations and stories. Some of the workers are victims themselves, and use their experiences in order to help their young charges, identifying with them and modeling survival and resilience. And some, like founder Jackie Branfield, take victims into their homes—her lovely husband Alan helping with the children’s recoveries.
With Rough Aunties, Longinotto again renders visible experiences usually repressed or unspoken. The film maintains a careful balance in its representations of frankly horrific stories, at once intimate and sensitive, steely and enraged. Like her other films, this one makes a poignant, crucial case for speaking out, even as its subjects have trouble doing so. Again and again, her documentaries find ways to show what hasn’t been or can’t be shown, to share stories and so, build communities.
Passionate and provocative, Rough Aunties does just that. Eureka tells her team before they head out yet another morning, “The day you all stop crying for these children, pack your bags and go build jigsaw puzzles at the old age home, because then you’ve lost your heart. Don’t ever stop crying.” As the camera pans over a room full of Aunties and police officers, you see as well that they will never stop, crying or caring or communicating. The film is part of that ongoing process.