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NIU student filmmakers work to turn spotlight on national epidemic of college sexual assault

October 14, 2013

“In Motion”The national statistics are frightening:

  • 1 in 5 women are victims of completed or attempted sexual assault while in college.
  • Ninety percent of women know the person who sexually assaulted or raped them.
  • Ninety-five percent of college campus sexual assaults are unreported.
  • At least 50 percent of sexual assaults on college campuses are alcohol-related.
  • Eighty percent of rape victims suffer chronic physical or psychological problems over time.

Now student filmmakers are telling the stories behind the statistics.

Northern Illinois University is one of five universities launching a national movement to prevent sexual assaults on college campuses. Dubbed Pact5, the effort uses student-made films to deliver powerful, potentially behavior-changing messages to young people.

Fifteen NIU students spent a year researching  the problem of sexual assault. Under the guidance of their teacher, communication professor Laura Vazquez, with assistance from professor Randy Caspersen, they created a documentary and a narrative film that address the epidemic of sexual assaults in college.

NIU President Doug Baker has given his full support to the project as well.

“Northern Illinois University is committed to making our campus safe, and we want to be a leader in this initiative,” Baker says in a video message. “We applaud the Pact5 project to spread awareness and create tools for the prevention of sexual assaults in colleges.”

Other PACT5 institutions are Rowan University in New Jersey, California State University at Northridge, Western State Colorado University and Framingham State University in Massachusetts.

Together, students at these schools are asking their peers to visit the organization’s website, view the documentaries, learn more about the problem and “make the pact” to end sexual assault.

The student-made films are being made available to colleges nationwide. NIU’s two films were well received during screenings at the Downbeach Film Festival in Atlantic City last weekend. They will be shown on campus at 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7, and 10:30 a.m. Friday, Nov. 8, at the NIU Women’s Resource Center.

Jacob Johnson

Jacob Johnson

“The whole process – interviewing college-age men and women, seeing how they react to these very real topics and understanding how it relates to their lives and the culture as a whole – was an eye-opening experience for me,” says Jacob Johnson of Mora, Minn., a second-year graduate student in the Department of Communication. “I hope it’s equally eye-opening for our audience.”

Working with four male undergrads, Johnson directed the NIU-made documentary, “Red Blooded Men,” which looks at college life from the male perspective and at society’s notions of masculinity and femininity.

“We wanted our documentary to be for college students, by college students and about college students, so it would be more likely to appeal to our target audience,” Johnson says. “I learned in this course how ignorance can contribute to sexual assault, so my hope is that our film will educate and enlighten people. I’m optimistic all five of our schools can contribute in some way to solving the problem, even if it’s just educating and changing ways we think about the culture.”

Alexandra Forni

Alexandra Forni

Alexandra Forni, a second-year graduate student in communication from Fox River Grove, directed the other NIU-made film titled, “In Motion.” Forni and her team of students took a different tact, creating the only full narrative story among the PACT5 films. Actors in the film included an instructor in nursing, actual NIU police detectives and students from the School of Theatre and Dance.

“I have always been interested in activist filmmaking,” Forni says. “I think our group came together to make a strong film. We were all amazed at how effective narrative storytelling could be for this kind of work. A lot of people found the piece to be powerful and find the work that PACT5 is doing to be very influential.”

In addition to her communication degree, Forni has begun working on a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at NIU. Her goal is to one day work with domestic violence survivors, and she’s already learned how the medium of film can be used to deliver a poignant message.

Forni also is using social media. She launched a Facebook page titled Breaking R*** Culture, which has almost 400 followers. It started as a site for the film projects but has morphed into a larger discussion on the movement against “rape culture,” or the attitudes that tolerate or condone sexual violence.

Professor Vazquez knows first-hand the challenge of generating a thoughtful discussion on the topic. During the first semester of the film course, her students conducted their research, analyzed films and documentaries on sexual assault and identified filmmaking techniques that were most effective. But classroom discussion was conspicuously lacking at first.

“In Motion”

NIU students produced and played the lead roles in the narrative film, “In Motion.”

“The first six weeks, it was me talking,” Vazquez says.  “I told the students, ‘We can’t go on like this.’ The problem was that no one had ever talked to the students about these topics. So it was a learning experience for everybody.”

Vazquez is pleased to see the PACT5 films are generating discussion. They already have received more than 5,000 views and are being used on many campuses.

“Students need to understand the risks of partying behavior, and we also need to address this rape culture that allows men to think it’s OK to target or take advantage of women who are under the influence or just having a good time at a party,” Vazquez says.

“I think our students did outstanding work,” she adds. “There is no college campus that is immune to this problem. Our hope is that we can educate, generate discussion and change people’s behavior.”

Comments from NIU students who worked on the project can be found here on the PACT5 website.  PACT5 was supported by a $200,000 grant from Wyncote Foundation.