The Miss World who gave a voice to rape victims
The rape of Linor Abargil propelled her on a quest for justice, culminating in the documentary ‘Brave Miss World’
Inspired by courage: Linor Abargil, left, and film-maker Cecilia Peck
In 1998, seven weeks before winning the Miss World pageant, 18-year-old Linor Abargil was raped. Fellow Israeli Uri Shlomo was meant to help her get home from Italy, but instead threatened Abargil with a knife, raped her repeatedly and tried to strangle her.
Through Abargil’s efforts he was extradited and stood trial. The effect on his victim was huge: it propelled her towards a career in law and a quest for justice for all rape victims.
Cecilia Peck heard about Abargil when the model visited Los Angeles in search of a female film-maker to make a documentary about rape. “Myself and Inbal Lessner [Brave Miss World’s editor] sat down with Linor and listened to her story. She was riveting. She wanted to make a film that reached out to other rape victims and helped them to speak out. When you’re making a film you need a central character who is capable of taking an audience on a journey, and I knew Linor would do that.”
Peck’s documentary Brave Miss World follows Abargil as she travels around the world to listen to the experiences of rape victims. Peck says they had no shortage of women wanting to tell their stories on camera. The results amount to a gut-wrenching litany: date rape, rape in childhood, campus rape, assault by co-workers. At one point Abargil visits South Africa, which is, the voiceover tells us, “the world’s rape capital. Here a woman is raped every three minutes and more likely to be raped than educated.”
Abargil is the central focus, and Peck had to maintain her directorial distance to be objective. This proved complex when Abargil suffered psychological setbacks during the shoot. “I thought this would be a one-year, not a five-year project, but I made that commitment, even when funding was a problem, and Linor had to stop filming because of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. She felt like she was healed, but making the film triggered her own trauma over and over.”
At the start of the film Abargil is a secular Jewish woman, but by the end has become more devout and is studying law. “Linor successfully lobbied the parole board to keep Shlomo in prison for the duration of his 16-year sentence, but he will be released this July,” says Peck. “His sentence was 16 years – the longest ever given for a rape in Israel at the time – and Linor was able to change several laws in Israel that protect survivors of rape.”
Peck’s first film, Shut Up & Sing centred on US country band Dixie Chicks, who had publicly denounced George W Bush for the war in Afghanistan and had suffered a huge public backlash – both personal and commercial.
The cost of courage
“Like Linor, I’m inspired by women who have the courage to stand up for what they believe in, and I’m very interested in the cost of that courage – what does it mean for your life if you speak up and fight? I’m fascinated by storytelling and seeing what motivates people to do what they do.”
Peck says her desire to tell important stories comes from her late father, Gregory, the Oscar-winning actor. “My interest in social justice partly comes from my dad, who often made films that dealt with controversial themes and issues. He was Irish on his father’s side, from Co Kerry, and that’s where he got his wit. I also think that’s where he got his storytelling ability from, but he really cared about social justice too.”
Gregory Peck helped found the UCD school of film, and Cecilia filmed him in Dublin after he had persuaded Martin Scorsese to become an honorary patron. (It was released as A Conversation with Gregory Peck in 2000). “I went to Dingle with him twice. We have loads of cousins there. There’s always a gigantic family reunion whenever we come back.”
Given her background, was it inevitable she would find her way into the film world?
“When you’re on film sets as a kid, there’s nothing that seems as interesting and compelling. It’s hard not to want to do it.”
Peck worked as an actor on stage and screen (she had a role in Wall Street), but says she always had a video camera and “a mission to tell the stories that need to be told, no matter how hard they are”.
Brave Miss World has done what she wanted: to help male and female rape survivors to speak out. “Beyond that, we hope it makes an impact on police departments and justice systems around the world.”