The Manchester International Film Festival always showcases a fine selection of international documentaries. This year, however, on my way into the screen to see Knots: A Forced Marriage Story, I was met by a friendly American woman handing out pieces of red thread. She was the mother of one of the filmmakers, she told me, and that each piece of thread had three knots in it, representing the three shocking journeys we were about to be taken on.
The forced marriage of children and women is not something we often associate with the Western world, but this could not be further from the truth. Not long after the lights dimmed and everyone had turned off their phones, we’re presented with a startling statistic in bold lettering: that 250,000 children were married off between 2000 and 2010 in the U.S. – some as young as twelve years old and most of whom were young girls married off to significantly older men. Legally.
The film delicately balances its focus on the stories of three survivors— Fraidy Reiss, Sara Tasneem and Nina Van Harn— with an overarching view to the bigger picture. The stats, infographics and legal explanations make us aware of the scale of the problem, whilst these three spotlit stories drive home the emotional trauma the many thousands of victims of forced marriage are going through.
Fraidy Reiss was raised in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community of Brooklyn, where the only education available to her was a religious one which taught her nothing but the role she would come to fulfil as a housewife. At nineteen years old, her mother matched her with a man they knew was prone to violent outbursts. Her education had essentially brainwashed her, and refusing to marry would turn her into an outcast from the only family she knew.
When she was just fifteen, Sara Tasneem was given away by her father to a much older man from his religious community ‘The Group’. On the day of her wedding, she was sixteen and pregnant, which was clear evidence of statutory rape. The adults present seemed to see nothing wrong with this.
Nina Van Harn was raised in a Michigan Christian community to be subservient to men. Similarly to Reiss’ story, she was taught from a young age that women had no other purpose than to be wives and mothers. She was forced to marry at nineteen years old under threat of being excommunicated from her family and community.
There is something of a trend between these three stories— the threat of being outcast. A thread, if you will, which runs through each of them, intermittently represented on screen by a woman struggling against red rope tangling around her. Art director Chris Cook said she took inspiration for this from a Japanese myth in which the vein from the heart to the pinky finger extends beyond the body as a red string which leads you to your soulmate.
Much of the film is truly shocking viewing as these three brave women unwaveringly recount their experiences. However, alongside this, there is a sense of hope. Fraidy, Sara and Nina have all escaped as survivors, and are now fighting for the insanely lax and loophole-prone laws across the United States to be tightened, one state at a time.
Director Kate Ryan Brewer’s debut feature is a tour de force and one that carries huge importance, shining light on an otherwise hidden human rights abuse. Although it does not yet have an official distribution, the hope is that this independent film will eventually be used as educational material across America.
Knots: A Forced Marriage Story screened at Manchester International Film Festival on March 14th
By Daniel Broadley
Daniel is a Manchester-based editorial assistant and an English Literature and Creative Writing graduate. He is a regular contributor for Frame Rated and Manchester’s Finest, and his favourite films include The Lighthouse, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and There Will Be Blood.