“I tend to think of myself as being connected to issues, and I care deeply about a range of issues, but I had no idea that forced and child marriage was still happening in the United States.”
As independent filmmaker Kate Ryan Brewer recalls what motivated her to make her debut feature documentary, I was reminded of a quote Kate used in her TED Talk from a US legislator as to why legal loopholes allowing child marriage should not be closed:
“If she’s old enough to have sex, she’s old enough to get married.”
It’s easy to become complacent with the engrained ‘traditions’ of our culture, but what Knots: A Forced Marriage Story reveals is a human rights abuse hidden in plain sight— and underage girls are overwhelmingly affected by it.
“It is such a complex and nuanced issue that it is really hard to get people to understand what it means to be forced into a marriage in a short news piece, which is why I wanted to make the documentary because I felt like I wanted to give a platform to survivor voices to share what this is actually like, what it looks like, what to look for.”
“The more empathy people have for the deep seated abuse that it really is, the more people will be on board hopefully to change it.”
The documentary follows the stories of three survivors of forced marriage: Fraidy Reiss, Sara Tasneem and Nina Van Harn, and it was whilst she was working a communications position for the Tahirih Justice Center that Kate first came across the issue of child and forced marriage, and how it is legally allowed to continue.
With a background in writing and film-making, the challenge for Kate was to tell other people’s deeply personal stories rather than creating her own. Part of this included giving the survivors the final say over the final cut of the film: “From the beginning, my team and I were very concerned about making sure that we were limiting re-traumatisation and making sure that survivors have the agency over their own stories, and really highlighting that it’s their stories. I wouldn’t have felt good about putting it out in the world unless the survivors were completely behind it and completely well represented.”
It became clear that a huge amount of work went into the film before any cameras were even turned on, with Kate revealing that she spoke through each of the survivors’ life stories multiple times over the phone to really understand how their stories could fit together in one coherent picture.
However, the work that went into making this a good documentary was clearly equalled by the work put into protecting the survivors and telling their stories how they want them to be told. There’s a reason you won’t see any of the people the survivors were married to or their families on screen, and part of the problem, Kate said, is the American perspective of marriage.
“In the US especially, there’s almost this mythology around marriage and the nuclear family, there’s this perception that marriage is this sort of magical wand that fixes people and relationships.”
“In this country, we tend to view it all through this mythological lens that also unfortunately lends itself to patriarchy, which still has a heavy influence in our culture.”
Another one of the most challenging aspects of filming Kate faced was visualising trauma on screen. In wanting to avoid feeling exploitative or sensational, Kate and her team were sensitive to this whilst also allowing the audience to feel the severity of what’s going on. This is where the idea of a girl dancing on screen, struggling against a red thread either tied around her or falling on her, came from. The analogy works beautifully and is perfectly supported by illustration from art director Chris Cook. The thread analogy was given further significance during the film’s screening at MANIFF earlier this year as Kate’s mum handed out pieces of red thread to the audience. Each piece had three knots in it, representing the three survivor stories.
And although these three stories are central to the film, it also keeps one eye firmly on the bigger picture.
“My editor Darmyn Calderon was instrumental in that. She was fantastic. She hadn’t seen any of the footage so came in with a fresh eye and was able to help us balance out how much we were focussing on the individual stories and then tying them to the bigger picture.
“It’s important for people to understand the issue as a whole, but who is going to care unless you feel for someone on an emotional level? Once you can feel or see something demonstrated in their lives, then you can talk about it on a policy level or a national level.”
The revelation that child and forced marriage still occurs across the United States is reminiscent of the child grooming gang scandals here in the UK, and although these are stories of truly awful abuses, there is hope. In Kate’s own words, growth comes from discomfort, and Knots: A Forced Marriage Story certainly forces us to face an uncomfortable truth.
“This is a really easy thing for people to agree on,” Kate concluded. “Children should not be forced into marriage. Forcing someone into marriage is not a good thing. From that perspective, I hope that there are more people who are on board with this that not.”
For now though, Kate’s plan is (once the pandemic has eased) to continue festival and independent screenings whilst distribution is worked on, with the ultimate aim of getting it screened in all 50 states.
“There’s a lot of hope in the survivors stories because they’re so resilient and they’ve made these incredible strides in their lives and they’re amazing people… but also this is something that should not be so controversial!
“Girls lives do not have to be destroyed. Women’s lives do not have to be destroyed. We can change that.”
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.