Tuesday 20 March 2018

Unbreakable: True Lives review: 'a damning indictment of the legal system and society and how they can fail Irish women'

Unbreakable: True Lives, TV3. Trish Kelly
Unbreakable: True Lives, TV3. Trish Kelly

Eva Short

In the wake of George Hook’s comments about rape, and the storm of controversy that subsequently raged, TV3 had a rare opportunity to make a powerful statement with their latest documentary 'Unbreakable: True Lives'.

The harrowing two-parter, about sexual assault and its survivors, comes at a time when the issue is already at the forefront of public consciousness.

It tells the stories of four women who have experienced sexual violence, how their cases were handled by the court, and the lasting effect the experiences had on their lives.

Trish Kelly, Niamh Cosgrave, Winnie M Li and Niamh Ní Dhomhnaill all come forward to detail an issue that is often forced into the shadows due to our collective sense of awkwardness, shame and fear.

Unbreakable: True Lives, TV3. Niamh Cosgrave
Unbreakable: True Lives, TV3. Niamh Cosgrave

Personally, I have little faith in the media’s ability to handle the issue of sexual violence appropriately; I will generally steel myself for disappointment or anger at the lack of sensitivity.

'Unbreakable', however, surprised me - in keeping the focus on the women and their experiences, this documentary refuses to let the survivors of assault fade to the background in service of discussing the issue as an abstract concept.

Through their personal testimony, viewers learn about how complicated and multifaceted the issue is and how the society in which one lives can drastically affect how sexual assault survivors are treated.

Tonight's first 45 minute episode focused on Trish Kelly and Niamh Cosgrave. The former was attacked by a family member after a funeral, the latter was attacked in her home in a town in France by a man who lived nearby and who may have stalked her in the lead up to the assault.

I commend both women for having the strength to speak about their attacks publicly; they explained their attacks in detail, willing to express the fear and pain they felt both during and after as well as providing insightful and candid analysis of how they were treated by society, the courts, and the people around them in the aftermath.

They are to be particularly commended because it was abundantly clear that it was still difficult to this day to recount those events.

Trish Kelly
Trish Kelly

However, it did, at times, veer into the territory of trauma as spectacle.  In a 45 minute documentary at least 27 minutes were devoted solely to the actual assault and the immediate aftermath with the women giving blow-by-blow accounts of the horrific things that befell them.

Their testimony was soundtracked by tinkling piano and cut with mournful, dreamy shots of wind whistling through blades of grass, which felt like an attempt to inject melodrama into testimony that really didn’t require anything extra.

With so much time devoted to the actual event it belies the fact that the months and years after an assault, dealing with psychological side effects, hospitals, relatives and the legal system can often be just as traumatic as the event itself.

Given the general rule that 80 per cent of material gathered by documentarians ends up on the cutting room floor one wonders how long the women had to spend reliving their assaults on camera.

One of the most disturbing elements of the documentary was the contrast between how the women were treated in their respective countries.

Niamh Cosgrave, a former Fine Gael politician who has since moved to France, explains that the French were “horribly ashamed” that Niamh had been attacked in their town and people told her they were “so proud” that she had chosen to stay in the town after what had happened.

Upon calling the police she was brought to the hospital, quickly visited by a psychiatrist and psychologist together who treated her with compassion and dignity, interviewed by the police and brought into surgery for her injuries - all seemingly within hours. Her attacker, Christian Gladieux, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his crimes.

Trish was not so fortunate. She felt the need to stay silent about her assault, lest she make a fuss during the funeral. She recounted how people from her town told her she should have “[swept] it under the carpet” and how they said “We’ve had enough of you now.” Trish’s horrific experience was treated as tedious by the citizens of the small rural town in Ireland in which she lived.

In court, she was harangued by the barrister for the defence despite repeatedly being reminded by the judge that Trish was the victim. Her attacker was convicted of aggravated sexual assault, for which the maximum sentence at the time was five years.  He was sentenced to three years, of which two were suspended.

Despite the pathetic sentence, Trish revealed she felt “vindicated” and hoped her situation would improve, but “it only got worse.” Her attacker’s friends harassed and threatened to kill her. People ignored her because she dared to speak out about her attack. Eventually she sold her house and moved away, vowing to never return to her hometown.

The contrast between Irish and French society is stark, and is a damning indictment of the Irish attitude to women and the issue of sexual violence. 'Unbreakable: True Lies' makes for striking viewing, giving women a chance to express their experience and, in doing so, revealing how the legal system and society can fail Irish women.

Unbreakable: True Lives is available on 3Player and the second part airs next Thursday at 10pm on TV3.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can contact the Rape Crisis Network Ireland via their website http://www.rapecrisishelp.ie/ or by calling their 24 hr helpline 1800778888.

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