From behind prison bars, tales of gender violence reach out to Rome Film Fest

ROME (Xinhua) – It is often said that self-awareness is key to female empowerment, and young Jennifer seemed indeed to agree on that.

The Nigerian woman – serving a sentence in the female ward of Rebibbia prison, Italy’s largest jail for women – took centre stage along with some of her fellow inmates on Friday.

Involved in an educational video project aimed at raising consciousness against gender violence, the group showed their efforts along a path of self-improvement during a special screening event.

“I have learnt that speaking out about violence against women is useful for yourself and for others,” Jennifer told Xinhua. She had an extremely violent ex-partner to run and hide from.

“If something bad happens to you, better tell someone exactly what they did to you, who did it, and where… So, in case tomorrow you disappear, they will know everything,” Jennifer explained.

Overall, some 60 female prisoners from the most varied nationalities took part in the project, which was supported by the Department for Equal Opportunities of the Italian Presidency of the Council of Ministries in cooperation with the 12th Rome Film Fest running from October 26 to November 5.

This was the second time the major movie festival reached out to the city’s largest high security jail, offering a selection of movie screenings and artistic events involving inmates.

Giulia Merenda (L), author and director of the documentary film, receives an interview with Xinhua at the theatre of Rebibbia prison. – PHOTOS: XINHUA
Prisoners involved in the documentary film watch the film at the theatre of Rebibbia prison in Rome, Italy. ‘Save Face’, a short documentary in which 12 female prisoners agreed to talk about their background and the violence they faced at the hands of men, was shown in Rebibbia prison, Italy’s largest jail for women in Rome

The initiative answered a major pledge made by festival’s artistic director Antonio Monda of “bringing movies all across the city” and reaching the most different audiences.

In this case, there were months of writing workshops, awareness discussions, and theatre classes. The result was ‘Save Face’, a short documentary in which 12 female prisoners agreed to talk about their background, and the violence they faced at the hands of men.

Each of them had a specific story to tell. “For me, the project was a path, and it gave me strength: for the first time, I talked about the nightmare I went through as a child,” Luciana Katrina, a Brazilian girl, told Xinhua. “It was hard, but after speaking out I felt an immediate relief… I felt unburdened,” she said.

A mixed audience of inmates, major authorities of the prison, and representatives from the Equal Opportunities Department and the Film Fest watched the screening of ‘Save Face’ on Friday.

Author and director Giulia Merenda explained that tackling the gender violence issue with female prisoners disclosed at least two specific, interesting traits. “Firstly, we have realised that women are in many cases manipulated by men into their crime,” Merenda told Xinhua.

Husbands, partners, brothers, and sons would often push their women on the frontline, and in the same ways, regardless if they were from Latin America, Africa, or Europe, according to Merenda.

“This proves an extreme form of violence: how can a woman say no to a son asking for a ‘small favour’? Yet, you may just end up serving 10 years in jail for that favour,” she stressed.

Acknowledging this emotional strain, and the risk of manipulation, was one step in the jailed women’s path of self-empowerment.

At the same time, the director explained women at the Rebibbia prison would often recognise a violent attitude in a man faster than other women, and would know better how it can spiral out of control. As such, when they accepted to expose themselves in the documentary – sometimes unveiling painful memories no one else had ever heard – they did so not only for themselves.

They felt their stories might be useful to the women outside prison, those who are indeed free, and yet equally or even more vulnerable.

“I do hope our documentary will reach out to women outside here,” Luciana Katrina said. “I think of those who do not feel to talk about the violence they endured, who do not want to report to police… I have felt just the same until I entered this project,” Luciana Katrina confirmed. This may help them open their eyes.”