For her documentary capstone project, media arts student Hannah Hughes highlighted an issue close to home. Before selecting her topic, she began working on Utah County’s Rape Crisis Team, and during training met rape survivor and fellow advocacy worker Cassidy Jensen Combs.
“We became friends, and she asked if I’d be interested in helping her and her husband Tanner put together some resources for survivors,” said Hughes. “I did it the way that I know how — through documentary.”
The result was “Cassidy: Surviving in Nine Short Films,” a collaboration of student filmmakers advised by faculty Brad Barber and Amy Jensen. In addition to support from the Department of Theatre and Media Arts, the film team received funds from the college’s Film and Digital Media Fund (FDMF).
Cassidy, a BYU Law School graduate, was raped while she was a student. The documentary explores different aspects of her life post-rape, including her life at home, alone, at school and in her advocacy work as her case is going to trial. Director of photography Leesie Clegg came up with the idea to present the documentary in the form of nine short films — a mosaic to show the depth of Cassidy’s character and the fragmented nature of life after sexual assault.
“Dealing with rape or trauma is really nonlinear,” said Hughes. “There are times when Cassidy is feeling peaceful, and then an hour later, she’ll be crying for hours. We wanted the documentary to feel as jarring as her life feels.”
Making the film was an emotional undertaking for the entire team, but they felt the importance of making Cassidy’s story heard.
“I want to be able to make films to help people better understand each other,” said producer Nico Sanchez. “One of the biggest benefits to documentary filmmaking is giving a voice to the voiceless.”
The film team also took inspiration from #MeToo founder Tarana Burke: “We don’t have enough conversation, or even examples in pop culture, of what the act of surviving looks like. And it doesn’t look the same for everybody,” Burke said in an interview with NPR.
“People think that there’s only one way to be raped, or there’s only one way to cope with sexual assault,” said Hughes. “We want to add to that library of histories of how people deal with this so we can broaden our minds, help people process sexual assault and support survivors.”
The film — which was also featured at the Final Cut Film Festival on campus this past October — won second place and a $2000 prize at the Marriott School’s Changemaker Film Festival, an annual competition for BYU students and alumni that features films of all genres and styles that deal with social issues and their solutions.
For Hughes, seeing the film screened at the Changemaker festival was a bittersweet experience. She found it difficult to watch the film because of her close friendship with Cassidy.
“I didn’t get the distance that some filmmakers enjoy,” said Hughes. “It’s hard for me to watch it and realize all the things people don’t know about her.”
With every passing month, however, Hughes finds it easier to face the film. In addition to submitting the documentary to film festivals, the filmmakers are looking forward to setting up more viewing opportunities in the local area.
A big part of the impact we want to make is on the local community,” said Sanchez. “There’s a lot of improvement needed in this area of understanding mental health and rape culture.”
They are working with women’s service organizations, local community leaders and organizations like the Rape Crisis Team, where Cassidy will use the documentary in her own advocacy work to help tell her story.
“As a disciple of Jesus Christ, I think one reason I want to make documentaries is that it’s a good way to help people feel validated in their stories,” said Hughes. “Towards the end of the filmmaking process, Cassidy told us that having people interested in and dedicated to her story has helped her find some love for herself again, and realize that people believe her. That was really tender for me.”
If you or someone you know is struggling, call the toll-free Statewide 24-hour Sexual Violence Crisis and Information Hotline at 1-888-421-1100 or consult the list of Utah Rape Crisis Resources at health.utah.gov.