Short Film ‘Lioness’ Explores the Psychological Experience of Survivors

CW: This article contains discussion of sexual assault

In the flurry of survivors reclaiming their stories through media and specifically the #MeToo movement, Nicole Lefteau along with her entire crew created Lioness, a compelling experimental short film which further empowered this movement when it went online December 20, 2017.

The film, which over the course of four and a half minutes, shows the physical and psychological experience of one woman (Nicole Rita Sharp) after being sexually assaulted. The duality of Sharp’s character in bloody white dress with pain, terror and trauma covering her face, is juxtaposed with shots of another character played by Heather Amakwe, who wears a headdress and is sprinkled with gold accents. Amakwe wears pride and peace on her face. In the end, we see Sharp gain her own headdress and sense of control over her life.

“I made the film with a variety of messages but I was really focused on capturing the psychological and emotional experience that survivors go through that I don’t think other people understand as much,” Lefteau said.

Absent of narrative, and taking place in undisclosed dark rooms, Lefteau said they wanted to make sure to not give this film a time or place to emphasize how assault isn’t designated to certain type of person, place or situation.

“What we are realizing now is assault doesn’t look one way or another. It can be physical force, it can be under substance influence, it can be coercion, it can be manipulation. So we really wanted to focus on the abstract feelings, and emotions of people so that way everybody could relate,” Lefteau said.

The entire film was a self-funded project between Lefteau and Spencer Campbell which cost about $600 and took course over 8-hours of shooting and four days of editing. Lefteau said they wanted to cut out any process which would make putting the video out take any longer. They were able to produce a force of work in August and publish as soon as December.

Lefteau said the film draws on her own experiences, but also her encounters with other survivors who have been instrumental in her journey.

“Being in a college town and unfortunately being in contact with a lot of other survivors is both really positive and a really disheartening experience. It’s great feeling not alone but also you don’t want the people around you to experience those things,” Lefteau said.

A significant element of the film is its representation of the mindset of the survivor. While many can witness, or hear about an incident of sexual assault, and recognize it is awful, they can eventually put it aside - they can leave. The film is meant to show the emotional and mental journey every survivor must live with everyday.

Wanting to do right by them, Lefteau said she was nervous about how survivors would feel about the film but was excited to hear many survivors felt understood and embraced by it.

Lefteau said knowing you’re not alone is an important part of a survivor’s journey and is something she purposely incorporated into the film.

Amakwe, the woman in the headdress, symbolizes wisdom. She is a survivor, who through her journey has already in the beginning of this film found her inner-peace with her assault. She serves as a figure for all the survivors who came before who teach, inspire and support younger women trying to navigate this journey.

“I wanted to represent that connection you have with people who have been through the same thing as you,” Lefteau said. “If I hadn’t had these people that came before who had found their inner-peace or learned how to live despite it, then I don’t know if I would have had any kind of direction on where to go afterwards.”

The final shot of this film is gut-wrenching as we see Sharp’s broken and beaten character transform into a woman who channels the pain into strength. She is face-to-face with her abuser, his mouth flooded with blood and a face of panic and pain, the same one she wore when he was on top of her. When the scene flips to Sharp, the music composed by Noah Spencer shifts from chaos to clarity. She is now wearing a headdress, her face sprinkled with gold accents as three bloodied tongues are pinned to her chest. She takes one final, thousand yard glare which speaks to her resilience - her life is not over and she is not broken.

After filming this scene, Lefteau said the crew cried at what she calls the “Khaleesi” shot as Sharp rises from the ashes.

“She took everything in that moment - all of the exhaustion from set, the pain of her own journey, and then all of the connection and empowerment from other survivors and just channeled all of it into her final look. I can’t watch it without crying because of that single shot alone,” Lefteau said.

The tongues, which were pinned to her chest, were a result of 36-hours from their special effects person Sarah Brill, who laboriously molded the prosthetic tongues.

Lefteau said because of the film’s experimental nature, the tongues have had different meaning to different people. But, to her they are representation of reclaiming one’s life.

“The tongues, for me, represent voice and consumption, that you may not never find justice - unfortunately a lot of survivors won’t find justice,” Lefteau said. “But, you do have your own truth, you do have your life, you do have the ability to live despite what has happened to you and an important message I wanted to send to survivors is that their abusers don’t own their life now.”

Lefteau’s senior project, The Devil Has Blue Eyes, is set to release Spring of 2019 and will be a horror film that physically manifests emotional manipulation when a woman is possessed by her abusive boyfriend. The film will star Carson Cobb and they are hoping to have a heavily-dominated and possibly all-female crew.

CW: Embedded below is the film which contains graphic imagery of sexual assault that viewers may find disturbing

Directed by Nicole Lefteau

Starring: Nicole Rita Sharp, Heather Amakwe, and Alex Istrate

Cinematography by Thomas Blanks

Production Design by Kirsten Norsworthy

Score by Noah Spencer

Header image courtesy of Lioness production
Header image layout designed by Holden Foster