Arts & Culture

REVIEW: “Brave Miss World” Charts Linor Abargil’s Path from Israeli Beauty Queen to Anti-Rape Activist

“It’s the hardest thing to do, I know, to speak, but then, it’s like the best pill. It heals you.” Read More

By / June 11, 2014

In a way, the 2013 documentary “Brave Miss World” (recently released on Netflix) is two movies: It’s a celebrity biopic about Linor Abargil, the Israeli Miss World of 1998, and it’s the story of how a woman becomes an anti-rape activist.

Abargil was brutally raped in Milan at the age of 18 by travel agent Uri Shlomo Nur, just seven weeks before winning the Miss World crown. In order to heal and raise awareness about the prevalence of rape, she started a website for women to share their stories, and the film (produced and directed by Cecilia Peck) picks up in 2008 as she prepares to travel to meet them.

“Brave Miss World” offers viewers two distinct kinds of voyeurism: we see Abargil’s journey from Miss Israel to model to activist to Orthodox mother of twins, and we hear the tragic, intimate narratives of the rape victims Abargil visits and interviews, her brow furrowed in consternation and anger as she listens to their storms.

With no qualifications other than her own experience and her fame, Abargil travels from Ohio to South Africa doling out advice—even commands—to women who have been brutalized in countless ways. “I’m not going to tell you, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry for you, it’s so sad’,” Abargil says to one victim who doesn’t want to come forward to her family. “Ok, I can tell you that, but it’s not going to help you recover.” She valiantly goes on, telling the survivor, “You need to heal yourself and we need to push each other to do it, no mercy.”

Abargil has a message: speak out about your assault, for that way lies the land of the healed. “It’s the hardest thing to do, I know, to speak, but then, it’s like the best pill,” she tells a survivor. “It heals you.”

She is absolutely convinced of this by her own experience, and astounded by survivors who might prefer to mourn and heal privately. Her reaction to such women is equal parts endearing and unsound. “Why do you think all the victims—it’s really bother me, it’s why I’m asking—on TV they cover their faces? Why they don’t stand and talk about it?” She demands of a rape crisis center director, who patiently explains that many victims fear being shamed. Thanks to supportive family and friends, and a natural tenacity, Abargil is remarkably impervious to this stigma.

There is something supreme and even magnificent about her confidence. A group of teenage girls in South Africa—some as young as 13—confide that people don’t listen to them when they talk about being raped. “She just wants attention,” one says, mimicking the attitudes of their supposed protectors. “Even though she cries, she wants attention,” another girl recalls being told. They all nod in recognition.

“You know what you say when they tell you you want attention?” Abargil says. “You tell them, ‘Yes.’” The girls all laugh. “True! This is what I want. And if you don’t give it to me, I’ll cry louder.” It’s such a wonderful and restorative message for women of all cultures who are silenced and told that they are attention-seekers when they report rape, and Abargil conveys it with a zealous charisma.

It’s her confidence and intuition that told her how to talk to her rapist on the night she was abducted and attacked (It was only a one night stand, Don’t worry, I swear I’m not going to tell anyone), which probably saved her life. That same confidence took her from moderating a website where women write in with their rape stories, to meetings with Fran Drescher and Joan Collins—who both share their rape stories on camera—to law school and the office of the Attorney General.

But anti-rape activism is only one of the things Abargil becomes stubbornly attached to, against the advice of family and friends. She also begins a transformation midway through the film from a secular to a wholly religious—and I mean religious—existence. With the help of a flirtatious Breslov rabbi, Abargil pulls her family, gay best friend, and boyfriend (later husband), into the sphere of her new spiritual existence, replete with head covering, modest dresses, and a refusal to touch men. This is not a person who does things in half measures.

Victims of rape could do worse than have an advocate in the stunning, stubborn Abargil. But still, there’s something discomfiting about the way her grim cause is boosted by the cult of celebrity. While visibility is crucial to help raise awareness about important causes—think #BringBackOurGirls, or even Angelina Jolie’s mastectomy op-ed—”Brave Miss World” prompts the question: isn’t there something smarmy about those who need a celeb to say “I was raped” in order to care? Also, what is the long-term impact of public confession on rape survivors? Abargil’s thesis—that talking about sexual assault publicly is healing and cathartic—is not one she has arrived at through an education in psychology.

The two main threads of the film—celebrity biopic and activism—exist in tension with one another, rather than being complementary. Abargil’s conversion to ultra-Orthodox Judaism is surprising and largely unexplained; unsettling, even. And the fact that we need a white beauty queen to stamp her disapproval on African rape for it to come to our attention is extremely depressing.

But despite these aesthetic quibbles, the film is inspiring. There is something uplifting about a woman like Abargil, whose dogged approach to the things she wants spills over into a desire to help other women. A woman who gets everything she wants. A woman who survives a brutal rape by telling her rapist exactly what he wants to hear, who presses charges against him unsuccessfully in one country and—never discouraged—jails him in another. It’s uplifting to see a woman with such power, who never doubts her story or her right to happiness, or her belief that all other women deserve the same.