As I approached the ticket table, looking to secure a spot for my second festival film of the day, a volunteer asked me what I thought of Small Small Thing? Normally I welcome a chance for small talk at a festival, but I was at a loss as for what to say. Having just left the film, and with it still dancing free-form in my head, I struggled to come up with an adequate response. After a few moments I managed to mumble out a faintly audible “it was good.” Knowing full well that this did not properly convey the gut-wrenching punch I had just endured.
What I should have said is that I felt deep shame. Shame for my gender, shame for the atrocities that mankind is capable of, and shame for how easy it is for nations worldwide to turn a blind eye to it all.
Jessica Vale’s powerful documentary Small Small Things attempts to shine an unflinching light on the widespread epidemic of rape. Turning her focus to the nation of Liberia, Vale hits on a systemic problem that cannot simply be cured by the numerous anti-rape billboards that litter the sides of roads and go unnoticed on the crowded Monrovia streets. To emphasize the severity of the issue, Vale shapes her story around the high profile rape case of Olivia Zinnah.
Olivia’s heartbreaking story is sadly like many young girls her age. At age 7 she was repeatedly raped by a family member and suffered extensive internal damage. Instead of finding solace and protection with loved ones, Olivia and her mother were ostracized by family members who believed the incidents never happened. They remain steadfast in their beliefs that her injuries were caused by witchcraft, despite all the hospital evidence that states otherwise.
With the legal system, police, politicians, and tribal elders all wrapped up in their own politics, the only ones who truly have compassion for Olivia are the JFK Hospital staff and the safe house workers. These seem to be the only individuals who are actually standing up for the victim’s rights. As Vale points out, finding justice is an uphill battle that few seem willing to endure. People are often threatened with death if they testify or speak the truth. Local tribal leaders have more authority than the police in most areas, and some police forces do not even have vehicles for transportation.
One of the most disheartening moments comes when two rural police officers ask Vale “what do you mean by evidence?”, in response to her question inquiring how they go about investigating people accused of committing rape.
Small Small Thing is tough to watch at times, although not visually graphic, as the chilling mental images the film creates linger in your mind. Vale does a good job of presenting a well-rounded look at the issue. She skillfully shows how Liberia’s violent history, sparked by American colonialism, still has damaging reverberations today. It is a history of Civil War, child soldiers, poverty and prostitution that has unhealthily shaped generations of men and women. It has created a culture in which rape is something where the onus is on women and not the accused to prove their innocence. For a country that is known for having Africa’s first female president, Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was in power when Olivia’s case became an international story, sections of Liberia still seem stuck in the barbaric patriarchal dark ages.
Though it would have been nice if the overall look of the film was a bit more vibrant and interesting, rather than the standard approach Vale takes, these are ultimately nitpicks that do not hinder the blistering punch the film delivers. Small Small Thing is a film that forces you to reflect on how rape impacts society as a whole. It is not just the men and women in Liberia who need to stop living in denial about these things, but all of us worldwide need to open our eyes to these atrocities