Filmmaker and educator Nuala Cabral entered into anti-street harassment activism in 2009 with her short film Walking Home. Her aim is to use her artistic talents “as a tool to build understanding, share silenced voices and provoke social change.” I spoke with her about what she’s been up to during the last two years and what her plans are in Philly this summer.
What prompted you to make Walking Home?
Throughout my twenties I lived in several different cities and saw that street harassment was present everywhere. I noticed that navigating street harassment is like an art. I grew up ignoring catcalls and other kinds of harassment, but later found myself in spaces where ignoring these behaviors could lead to violence. I found this fascinating and disturbing, and as a filmmaker, I felt compelled to respond. Walking Home attempts to question and disrupt the acceptance around these normalized, everyday interactions.
You’ve been screening your film for a variety of audiences. What responses have you received?
Most responses have been positive because the film resonates with a lot of people. One woman said, “I felt my blood pressure rise and my body tense as I watched the film and re-lived so many of those same moments captured in the film.” Some men have indicated that it helped them better understand street harassment and why it is a problem, and caused them to reconsider the way they approach women in public spaces.
Have you gotten any critical feedback?
Critical feedback has tended to focus on the issue of street harassment, and not the film itself. Some viewers argue that street harassment is not a big deal, compared to other issues. Some argue that in order for street harassment to stop, women have to change their style or behavior. One viewer suggested that I focused too much on a black men as the perpetrators, arguing that “all races do it so that must be shown.” When I screen Walking Home for audiences, it does sometimes generate dialogue about intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and other aspects of identity. It’s difficult to touch on all of these complexities in a four-minute experimental film, so I always appreciate that the post-screening dialogue provides the opportunity for engaging with these complexities. I encourage this analysis, and I try to move the dialogue towards a hopeful space.
You are using Walking Home as a jumping-off point for working with teens around the issue of street harassment. How is that going?
I have screened Walking Home for high school audiences, and I know it is being used in university classrooms too. I see in-person dialogue as a critical aspect to this work because it always seems to broaden compassion and understanding, and engaging young people in these conversations is huge. I’ve seen some interesting conversations take place after screening Walking Home for middle and high school students in Providence and Philadelphia. When a safe space is created, girls will come forward and talk about this issue and so will boys. A couple of weeks ago I screened the film for five ninth grade classrooms and facilitated a dialogue and free write about street harassment. This is not something they had talked about before in the classroom, but it is a real experience in their lives and they had so much to say. I left that school knowing that there was a small spark lit. I would love to do more of that.
I also helped organize Philadelphia’s Anti-Street Harassment Day efforts, which allowed me to involve and engage young people in our community in a different way. I plan to do more of this community outreach because face-to-face interaction in the community is important, and I want to start thinking more strategically about how Walking Home can be used to inspire more of these actions.
Why is face-to-face community action important?
A film can’t reach everybody. Face-to-face community action and engagement is a key way to deeply reach a broader audience. We need to get out there and talk to people. I think most people agree that everyone should feel safe and comfortable in public spaces, and having a conversation can go a long way.
Why do you prioritize street harassment over other issues?
Street harassment is something I’ve experienced directly, so I chose to make a film about it. I tend to make films about issues that are close to home, issues that I come to know from personal experience. I have other films that explore issues I care about (i.e. gentrification, voting), but Walking Home has seemed to resonate with audiences the most. I will say that making Walking Home (and my film about hip hop) has helped me better understand the ways in which violence against women is often dismissed and normalized in our culture, through media and everyday life.
What strategies will you employ next?
I plan to continue screening Walking Home in schools and community centers, using it as a tool to spark dialogue and change. Participating in the First Annual Anti Street Harassment Day in Philadelphia has inspired many of us to continue community outreach this summer. Summer is a great time to engage people in the city, and we know rates of street harassment tend to increase with the warmer weather. I’m looking forward to these conversations and I hope to build a team of youth, women, and men to support this work in my city.