'Small Small Thing': Film Review
Jessica Vale's doc debut looks at a plague of rape and its effects in Liberia.
The attempt to restore normalcy after decades of Liberian civil war serves as backdrop for Jessica Vale's Small Small Thing, which finds that almost a decade after the widely celebrated election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, not nearly enough has changed. Discussing the widespread tolerance of rape largely via the tragic story of a 9-year-old whose body was destroyed by it, the doc highlights undeniably important realities; but it doesn't find a narrative that sustains feature treatment, and will be most valuable in educational, governmental, and activist settings as opposed to commercial release.
The ostensible main character, Olivia Zinnah, was found by a team of U.S. doctors on a relief mission to Monrovia's troubled JFK Hospital, sitting in her own feces and evidently near death. She'd been in the hospital for two years; an adult in her family had raped her, creating a fistula that never healed and that doctors could not repair.
The extent of her wounds and the repulsiveness of the crime are far from the only challenges for squeamish viewers here, but Vale's unpolished narration never quite crosses into the manipulative territory of charity TV infomercials. She attempts to maintain an objective tone when going out in the bush to meet the family that ostracized the girl and her mother after the rape; she even, in the film's most surprising sequence, listens with some sympathy to explanations of the psychological traumas endured by the nation's former child soldiers — a legacy some feel explains the phenomenon of widespread rape.
Olivia, who smiles and giggles easily once she's found by a supportive team of nurses, is an adorable child, but she barely says a word on camera; between her and another pre-teen rape victim who vanishes from the film early on, one feels we've met central characters who never fully become people on the screen. Vale follows other paths branching out from Olivia's experience, meeting older women forced to sell sex and observing the difficult pregnancy of Olivia's mother, who hates Monrovia and yearns to return to the village that rejected her. These stories put a human face on news reports and statistics, forcing viewers to reconsider how much it means to the women of this nation to have elected Africa's first female president.
Production company: Take My Picture
Director-Screenwriter: Jessica Vale
Producers: Nika Offenbac, Jessica Vale
Director of photography: Nika Offenbac
Editors: Jessica Vale, Jason Kessler
Music: Jean-Luc Sinclair
No rating, 83 minutes