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Laps: A short film about sexual assault on the NYC subway

For her student film at NYU, filmmaker Charlotte Wells created a six-minute short that shows what many women have endured during their daily commute: sexual assault.

The dialogue-free film, entitled Laps, features a woman who hops on the subway shortly after swim practice. There, she encounters a stranger who presses himself against her. Like many who have been sexually assaulted, she’s instantly paralysed with fear and confusion, unable to fight back or even scream for help.

According to Wells, the piece hits close to home as she, too, has experienced similar encounters. She told Indiewire:

“I live in New York and spend an hour a day commuting on one of the busiest lines in the city. I have had more than one experience akin to that in the film, and I was disturbed by my ability to disassociate in the moment, by my capacity for self-doubt.

“I’ve discovered that I’m most interested in making films about internal reckonings of various sorts and this was one I wanted to grapple with. Why did I endure it? How did I rationalize it in the moment and then afterward?”

Laps by Charlotte Wells

With some of Hollywood’s biggest names – such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and George Takei – all facing sexual assault and harassment allegations, this film couldn’t have come at a better time.

We recently caught up with Charlotte Wells to find out more about her short film.

Why did you make this film?

“Something not so dissimilar happened to me and I was disturbed by my capacity for self-doubt, by my ability to disassociate in the moment.

“I had thought of myself as someone who would speak out in a situation like that, but I didn’t, far from it, and I was interested in exploring that: the gradual escalation of it, the doubt and fear and panic, and in the case of Laps an acceptance of sorts that it happened.”

Seeing as the topic of sexual assault is a sensitive and controversial one, how did you approach it in the making of Laps?

“As I thought more seriously about making the film, I did some research. I spoke with friends and read articles online, all of which reinforced for me how common yet unspoken this type of assault is, almost as if it’s an inevitable fact of living in a metropolitan area.

“That initial research really encouraged me to see it through. Then, as I wrote, I continued to narrow in on the experience itself. I focused on details, on the subjectivity of it. I wanted the audience to feel at once both the protagonist and the bystander.”

Laps by Charlotte Wells

Let’s talk about your filming process. Why wasn’t the culprit’s face shown? Were the passengers’ reactions to the scene real or were they actors as well? And also, the film had a bit of an open-ended conclusion, why so?

“That we wouldn’t see his face was one of the earliest decisions I made — I was very clear to me that the film wasn’t about him — his appearance, his background, his motives, his experience — it was about her. Furthermore, not showing his face played into the doubt…perhaps if she didn’t look at him, it wasn’t really happening.

“As for the bystanders, I did bring friends and other actors onto the train to ensure a variety of reactions.

“And regarding the ending, I don’t think I would describe it as open-ended. There’s an acceptance of sorts that this happened, that there’s little recourse, and that ultimately she needs to get wherever it is that she’s going.

“Ideally, she would have stopped the assault, said something, been able to report him, but it’s incredibly difficult to do that, so she gets back on the train. The title speaks to that too.”

What kind of feedback have you received? And have these responses surprised you in any kind of way?

“I’ve received a lot of positive feedback, people telling me that they were grateful I made it, that they related to it. The most surprising question I have received is, ‘But what happened? How is this assault?’

“The assault shown in the film is definitely subtle and I didn’t want to make it anything more. For a time, she’s wondering whether or not it’s really happening and is plagued by doubt. And the people who are staring — perhaps they’re not sure either.

“But, the assault itself is evident to the audience and eventually to her and there is a clear shot of him grinding against her.”

Laps by Charlotte Wells

What type of impact would you like this film to have on society?

“I didn’t make the film with this in mind, but if anything, I want people to take away that this happens, a lot, that it shouldn’t, and that perhaps if it does and they are victim to it or a bystander, they might be able to recognise it and intervene.

“I have also had women feel able to share their own experiences and men tell me that the film reminded them the degree to which they take their own experience in public spaces for granted. More open discussion and awareness is a good thing.”

What’s next for you?

“My next short just premiered at TIFF — Blue Christmas. It’s set in the ‘60s in Scotland and is about a debt collector who goes to work on Christmas Eve to avoid confronting his wife’s worsening psychosis at home.

“I’m also writing a feature about a girl on vacation with her late-20s father at a European holiday resort.”

You can find out more about Charlotte Wells on her website.

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