Hot Docs 2018 Interview: Mandi Gray, subject of Slut or Nut: The Diary of a Rape Trial

Activist and sexual assault survivor Mandi Gray, the main subject of filmmaker Kelly Showker’s documentary Slut or Nut: The Diary of a Rape Trial (which premieres at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival next week), is both cautiously optimistic and worried about the future for people coming forward to face perpetrators, assailants, and rapists in a legal setting. During our phone conversation two weeks ago to talk about the film – which focuses on her own experiences – Gray speaks warmly and openly, sometimes with a sense of dark, self-aware humour and often with the weariness of someone who has gone through an unfathomable amount of hoop jumping to make sure her experiences were heard in a judicial setting. While she’s grateful for the opportunities the court provided for her in a time of need, she’s clearly still trying to process the entire affair, something Gray hopes that Showker’s film can express in the hope of helping others in similar situations.

In early 2015 while working at York University and studying there as part of her PhD, Gray reported that she was raped and sexually assaulted by a colleague, acquaintance, and executive in her union. The consequences of her reporting were far reaching, and helpful resources from both her employer and the legal system were sometimes frustratingly out of reach. It was an ongoing ordeal that stretched over several years, with her case going to trial the following year in a Toronto courtroom (not far from where a similar case involving former radio personality Jian Gomeshi was unfolding at the same time) and Gray lodging a human rights complaint against her university. As Gray explains in our interview, her biggest reason for coming forward and engaging with the media attention her case attracted was the hopes that she could get back to school, feel safe, and complete her program. It was easier said and reported than done.

Slut or Nut: The Diary of a Rape Trial is a deeply personal look at what Gray had to endure throughout the lengthy legal process. Working in tandem with director Showker, Gray documented nearly every step of the trial and fallout with hopes that the footage (and supplemental recreations of what happened inside the court) could serve as a primary resource for anyone who might find themselves in a similarly frustrating and often confounding situation. With most sexual assault charges never making their way to trial – being dismissed as “unfounded” by police during their investigation or never being investigated thanks to labyrinthine, sometimes unpredictable protocols that have to be followed to the absolute letter – Gray was lucky in the sense that she was able to have her day in court to confront her accuser, but getting to that point and the trial itself were a battle she’ll never forget. Slut or Nut looks not only at Gray’s case, but other similar legal quagmires, including perspectives from two women who remain unidentified, to display how difficult and taxing the judicial system can be for victims.

We talked with Gray in advance of the premiere of Slut or Nut to talk about the process of opening up to a film crew, her concurrent legal battles, what the province of Ontario needs to improve in terms of helping victims, and what she hopes people in similar situations will be able to take from the film.

 

I know from firsthand experience that it can be really trying to relive past traumas over and over again. Telling the story of what happened in situations like the one you went through can take a lot out of someone. What’s it like for you to have someone there filming the trial process, and having to answer a lot of these same questions to a film crew on top of having to relive it all in the courtroom and the court of public opinion?

Mandi Gray: That’s something I really haven’t been asked before, but it’s a really good question. I had been involved with another documentary previously, so I was sort of used to it, but I think the approach with Kelly was really open in terms of having me be involved a lot more with the filmmaking process. I think that provided me with a lot more agency, whereas talking about all of this and reliving it in a court of law was a place where I didn’t have any. It kind of functioned as a way for me to speak back to what I had been experiencing in the courtroom. I actually found that doing video diaries for this film to be really therapeutic. When I had no one to talk to, I would just sit down in front of my computer and let it all out. I always knew that I wanted to do something with them, but I didn’t anticipate sharing them in their raw form, ever. (laughs)

But more so than seeing the sharing my story over and over again as a negative, I feel like this was more of a reclamation of my story. Kelly took a really unique approach, I think, and based on what I know of documentary filmmaking, by allowing me to have some involvement in the filmmaking process. That wasn’t therapeutic only for me, but also for Kelly, who also identifies as a survivor of sexual violence. Pretty much everyone on our team identifies as people who experienced some form of sexual violence. There was a real sense of community that made working with this group of folks so amazing. It was more empowering than anything else.

Considering that both yourself and Kelly have experienced sexual violence and knowing that people react to these traumas in different ways, was it important for you to have the sense of agency over your own story and to have someone like Kelly who was willing to let you tell it your way? It’s a very timely and personal story, but I’m sure that it’s nice to stay focused on what was true to your own experience as opposed to stretching it out to cover a number of other experiences that others in similar situations might have gone through.

Mandi Gray: Absolutely. I think that was always important to me even before this film had started. Being an activist and wanting to talk about these issues, I asked for the publication ban on my case to be removed because I wanted to be the one telling these things. I didn’t want to be the kind of nameless and faceless figure that appears in some documentaries. I didn’t want to be one of those people who for one reason or another – personal or legal – couldn’t be identified. I think that’s absolutely it, because I think everyone wants to control their own narrative. I didn’t want to give someone my story and then be cut out of the process.

I originally came to filmmaker Min Sook Lee with the idea, and she was the person who put me in touch with Kelly, and we clicked instantly. We never intended to make a feature out of this. I really just wanted to someone to help document the entire process. I thought it would be important to let people see what happens, and even if we didn’t end up making a film, I just wanted people to know that footage of what something like this is like was out there. We ended up making a film, but that was never the end goal for either of us when we started out filming and when we first met.

The film brings to light this system that victims of sexual abuse and violence have to delicately navigate just to be heard by anyone in court, and a lot of the process is based on sometimes obscure and unpredictable caveats that many victims are unfairly supposed to know before the abuse ever happens. What is it like when you’re documenting this process and the hoops that many people have to jump through just to get their case before the courts? How hard is it to make people who haven’t gone through this process understand it?

Mandi Gray: I think showing how difficult this system is to navigate was always our intention. For example, one of the Jane Does that we have in the film didn’t even want to go to court for her case, but rather she just wanted some semblance of support from her university, and even that was inaccessible. At the very bare minimum, if even reaching out for someone to talk to becomes inaccessible, that’s something that this film needs to talk about. In many cases, these problems extend far beyond the courtroom and start well before that point. There are waiting lists, people who’ll never call you back, instances where you’ll be the last to know something vital about your case. It can feel like nobody cares about you at times.

What we really wanted to highlight was that reporting something and seeking help might seem as easy as making a phone call, but it’s not that simple. You’re not immediately believed and you’re not immediately in. This isn’t just about people who have experienced sexual violence, either. It extends to all kinds of other traumas and issues that can arise from it. We want people to make educated decisions in terms of figuring out what to do next, but we also want to reach support people who might be encouraging people to report things like this who might not realize how difficult this process could be for some people. Reporting something like this entails a lot, and it takes up a lot of your mental energy, decision making processes, and your time to follow through on it, and at any time after you make that initial report, everything can be taken away from you. I hope it’s effective and a call to action to help reform some of these systems that are in place to help victims speak and be heard. There has been some movement because there’s a larger dialogue happening at the moment, but it’s not a fast change that’s happening. We’re hoping this film can push that a little more, and that this film can be a resource more than anything.

You mention in the film that whenever your case was written about, you were always mentioned as the victim, but the person who sexually assaulted you was never identified even after the publication ban was lifted. You always wanted to have the name of your assailant out in the open, despite it hardly ever being used by journalists covering the trial. We do, however, live in a culture where we tend to never want to give evil a name or give credence to it by putting a face to the criminal act. How did you get to the point where you knew you wanted his name public, and I was wondering how you feel about those victims of similar crimes who might not want their attackers, rapists, and assaulters identified?

Mandi Gray: What you’re saying is absolutely right, and it’s definitely a part of a larger conversation that’s important for people to understand and make clear. From the assault to the beginning of the trial, this was never really about him. Of course, what he did to me had a huge impact, but it’s so much bigger than his actions. It was a series of things that really led to a breaking point for me on a personal level. In the beginning, I didn’t really mind all that much that he hadn’t been named and that he hadn’t gone to trial. He was charged, but he wasn’t tried yet, and I understood that and how it worked. But what happened was at a certain point The Toronto Star published a piece about it that had in the headline “The Mandi Gray Trial.” You see something like that, and all of a sudden it immediately looks to an outsider like I was the person who was on trial. You see these things you wonder how they come up with the language for something like that. He’s the one charged. He’s the one on trial. I am a victim and a witness.

It became frustrating at that point, and I tried to never get caught up in it too much because in the grand scheme of things when we talk about these larger issues, he’s completely irrelevant. But at the same time, we can’t focus everything solely on me. These actions were done to me, and they didn’t just happen.

But in terms of your question about people who don’t want the name of the perpetrator to be named, I completely understand where they’re coming from. There’s still definitely a stigma that exists surrounding sexual violence, and there are a lot of consequences that come when a perpetrator is named, especially if that perpetrator is someone in a position of power. We see how cases like that play out time and time again in the media. I think that we also know that publication bans in all sexual assault cases means that the name, age, sex, and identity of the victim can’t be published, but what ends up happening is that it also protects the perpetrator’s name.

I don’t have a definitive answer for that question. Sexual assault is something that impacts people in so many different ways and they can be compounded by a variety of different factors. Not only could the perpetrator be someone in a position of power, but the victim could be someone from a marginalized background and discriminatory attitudes could arise. Ultimately, it’s not for me to say what the proper course of action is or what’s ideal, but for me I thought that I did what was appropriate given my own personal set of circumstances. It was frustrating that the focus in the media was solely focused on my conduct and my actions, and his on that night were either being excused or ignored.

One of the Jane Does with a protected identity in Slut or Nut

It has to be insulting and strange when people try to make you out to be someone who wanted to be quote-unquote “the face of sexual assault,” because I don’t think anyone would ever wake up in the morning and suddenly want that put upon themselves. I think that’s one of the reasons why so many people involved in cases like this want to remain as Jane Doe or don’t want to speak publically at all. When a project like this film puts you in contact with a lot of people in this position, did that give you a bit more energy to be someone who was out there and speaking publically about what happened to you?

Mandi Gray: I think it definitely did. As you know, we have two people in the film that cannot be identified: one for legal reasons and one for personal consequences that she would face if someone knew her identity. We really wanted to highlight that. While the film shows me speaking out and shows the consequences of doing so, I also acknowledge and understand what an incredible privilege it is to be in that kind of position. Of course, it hasn’t always been amazing as an overall experience, but alternately I can’t imagine having to live my life without being open and being able to talk about my experience. It’s definitely a privilege, though.

It encouraged me to keep going because so many people have reached out to me to tell me that seeing just the trailer for the film helped them. There’s a line in the trailer and the film that has already resonated with a lot of experiences victims have had, which is “If you had the power to speak out against institutions, why couldn’t you speak out and tell the rapist to stop it?” I think among a lot of folks that have become activists around this issue, that’s a common mentality to run into. The feedback from the community and those who can’t be publically transparent about their situations has been really heartening.

The film also shows that there are a lot of people out there within the legal and social support systems that are trying to do good, but their hands are tied for any number of reasons from legal caveats to lack of funding and resources, and that’s a common theme that runs through many of the cases touched on here. Looking back on your experiences now, what do you think needs to change in terms of eliminating a lot of the barriers victims face when trying to access legal or support services?

Mandi Gray: In an ideal world, there’s so much we could be doing better. When I was going through my sexual assault trial, I was fortunate enough to be a part of a pilot project aimed at survivors that was created by the government of Ontario, but like I said, it was a pilot project, and that’s something that requires a firm source of funding if it were to continue in the future.

In the film, we also make it known that accusers need to have access to firm and stable legal advice. I spoke with a number of lawyers, and the legal team I had ended up being life changing for me because they were always able to give me concrete answers on what to expect, what was happening, and generally performing all of the communicative tasks that I was unable to do. Crown attorneys are very busy, but if one of their colleagues were to contact them instead of a victim doing so, they’re more likely to call back in a timely fashion.

The province of Ontario has a program where victims of sexual assault are provided with four hours of legal advice, free of charge. I’m really advocating for the forwarding of that program because having that access to knowledgeable, professional legal advice was one of the things I was most grateful for throughout my experience.

And having counselling is also important. Under O.H.I.P., after you’re sexually assaulted you are allotted twenty sessions with a counsellor, which likely won’t even get victims to the trial portion of what they’re going through. Often a trial can occur up to a year after charges are filed. In my case, I was in the courts for almost two and a half years, so most of the therapy I needed was provided by the fact that I was employed at a unionized workplace with great benefits. I was able to cover the cost, but for most people it’s inaccessible and not even enough to last through the trial. Legal expertise is certainly mentally important, but counselling can help with so many other matters tangential to the case, like talking to loved ones, communicating with employers, and considerations about one’s own well being that often go overlooked.

We’ve talked a lot about the trial and navigating the legal system, and that’s a large focus of the film, but there’s also a parallel thread about dealing with York University, where you were studying and where you were employed. The incident tied things together, but these are two vastly different battles that you were fighting with differently structured institutions. From your experience, what made your interactions with the university different?

Mandi Gray: To be completely honest, I expected the police and legal system to be cold and somewhat distant going into all of this. I was always prepared for that just because of the nature of what they have to do and the procedure that has to be followed. I wasn’t prepared for the university to be just as dismissive, especially when there had been a call for a long time to respond to cases of sexual assault. There are posters all over the university that point you in the direction of resources in case you experience sexual assault. Then if you tried to access these resources, none of them are that effective and some don’t even really exist in practice.

There’s a term in psychology called “institutional betrayal,” and it’s a fascinating, sometimes soul crushing experience when this institution that you trust and you think has your best interests at heart and wants to keep you safe turns out to not be true. That betrayal is incomparable to anything else. Again, I expected the police and legal system to act the way that they did because I worked in the legal system a bit during school, and I was prepared for the reactions and process to some degree. I was used to dealing with lawyers and the police through my previous work experience. I was used to those situations to be cold and impersonal. I wasn’t prepared for the university to react that way. In many ways, that was a lot harder because I might have expected more from them. When a university says they have a commitment to social justice and you find out they might not, it really hits hard when you learn where that institution’s priorities lay.

Your trial happened almost at the start of a cycle of victims coming publically forward in the media with their stories. In hindsight and looking back on it in the culture we’ve been living in for the past year, how do you feel about how the conversation around the rights of sexual assault victims has been evolving?

Mandi Gray: It’s interesting that you bring that up because to add a bit more context, when I was sexually assaulted, it was two months after Jian Gomeshi had been charged. We had to cut it from the film both for financial reasons in terms of getting to use footage to draw parallels, but also because it would lead to a much larger film. I remembered seeing Lucy DeCoutere in the media, and I thought she was amazing. She was out there and it was so powerful for me.

But my trial started at the same time as the Gomeshi trial in the same exact courthouse. That was going to be too complex to highlight in the film and stray somewhat from what we wanted to do, but it was always fascinating to watch how this celebrity trial was being treated, and my trial wasn’t paid attention to until Gomeshi was acquitted, and suddenly the media came over to where my trial was taking place to see what was going on over there.

It took such a weird turn, and I worried about it for a long time. When I reported to the police, we were at the height of people showing up outside the courthouse with people holding signs saying “believe survivors,” “I stand with Lucy,” “Been raped, never reported,” and things like that. I thought there wasn’t a better social and political moment in terms of bringing these things to light, but at the same time, I was exhausted by my own experience and by what was being highlighted in the media. It was disappointing because I was having the exact opposite experience of what was being talked about in the media.

Last year, I was asked by NOW Magazine to write about what my feelings were on the direction of the #MeToo movement, and I think that worry is still there. People are encouraged to report, but the structural changes needed to make people feel comfortable reporting aren’t there yet. It’s not going to be a fun or uplifting experience ahead. Funding for programs and legal advice isn’t where it needs to be. The courts are still adamant that there’s no bias towards sexual assault survivors, but I’m worried that these biases still exist. I think the film is coming out at a good time not because it’s coming at the height of the #MeToo movement, but because it can be a practical resource that more people can access.

I get messaged every day with questions like, “Should I report?,” “Should I out my abuser?,” “Should I tell my workplace?,” and I don’t have the answers to everyone’s questions, but I also don’t think that most resources out there are in a place to provide all of the appropriate answers. I do feel like there’s a shift taking place, but I ultimately think people need to ask themselves first and foremost what their ultimate objective is.

For me, my objective was always to be able to return to campus and to work and to feel safe. I was able to do that, but unfortunately it shouldn’t be that hard to accomplish. Some people have told me that it might have been better if I had reported now instead of in 2015, and I honestly don’t believe that’s true at all. I don’t ever regret it, though. Most people don’t get a chance to tell their perpetrator what they did to them. I was on the witness stand for four days testifying over and over again with details while he was there. Not a lot of people get that opportunity, so if we want to look at the bright side, at least I got that, and I got to go back to campus. You have to look for that bright side when you report something like this and to make educated decisions about what’s best for them and their situation.

Slut or Nut: The Diary of a Rape Trial screens at Hot Docs on:

Wednesday, May 2, 2018 – 9:00 pm – Isabel Bader Theatre

Thursday, May 3, 2018 – 8:45 pm – Scotiabank Theatre (RUSH, Intro and Q&A will also be provided in ASL)

Friday, May 4, 2018 – 6:45 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox (RUSH, Closed Captioning)

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.

Leave a Reply