Survivors of Nygard may feel empowered sharing their stories, but it comes with risk
Understanding how to interview trauma survivors without causing harm was key to making this documentary series
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WARNING: This article contains graphic content and may affect those who have experienced sexual violence or know someone affected by it.
It's all crumbling now. Rebar pokes out of the water. Sand and dust cover the walkways and vehicles. Run-down fake Mayan ruins and shards from broken stone pathways can be seen in every direction. The decay is a visual and literal representation of the disintegrating power of disgraced Canadian fashion mogul Peter Nygard. But while his empire may be in ruins, the pain has not diminished for those who call themselves survivors of his alleged brutality.
Here in the Bahamas, at the end of one of the palm-lined peninsulas, we are told that decades of assault, imprisonment and sex trafficking took place. We have come to gather the stories of Nygard's accusers for our documentary series, Evil by Design: Surviving Nygard, among them, women who have kept quiet for decades out of fear, shame and guilt. Their silence should come as no surprise, considering the judgment that befalls survivors in general, and the wealth and power of the man they have accused. But these women were finally feeling empowered to have a voice and share their experiences.
Peter Nygard is one of the most recently accused in a long line of alleged and convicted sexual predators that has surfaced amidst the #MeToo movement. (He is also, quite possibly, the most prolific.) The revelations about Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, Larry Nassar and Bill Cosby, among others, has meant a flood of trauma survivors from all walks of life finally feel they can speak up and speak out.
These stories have been so prolific that it's clear that if we're not survivors ourselves, we likely know someone who is. And we, as documentary filmmakers, who are granted the trust of survivors and aim to make their stories known to the world, bear a responsibility beyond merely getting the facts straight.
Because coming forward means taking a risk. It can take a mental and emotional toll — reigniting the trauma and renewing the fear.
As documentarians and journalists, we are trained to be factual and ethical in our work, but we knew speaking with trauma survivors — without causing harm — would require expert support.
So before speaking with them, we enlisted the assistance of experts in trauma-informed interviewing techniques and focused on the issue of control. Survivors of trauma have experienced something they did not consent to and could not stop from happening. With that in mind, "control," "escape," and "compassion" were our keywords as we thought about our interviews.
Bright sunlight streamed in through the windows of our white-walled interview space. Visually, cinematically, the intention was for it to feel light and to represent hope. Practically, it was about the comfort of the subject. Cameras were placed off to the side, so as not to block a possible pathway to the exit. There would only be three of us in the room during the interview: the interviewer, the cinematographer and the sound recordist. At arm's reach, there would be a bottle of water and a box of tissues.
We knew that how we recorded them and what we would go on to do with their words was important because once their story was broadcast, they would always be seen as the person in that story. We needed to handle their stories with care. We began each interview with sincere thanks for the decision to share with us, and from that point on, the interviewee led the timing and amount of disclosure, determining how much to say, and when to start and stop.
Trauma survivors in this story come in forms viewers might not expect. Among them are former employees, whistleblowers, journalists, family members and, of course, the women and girls who reported sexual abuse — women from Canada, the U.S., the Caribbean and Europe … anywhere that Nygard lived or did business. All of these people were hurting and frightened. They were reliving deep and enduring pain with every word. They are all survivors.
There may be trauma survivors watching this documentary series: the person considering leaving an abusive partner; the 15-year-old keeping a secret of what happened at a party. For them, stories like this are important. We wanted to show them that it's OK to tell someone what happened — that they are not weak or to blame. We wanted to create a film that's empowering for survivors to watch. We hope we've succeeded.
By: Deborah Wainwright, Director, Alison Duke, Executive Producer with Shannon Moroney, Trauma Informed Media Consultant
Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. Call The Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-833-900-1010 for more information.
Dir.Deborah Wainwright, Exec. Producer Alison Duke, Trauma Informed Media Consultant Shannon Moroney