Chelo Alvarez-Stehle: Breaking the silence on sexual violence

Virginia Speaking to students CAL Lutheran

Recently #DirectedbyWomen had a chance to delve into conversation with reporter and documentary filmmaker Chelo Alvarez-­Stehle about her moving film Sands of Silence: Waves of Courage and the impact it is having on communities around the world. She also shared the surprising direction her work is leading her to explore next. The topic of sexual abuse and trafficking is challenging. It can feel easier to simply look away, but please take time to receive what Chelo has shared and look for the chance to experience her work. Info about upcoming screenings can be found at the end of the post.

 Director Chelo Alvarez-Stehle [Photo: Carole Joyce]
Director Chelo Alvarez-Stehle [Photo: Carole Joyce]
DBW: Your documentary Sands of Silence: Waves of Courage takes on such a powerful subject. It’s multifaceted in its approach, dealing with the nexus of sexual abuse and sexual trafficking. And it takes us deep into the complexities of how these forms of abuse impact not only individuals but families as well.  I’d love to hear your thoughts about how the film is resonating with film audiences and the impact it is having.

CA-S: We’ve felt overwhelmed by the cathartic experiences audiences are having. At every screening people of all ages are going deep into their experiences, bringing past or recent memories, identifying them as abuse, calling them by their name, breaking the silence, so much so that we enlist volunteer therapists or psychologists to attend and be ready at the Q&As with their expertise and resources.

That is why we say that Sands of Silence is “the film that inspires you to break the silence on sexual violence.” Many of those people speak up for the first time.

But after touring Europe and the US with the documentary we know that it also goes beyond that. A college freshman at a university in Spain insisted on talking to me after the screening. She had gone to a physical therapist for a shoulder problem. He convinced her, by showing her information on Google, that he needed to touch a point in her vagina in order to cure her. He ended up inserting a vibrator in her vagina. “Finally something clicked for me and I left. My mother did not believe me, and when she finally did, she went to confront him, but he denied everything. Please help me. Now I have nightmares. I don’t even let my dad approach me. And I want to report him but I don’t know how.” I was able to refer her to an association of women lawyers that provides legal pro bono services to victims.

Often it is those closer to us that don’t believe us.

Virginia Isaias and Chelo Alvarez-Stehle addressing audience at high school in Minnesota
Virginia Isaias and Chelo Alvarez-Stehle addressing audience at high school in Minnesota

DBW: I’ve been thinking of the triangle of silence, speaking personal truth, and the power of listening—not just listening but fully receiving what is being shared.

CA-S: Yes, definitely. In the film, we see our main character sex-trafficking survivor Virginia Isaias confronting her mother because she never listened to her when as a child she was being molested. And we see my father asking me to not make my sister’s abuse public, not to reveal it in the film. In juxtaposition, Lala, 11, immediately tells her mother Virginia when a pedophile abuses her. Virginia fully listens to her and even takes him to jail. And we see how my brothers listen to me and support me when I finally got the courage (decades later!) to reveal my experience of abuse at the hands of someone they knew.

The fact that I, the filmmaker, decided to open up and break my own silence within myself, within my family, and within the film, is also having a profound impact in the viewers. Even though my experience seems minimal when compared to that of Virginia, whose life was engulfed in a cycle of sexual exploitation. The large majority of audiences, especially women, identify with the micro-assaults that we are subjected to from early age.

Here is what a 25-year-old graduate said at a college screening, “I’ve had three sexual assaults and I didn’t know that it was an assault because I wasn’t “raped.” I compared my stories to others and thought that it wasn’t that bad, I had no right to be upset. Also, because there was no gun to my head or a knife at my throat I thought I let it happen, that it was my fault. I beat myself up for not pushing the guy away. I just froze and I interpreted that as I gave the guy permission. This is why I feel the most important part of Sands of Silence is Virginia validating that your own experience is indeed significant, that it doesn’t matter exactly what happened physically, there is a psychological impact of violation.”

In the film several women break their silence. Some we see struggling; others we see already empowered. It was especially hard for our main character, sex-trafficking survivor Virginia Isaias. The thick layer of shame and stigma she had to tear through is unimaginable. There is a scene in the film in which we see her almost fainting at a Women in the World event in NY after watching a video segment of her story.

Yet, Virginia’s story fills us with hope. We see her resilience, we see her overcoming unthinkable torture and traumas. And we see her giving back to the community what she never received from anyone in the first place. We see the positive consequences that breaking the silence can often bring to our lives.

Men are also impacted in different ways. In one instance, a man in his 70s said, “I am not a victim… but I am a witness. When I was 15, my friends and I knew that this boy in our class was being abused by a priest at our school.” Then, with a trembling voice he added, “But instead of helping him, we kept laughing at him and even called him ‘the babe’.” I felt goose bumps at this public confession at a packed theater in the small beach town of Zarautz, in the Basque Country, Spain, where our film starts.

Sands of Silence at Proyección Universidad de la Rioja Oct 10 2017
Sands of Silence at Proyección Universidad de la Rioja Oct 10 2017

DBW: Your documentary has a deeply personal component as you explore the dynamics of a situation that arose in your childhood and the ways that has impacted life going forward. One of the things that is so fascinating about Sands of Silence is how you have the patience to allow transformation to unfold within yourself and your family…. and to document that change as it occurs.

CA-S: Yes, an 8-year journey… I feel very fortunate to have had this opportunity to go deeper within the lives of these women, my family members and within myself. It was not easy for any of us. In the film we see my sister Marián denying her own abuse for a long time, then my sister-in-law and myself pushing Marián to speak up, to acknowledge the impact of the abuse in her life, while we both were failing to disclose our own.

I had to have therapy for over two years to bring myself to reveal my story in the film and deal with the impact that it was having in my life (anxiety, anger, dreams, guilt…).

And I had to have the film totally edited without knowing if my sister and my sister-in-law were going to finally sign the release and allow me to use their stories… Imagine on my 8th year of working in the film. But I think they all have transformed in beautiful ways.

This long journey allowed me to heal in many ways. And in therapy I discovered something precious: that there is a victim and a perpetrator in each one of us. This has been key for my current experience working with sexual violence offenders undergoing treatment in prisons to whom I have shown the film in person (more on this later if need be.)

DBW: That insight about each of us being perpetrators of violence as well as victims of violence is so very crucial. And, yes, I’d love to talk more about your sharing the film with sexual violence offenders.

CA-S: Allow me to share what I wrote after I met with them:

I was invited to screen the film at a Catalonia prison. When the therapists previewed the film, they felt it would be perfect for me to show to a group of 25 sexual violence offenders. Among them were pedophiles, rapists, traffickers, and child pornography providers.

I was quite nervous. I told them that after 20 years of working with victims this was the first time I faced people at the other side of the fence… That I was there to learn. I believe that helped open up something in them.

They formed a circle, and many had tears in their eyes. Therapists and prison staff were also present.

Some thanked me for being there in spite of being a victim myself. The film had really awakened their consciences about what they did. They felt they’ve never felt so much empathy for the victims. Some would not be able to sleep that night.

An inmate from Ecuador described how, growing up in the streets of Guayaquil, he had to step on murdered bodies on his way to school. He had been in and out of prison in Ecuador and he later came to Spain. He had subjected both his Ecuador and Spain’s wives to horrific abuse. “I became a monster”, he confessed.

A silence ensued and soon other inmates asked me how I saw them. Did I view them as monsters? I told them, as honestly as I could, that I viewed them as human beings. That inside us all we have a victim as well as an executioner. They began to speak more freely about their own struggles, about the need to being heard.

As we were leaving, the well-dressed inmate approached me. “I am a doctor, and I abused two of my patients,” he said. This gave me goose bumps. “And I was always involved with human rights organizations, supporting so many of them,” he continued. “I don’t know what happened to me.”

He asked with great urgency, “You talk about forgiveness and reparation. Do you think that being here, in this place, is ‘reparation’?” Of course I told him no; prison was something society had imposed. He needed to take ownership, I said attempt to make up for his crime by doing something positive for his victims, for other victims, write about it, find a way to repair.

When they left the room, I was overwhelmed and broke down in tears.

I realized that if we really want to heal the infected social fabric from this pandemic, we perhaps need to start listening to the perpetrators, try to find the underlying causes of their actions.

I have visited this group three times and in November I was allowed to interview some of them and get a glimpse into their inner world. My next doc project is taking shape…

DBW: Ah… Life leads us in such interesting ways. I’m guessing you hadn’t anticipated when you began Sands of Silence that you’d be stepping into a project years later of exploring the stories of perpetrators of sexual violence… and yet we know that so often perpetrators have been victims themselves as well

CA-S: Exactly. It has come as a total surprise. I thought I was doing this doc for the victims. And here I am ‘talking’ to perpetrators. It is very controversial too, because many people think we should only help victims.

DBW: Can you share about what helps you care for yourself as you move through these challenging conversations?

CA-S: Yes, first of all, practicing meditation every day is essential for me. It gives me the serenity, the peace, the comfort I need to face so much suffering, to feel real empathy.

Secondly, witnessing the inner strength of survivors such as our main characters Mexican Virginia Isaias and Nepali Anu Tamang, really inspires me. Seeing how they have managed to keep their dignity afloat in spite of all the darkness, all the torture they were subjected to… It really humbles me.

DBW: And I am very aware of the power of LISTENING. You mentioned it again a moment ago. So often there’s an emphasis on breaking silence and speaking but an enormous amount of the healing power is in being heard. And in hearing… in receiving another person’s awareness of their life, what’s happened, what they’ve done.

CA-S: One of the takeaways of our screenings is that people feel inspired to go back to their families and their communities with a new awareness, with a new intention of being receptive to victims of abuse. I always encourage audiences to go back home, or to their churches or sports clubs and listen, question, be aware that sexual violence is much more common than we want to acknowledge. To create spaces around the family gatherings and discuss these issues so that those that have something to share find a safe environment to do so.

Interestingly enough, one inmate at a prison screening said, “In your film we see several women saying that we have to create spaces to listen to survivors. But what about us? I can’t believe how my parents did not notice there was something wrong in me growing up and look where I have ended up. Growing up, I did not have any resources to turn to, no one to tell what I was going through. We need to educate families, ask institutions to create resources for boys and young males…”

DBW: Yes.

CA-S: That question has haunted me. He is so right. We have done strides in creating resources for young women victims, but we also need to address young boys that are at risk of becoming perpetrators, like many pre-teen boys that through their uncontrolled access to the digital world are developing addiction to porn even before reaching puberty.

DBW: I think often about the question of how we step back into alignment with our authentic core selves after we’ve perpetrated acts of violence, neglect, betrayal, or other forms of disconnection from our true natures. To me it is one of the most crucial questions we face.

CA-S: A large percentage of the perpetrators are victims themselves. This does not justify them, but we need to do something to break the cycle of violence.

DBW: We can transform that culture. I love that your documentary is creating space for these kinds of dialogues to take place and for further exploration.

CA-S: Yes, that is why these prisons in the Catalonia region of Spain are having great success in terms of recidivism rates with their  humane inmate programs, modeled in recidivism prevention programs in Canada. A study by the government of Catalonia, in which inmates of all types of crimes that had participated in the program and had been released between 1991 and 2001 were followed for an average of close to seven years, found a 18.8% of recidivism.  Of that percentage, 5.7% were sexual offences.

DBW: That’s so encouraging.

CA-S: Yes, and it really breaks preconceived ideas that they are incurable. It is the power of humanness.

DBW: I’m wondering if we can invite politicians to engage in those programs so they can start to see the benefits of implementing them in our justice system—and receive healing themselves too, of course. Human beings are amazingly resilient.

CA-S: When I talked to politicians about this, some worried that certain feminist groups could turn against them for focusing on the perpetrators instead of the victims. Others have been very supportive and committed to fight this issue. Interestingly enough this film touches people at both sides of the political spectrum. And though it is not easy, I think we have to find a united way to address this pandemic.

DBW: I know there are so many more things we could explore, but you’ve been generous with your time already. Anything you’d like to share before we wrap up?

CA-S: Yes, after our national broadcast in Spain, I had people contacting me on Facebook, sharing experiences with me that they had never told their intimate partners. They were asking me “Is this abuse?”. It was interesting to see that it made people really look back to their lives and realize how often we bury wounds that are too painful to look at. But what I’ve discovered is that the wounds that we just bury and don’t allow to heal, will continue to bother us. Once you face them, air them, they have a chance to heal and you can find resources and ways of curing them. Society is finally on the side of the survivors, especially now in this #MeToo and Time’s Up era. Speaking up may not be for everyone, but those who choose to do so will feel empowered and supported. It will make everyone of us have zero tolerance with abuse.

I like to say that Sands of Silence is a precursor of the #MeToo movement, since we premiered it in 2016. This is exactly how I felt after years of helping survivors tell their stories. That it was time for me to get naked with my own truth.

Thank you very much, Barbara, I really appreciate your time!

DBW: I’ve greatly appreciated our conversation. Thank you for being open to allowing your work to evolve.

Sands of Silence poster


March 21: New York Premiere – Cinema Village, New York, NY
March 22: Westchester Community College, Valhalla, NY
March 22: New York University, New York, NY
March 26: Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
March 27: Indiana University, Bloomington, IN
March 30: Columbia Greene Community College, Hudson, NY

Visit the Sands of Silence website to explore the screening schedule or to reach out to arrange to bring the film to your community. Follow Chelo and Sands of Silence on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.