Ultra-conservative religious sects. Girls prevented from getting an education and learning practical skills. Forced marriage between teen girls and abusive men far older than their reluctant brides. No, this isn’t The Handmaid’s Tale; it’s daily life in the United States right now for thousands of underage girls forced into marriages they aren’t ready for and don’t want. And as Kate Brewer’s Knots: A Forced Marriage Story makes abundantly clear, it needs to stop now.
Brewer introduces viewers to three women who were subjected to marriage as teenagers: Nina, Sara, and Fraidy. While they’re from different parts of the country and are diverse in heritage, all three have one very obvious thing in common — they grew up in extremely conservative religious communities. Treated as property by their families (primarily their fathers), all were urged into marriage when they were still too young and inexperienced to understand what that meant. They agreed to the unions because the alternative — being ostracized — was unthinkable.
All were subjected to abuse by their husbands — statutory rape, as well as psychological and emotional trauma. All three had children very quickly after becoming wives. And all three eventually realized that they had to get out. But laws in the United States don’t make that easy: Only a small handful of states have any kind of lower age limit on marriage (and the ones that do have only enacted it recently), and social services are quick to label anyone under 18 seeking help as a runaway and return them to their families. The fact that Nina, Sara, and Fraidy all managed to escape their abusers is a testament to their fortitude and determination, as well as the fact that they found outside support. Countless women remain trapped in similar circumstances with no clear way out.
In addition to the three women’s stories, Brewer includes interviews with advocates who are working tirelessly to put an end to forced/child marriage. Both Fraidy and Sara have gotten involved in that work themselves, speaking up loudly to help lawmakers understand what’s at stake when it’s legal for young girls to be coerced into saying “I do.” Clips of a conservative Virginia politician speaking out against a bill introducing a minimum-age law in his state because it infringes on parents’ rights may make you want to punch a wall. Luckily, that bill passed anyway. But the fact that he and others like him are out there is all the proof required for why Knots needed to be made. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Nell Minow: The law says that those under 18 do not have the judgment or experience to make important decisions from voting to owning property or signing contracts. And yet, as Knots: A Forced Marriage Story shows in heartbreaking detail, girls as young as 14 are allowed to make one of the most important and risky decisions there is, the decision to marry today, in the United States. We hear the stories of three women from different ethnic and religious groups, but all of them are extremist and patriarchal, with women required to do whatever the men in their lives tell them and not given the most basic education to let them know that there were alternatives. Kate Ryan Brewer wisely gives no screen time to the fathers and husbands. This is the story of the women, the horrors they experienced, the courage they found, the triumphs they achieved, and the help they are now giving to help others.
Sherin Nicole The red string of fate becomes a sinister symbol in Kate Ryan Brewer’s Knots: A Forced Marriage Story. Rather than ties that bind, here that thread represents the institutions that ensnarl underage teens and the patriarchy that creates and then accommodates their abusers. In many of our minds, forced marriage is an archaic nightmare from a time before women began to liberate ourselves. Those of us who believe that are proven wrong as Fraidy Reiss, Sara Tasneem, and Nina Van Harn relive the misogyny, subjugation, and sexual assault that made them nonconsensual child brides and mothers—prisoners inside marriages they were too young to choose and too afraid to refuse. Throughout the documentary, Brewer intersperses their stories with editorial styled photo collages. These images utilize distorted proportions and muted colors to illustrate the staggering imbalance in power dynamics that young women from forced-marriage communities are threatened with. The combination is as effective as it is shocking. This isn’t a nightmare from another era, it is America today.
Susan Wloszczyna: If the topic at the center of the documentary Knots: A Forced Marriage Story is news to you, not to worry. As indie filmmaker Kate Ryan Brewer revealed in a recent interview, “I tend to think of myself as being connected to issues, and I care deeply about a range of issues, but I had no idea that forced and child marriage was still happening in the United States.” Read full review.
Pam Grady: Young women and girls being forced into arranged marriages is something Americans tend to think happens in other parts of the world. This brisk, concise documentary destroys that supposition with a portrait of the state of forced marriages within the United States. While experts lay out the legal issues involved – in most states, only a parent’s consent in necessary to marry off even a child and finding support from family or even the legal system can be difficult or impossible for someone trying to flee such a marriage – the documentary’s power comes from the three survivors who tell their stories in the film. Raised, respectively, in evangelical Christian, Muslim, and Orthodox Jewish households, each woman was coerced by their families into an abusive marriage to a virtual stranger. Their escapes from dire circumstances are remarkable, but their tales also underline how rare it is for women so trapped to regain their freedom. This documentary is a potent call to action, to change laws and attitudes so the time comes every girl and women has agency over her own life.
Marilyn Ferdinand At the beginning of director Kate Ryan Brewer’s absorbing documentary Knots: A Forced Marriage Story, we learn that between 2000 and 2010, 248,000 children in the United States were legally pushed into marriage. That’s a shocking number, revealing that this country frequently pays only lip service to its concern for children. Ryan Brewer puts a face on the children and young women who have been forced into marriage by telling the stories of three women who escaped their domestic cages. All of them were part of extremely conservative or cult religions that gave them no way out of agreeing to be married to men they barely knew and, in at least one case, feared. The film gives a fascinating history of how the homemaker role came to prominence in the United States and how the laws of the land support this patriarchal-forward social structure. I learned a lot about the battle to close the loopholes that allow child marriages and about the advocating organizations and individuals who are waging it. Throughout the film, dancer/choreographer Bella Waru, wearing a blue slip and wound in red yarn, stitches together these stories in a surprisingly moving and effective way.
Leslie Combemale Many people don’t know or don’t want to know that between 2000 and 2010 at least 248,000 children were married off in the US legally. The rate is higher for girls than for boys. In Texas, which has the highest child marriage rate, nine out of every 1,000 girls between 15 and 17 were married in 2014. The disparity between genders being married off is even greater when older, with 66% of adults 18 and 19 years old being women. The point is, it is a huge problem and a human rights issue for women and girls in this country. The fact that there aren’t federal laws against anyone under 18 marrying is an indication that the patriarchy overwhelmingly still calls the shots in the US. This is the subject of the new documentary Knots: A Forced Marriage Story, from documentarian Kate Ryan Brewer. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin Knots: A Forced Marriage Story is a revelatory documentary about the frequency of forced marriage for underage girls in the United States. Filmmaker Kate Ryan Brewer documents the personal stories of three diverse women who were forced into marriage while they were still in their teens, treated by their husbands as sex objects and quickly impregnated and kept chained to a relationship that was consistently physically and emotionally abusive to them. The three women have managed to emancipate themselves and are speaking out against the too common practice of forced marriage, which is actually upheld by the law in most states. Social workers, legislators and other advocates for the rights of young girls speak up in on camera interviews. But the film’s cinematic scope is wider and more creative than just a cavalcade of talking heads. Filmmaker Brewer heightens the impact of the women’s stories and of the staggering stats by using archival footage and symbolic imagery that brings the audience to a visceral understanding of the desperation and to feel the suffocating effects that forced marriage imposes on its victims. The well-crafted documentary is a highly effective call for essential change.
Loren King An expose and a call to action, the revealing and important documentary Knots: A Forced Marriage Story delivers a palpable sense of urgency. That’s for good reason. That girls under 18 are being coerced into marriages, often by a parent or older man, and that this is legal in all but a few U.S. states, will be eye opening for most and should be infuriating for all. Written and directed by Kate Ryan Brewer, the film focuses on three forced marriage survivors who are now articulate and empathetic advocates for change. They are Fraidy Reiss, who grew up in an insular Hassidic community in New York and now works to bring awareness to the issue of child marriage; and Sara Tasneem and Nina Van Harn, who were also forced by fathers with religion-based patriarchal views to marry while they were still teenagers. These three women make for sobering, understanding educators about a prevalent practice that needs the full glare of public attention. It’s Reiss who calls the forced marriages for what they are: gender violence.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Forced marriage for girls and women is a known sexual violence crisis globally, but what Kate Ryan Brewer’s impactful documentary Knots: A Forced Marriage Story demonstrates is that it’s also a crisis in the United States, where the vast majority of states allow child marriage with parental consent. The filmmaker chronicles the stories of three women who successfully left their forced marriages, and it’s not surprising that all three come from religious households: Nina was raised in the strict fundamentalist Christian Patriarchy movement; Sara’s father is in a religious “Group” whose leader is called a sheikh; and Fraidy is from a Hasidic Jewish community in New York. All three women tell their stories of how their parents forced them to marry or face familiar consequences. Arranged marriages aren’t necessarily done with full and free consent when the alternative is complete loss of family and community. The filmmaker effectively explores the topic and the movement to pass legislation to make marriage legal for only those 18 and up. This is a powerful documentary that will explain just how much the U.S. is lagging in protecting young teens from forced marriages.
Liz Whittemore Writer-director Kate Ryan Brewer begins her documentary Knots: A Forced Marriage Story with a shocking statistic: Between the years 2000 and 2010, the number of child marriages in the United States was 248,000. Knots then focuses on the stories of three women. In each of their cases, religion was the driving factor. Fraidy Reese, Sara Tasneem, and Nina Van Harn were indoctrinated from birth, taught that a woman must marry. Her role? Never think, never question, and always submit to the whim of her husband. Read full review.
Cate Marquis Knots: A Forced Marriage Story is an eye-opening documentary that spotlights something that many of us think of as happening in other countries, not the US – child marriages and forced marriages. The documentary actually presents three stories of forced marriage, all women forced into marriage as teenagers. Shockingly, child marriages are legal in nearly every state, given the right circumstances, and in some states there is no minimum age. Legally, it is the wishes of the parent, not the best interest of the child, that rules. But while child marriages are, by definition, forced marriages because they take place before the age-of-consent, the documentary also focuses other forced marriages that happen to young women, often girls raised in patriarchal, religiously-conservative households and communities. The documentary uses the personal stories of these three women forced into marriage to illustrate and illuminate this overlooked issue at the intersection of women’s rights and child abuse.
Title: Knots: A Forced Marriage Story
Directors: Kate Ryan Brewer
Release Date: May 7, 2021
Running Time: 76 minutes
Screenwriter: Kate Ryan Brewer (Documentary)
Distribution Company: Global Digital Releasing
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin