Warning: This documentary and review contains discussions of sexual abuse and sex trafficking.
Every eight minutes, a child is sexually abused in the United States. Though shocking, these statistics only offer a glimpse into a worldwide problem. Internationally, sexual abuse and trafficking is hidden or under-reported, with UNICEF estimating that 1 in 10 girls under the age of 20 have experienced sexual abuse. In her new documentary She Is…, director Zuzana Lova opts to present a story of healing and purpose amid harrowing statistics, showcasing how victims of abuse and sex trafficking are finding healing through dance.
A hybrid documentary weaving traditional interviews and a first-person narrative with dance performance, Lova chooses to connect an international issue to the story of Isabella Grosso. A California native and professional dancer, Grosso is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. First sexually abused by a family friend at the age of 5, Isabella tried traditional methods to heal from her trauma before finding not only solace but empowerment in dance. Though a tragic story filled with overwhelming statistics, She Is… feels hopeful thanks to the people who are dedicating their lives to helping others.
Grosso is an engaging woman to follow through the lens of healing in the first half of the doc. Part of a loving family, Grosso and her family recall how this bright and energetic young woman slowly changed as she was burdened with the trauma of her abuse. Unable to speak to her family about what she experienced, for years she suffered in silence until she began to transform on her healing journey with dance. Inspired and empowered by discovering a new sense of purpose and self-worth, Grosso founded the non-profit She-Is which aims to help sexual abuse and sex trafficking survivors around the world through dance.
Lova, who is also a dancer and Director of Operations for She-Is, transitions the story from Grosso’s personal tale to the work the organization is doing internationally. Unable to disclose the Southeast Asian country the organization is working in, the documentary crew follows She-Is on their journey to help women who have survived sex trafficking. Armed with shocking stories of being tricked and sold to karaoke bars where they are forced into prostitution, the lucky girls and young women who survive abuse find help through international non-profit organizations like Destiny Rescue.
Working to rescue children from sexual slavery, Destiny Rescue welcomes Grosso and the She-Is dancers to provide a new aspect to healing. Offering young women counselling, training and education, the dancers work with the girls to find empowerment by reclaiming their bodies and movement in a colourful and expressive dance that emanates joy.
Highlighting the work of these non-profits is admirable, but the real power of the film stems from Grosso. Her personal connection and story of not just healing, but her drive to help others is what makes She Is… most-compelling. Grosso represents the complexities that come with being a survivor of sexual abuse in that she is unable to discuss her abuse with her loving and supportive family while also running an organization for victims. Her own inability to talk to her family furthers the narrative that people – even those loving and understanding families – need support and education in order to talk about the abuse experienced by the people they love.
An admirable and worthy topic to highlight, She Is… manages to educate as well as provide cultural context while offering a unique and original point of view through the inclusion of joyful dance performances. Though the healing journey is continuous, the dance in the film points to a hopeful and empowering future in the face of personal and widespread trauma.