The new short film Such A Small Thing is an understated mediation on intimate partner violence, trauma and redress. Written by actor and playwright Juno Rinaldi and directed by Shelly Hong, the film offers a close-range look at the ways early, abusive relationships can imprint on the brain and hum through victims’ lives. Rinaldi, of Workin’ Moms, plays Dove, a woman who confronts her ex, Casey, about their toxic teenage relationship. Rinaldi spoke with The Globe and Mail about her film and the cultural inertia around intimate partner violence.
What compelled you to write this film?
The motivation came out of the Jian Ghomeshi sexual assault trial, which I followed in detail, like lots of Canadians did. The women were testifying and getting raked over the coals about why they had contact with him afterward. I remember thinking, I understand completely why they did what they did.
That case changed things for me. Then the #MeToo movement happened. As a filmmaker, stories and questions circle around in your head. What happens when you confront someone who hurt you years ago? Have they changed? Have you changed? Did it happen the way you thought? The film is about how we process things over time, what we hold on to and how the story morphs, or doesn’t.
This film depicts an early, teenage relationship: heady, but with blaring warning signs. Why did you want to portray both parts?
I wanted to show this first feeling of big, adult emotion. Your heart cracks open and you feel something different, this exciting, all-encompassing feeling. But it’s all happening in a tender, developing brain.
Casey wants to be where Dove is, all the time. It’s oppressive. He relies on her for his self-worth. She feels responsible for him. Teenage relationships can be so fleeting. There shouldn’t be pressure to maintain something that doesn’t feel right.
Stalking is implied, and violence. When Dove revisits all this with her ex decades later, what is she hoping for?
Dove wants to open up an adult conversation, to get answers and possibly, an understanding of each other: what brought him to that point? In [the 2017 documentary] A Better Man, filmmaker Attiya Khan asks her abusive ex-boyfriend, “How would you have preferred the relationship to be?” That sums up the core of it. Casey wants one thing, Dove wants another. As teens, they didn’t have the tools to figure out how to do this.
We’ve seen victims seeking redress through restorative justice, instead of the more adversarial court system. The process can involve victims and abusers meeting to talk, often along with a mediator. But what happens when an abuser isn’t accountable?
Done well, restorative justice can be a place for both parties to be heard. But these conversations can also trigger a shame response in some abusers: “I hurt someone. I did something bad.” They can go into this self-protection mode. Casey turns it on Dove: “You called me here – you must want something.” He relinquishes responsibility. She’s left trying to muster answers for a situation she can’t understand. They’re ships passing in the night. It leaves with her with a feeling of emptiness. When you have to ask for an apology, it never feels satisfying.
Does the title, Such a Small Thing, refer to the minimization of abuse when it occurs within the private confines of a relationship?
These quieter assaults are complex. Dove wonders, what if this didn’t even happen? Was she being the quintessential, overly sensitive teen girl? Intimate partner violence and emotional abuse can be hard for the people involved to understand, and hard for people outside to decipher.
After she reports Casey to police, Dove is ostracized by the community that raised her. “Cry baby” gets spray-painted on her house. That scene brought to mind the 2013 case of Rehtaeh Parsons, the Dartmouth, N.S., teenager who was sexually assaulted and harassed until she killed herself. Why do communities turn on victims?
It’s fear. I placed this story in a small town. There’s deep pride in the town and the people who live there. There’s a sense of, “That would never happen here. I’ve seen that guy grow up: I know who he is.”
With the Rehtaeh Parsons case, there was a mob mentality. It just goes like wildfire. I’m trying to educate my kids that if you’re standing on the sidelines, you’re a part of it.
As a mother, how do you approach these conversations?
I have two boys, 14 and 10. My husband and I are trying to be transparent but it’s a balance of talking to them and pulling back. It’s an ongoing conversation that will evolve. I want to instill in them that sex is not about proving, gaining or obtaining something. It’s about being open, reading cues and asking questions: “Are you okay with this? Does this feel good to you?”
Who is your intended audience?
Ideally it would be shown in schools as part of teens’ sexual health programs. This film isn’t about bad or good: it’s about the grey complicatedness. It’s a vehicle to talk about something that’s ubiquitous.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Such A Small Thing airs Thursday, December 3, 11:30pm ET on CBC and 10:30pm ET on CBC Gem.
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