“Knots: A Forced Marriage Story” is a documentary that, on its surface, sounds like something from a more primitive place and time.
More than one woman appearing in Kate Ryan Brewer’s film — legislator, activist or victim — marvels at the idea that “forced child marriages” are not something relegated to the less developed corners of the world, but that it’s happening “right here” and right now, with some 27 U.S. states still not having a minimum age requirement for girls getting married on the books.
And here the “leader of the civilized world” is, a global punchline to a crude joke about Appalachia or Utah or the ultra Orthodox corners of Borough Park, Crown Heights or Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Archaic laws that allow parents to deliver their children to a “mate” of their or their subculture’s choice, or even ordain that their statutory rape victim child be forced to marry their rapist, are on the books or allow such things to happen, thousands of times a year, via loopholes in those laws.
The stories told are damning, deflating and compelling, the statistics alarming and the villains as obvious as your nearest “fundamentalist” this or “ultra-conservative” that.
Brewer’s film touches on many variations of this “inhuman” practice — a girl “handcuffed” to force her to marry her rapist, “grooming” that goes on, in and out of religious practices, religions distorted into cultish sects that add this extra element of “control” to their hold on women.
But the film focuses on three stories, women from patriarchal fundamentalist religious groups who talk of their lives, the terror, despair and isolation of their plight, the desperation that led them to find a way to escape and the outrage and sympathy that turned them into activists to stop the practice and seal those loopholes.
Nina is a Michigander whose parents turned increasingly “conservative” religiously, and started “grooming” her for the day when her father would find her a mate and order her to marry him.
It hits her, when this arranged union takes place, that “my body’s not my own any longer. It belongs to him.”
Sara is a Californian whose Muslim father fell in with a sect that eventually caused her mother to flee. But when Sara found her first boyfriend ever, in her mid teens, Mom sent her off to stay with her father, who secretly married her off to a 28 year-old. She was 15, and when the actual “civil” union took place — legally — no one brought up the fact that she was pregnant via statutory rape in Nevada, where her father and his co-religionists took her.
And Fraidy is a Jewish Brooklynite who describes the ultra Orthodox “brainwashing” that went on in her world, almost from birth — with Halloween treated as a night when “the Goyim” put on masks and “came to get us.”
Her loveless arranged marriage arrived abruptly and without her consent.
“I wasn’t a party to my marriage to my husband. I was ‘given’ to him.”
It’s all kind of revolting, learning that these cruel vestiges of the ancient patriarchy exist in a time when we think of women as emancipated people of agency able to choose their own destinies, priorities and lives.
“Education” is a worry of all these sects, “control” is their end game. To a one, these women got out and started speaking out, with Fraidy Reiss becoming a well-known advocate for rescuing girls crying for help and all of them active in changing laws to end this nonsense.
We see what Virginia had to go through to address this problem, the nakedly Neanderthal counter-arguments offered on the floor of the General Assembly by a Republican fighting the bill that allowed teens “emancipation”
We see similar legislation vetoed by then-Governor Chris Christie in New Jersey.
Brewer’s film — decorated with metaphorical images of a young dancer entwined in a knottier and knottier web of red twine — hints at the “whys,” and suggests the “hows” of getting rid of this practice.
But we can read between the lines. Not even things as fundamental to human rights as this are easy in these Divided States. And until every law is changed or Federal mandates supersede them, men will be dragging their daughters or would-be mates to places where yet another “choice” is still only left in their hands, and not women’s.
MPA Rating: unrated, adult subject matter
Cast: Nina Van Harn, Sara Tasneem, Fraidy Reiss
Credits: Scripted and directed by Kate Ryan Brewer. A Global Digital release.
Running time: 1:16