The “Brave Miss World” Interview with Kam Williams
Brave Ms. Peck!
Cecilia Peck directed and produced, with Barbara Kopple, the documentary “Shut Up & Sing”, which chronicled the political backlash against and artistic triumph of the Dixie Chicks following their “comment" just prior to the invasion of Iraq. The film, shortlisted for the 2007 Academy Awards, was awarded Best Documentary by the Boston Society of Film Critics and the San Diego Film Critics. It won Best Documentary at the Sydney, Aspen, and Woodstock Film Festivals, and Jury Prize at the Toronto and the Chicago Film Festivals.
It received the Courage in Film Award from the Women Film Critics Circle, the Wyatt Award from the Southeastern Film Critics Circle, and was nominated for a Broadcast Critics Award and a National Film Critics Award. Cecilia also produced A Conversation with Gregory Peck, an intimate portrait of her iconic father, which was a Special Selection at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, as well as a special presentation for TCM and PBS American Master
As an actress, she was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for her performance in “The Portrait.” She portrayed a Palestinian school teacher in love with an Israeli soldier in “Torn Apart.” She also studied dance with Martha Graham and performed in “American Document,” the last ballet choreographed by Miss Graham.
Cecilia has also been a contributing editor at Premiere Magazine, French edition and Moving Pictures Magazine, and has served on the jury at the Aspen Shortsfest. A graduate of Princeton University, she lives with her husband and two children in Los Angeles.
Here, she talks about her latest documentary, Brave Miss World.
Kam Williams: Hi Cecilia, thanks for the interview.
Cecilia Peck: Thanks, Kam.
KW: Before we start, I'd like to ask, what has been your reaction to the recent passing of Harper Lee?
CP: I’m in grief over the passing of Ms. Lee, who was family to me. I was tiny when "To Kill A Mockingbird" was made into a film, and I have been blessed by staying close to her all my life. She would recommend books to me and later, when I became an English major at Princeton, she was my mentor. She was dear, lifelong friends with both of my parents. When my son was born, we named him Harper, and she visited him frequently in New York, where she would have dinner in our apartment and read to him at night. In subsequent years, when we moved to Los Angeles, Ms. Lee would travel by train to visit our family, and, in the last years, my husband and I visited her in Monroeville every spring with our children. We have all lost a national treasure, who taught us compassion and tolerance though her incomparable book, "To Kill A Mockingbird."
KW: What interested you in Linor's story?
CP: When Linor was crowned Miss World in 1998, just six weeks after being the victim of a terrifying abduction, stabbing and rape in Milan, Italy, she vowed to one day speak out about rape. It took her ten years to get ready. Once she decided to tell her story, she came to Los Angeles to meet with directors. I got interested, when I sat down with Linor and her friend Motty Reif and listened to Linor talk about what she wanted to do. She wanted to meet with survivors around the world and encourage them not to stay silent and not to blame themselves. Our editor and producer, Inbal Lessner, came with me to that first meeting. We were both very interested in how utterly unashamed Linor was to speak about having been raped. “Why should I be ashamed?” she said. “The fault was his, not mine.” As a filmmaker you look for a main character who is so compelling that an audience will want to follow her through a journey. As a director, it made sense as a follow up to "Shut Up & Sing", another story of courageous women standing up for what they believe in. I’m very interested in women who have the courage of their convictions, who speak up even when it would be much easier to stay silent.
KW: What inspired you to turn it into a documentary?
CP: It was Linor’s idea to make a film. She always felt that being raped and winning the Miss World crown happened so close together for a reason. She wanted to do a film that would give real meaning to her crown, and would encourage survivors of rape everywhere to seek help and seek justice. Ever since she became a very public face of rape at age 18, survivors had approached her to say that knowing that it had happened to her had helped them feel less alone. She knew she could reach many more women in a film than she could in person. In the film, you see the footage of her with tears running down her face as the crown is placed on her head. No-one knew that she had just been through a horrific ordeal and nearly lost her life. It’s the moment that changed her destiny.
KW: The film took five years to complete. Devoting that much time to a project must mean it was a labor of love.
CP: Documentaries take a long time — they’re all labors of love. You do them because you believe it’s important to tell the stories. Brave Miss World takes you on an epic journey with Linor, from Israel to South Africa, across the United States and, ultimately, back to Italy, where Linor was raped. But as far as the film being hard, the one it was most hard on was Linor. Telling her story, dredging up the most painful parts of her life, and hearing the stories of so many other women was very difficult for her. One time, she had to take a break for six months. It was also very hard to fund this film and we had to stop many times to raise money for the next shoot. These were some of the reasons it took so long to make. But in a way it was in our favor, because Linor went through such a transformation over the course of the film and if we had finished it sooner, we wouldn’t have been able to capture that. One thing that happened was that she graduated from law school and began practicing criminal law and defending other women who were victims. But she changed in an even bigger, more dramatic way which became a storyline of the film. We shot so much great footage over the years, that our first rough cut was four hours long. Although a few brave souls in that first test screening said they would watch even more, we knew we had a long way to go. It took Inbal and me more than a year to shape the story and distill it down to 88 minutes. Now, for the first time, we are releasing some of the scenes that were left on the cutting room floor in the new DVD/Blu-ray which is about to come out. They provide a window into very personal moments between Linor and her friends and family. We also included more testimonials from other survivors who appear in the film, who have entrusted us with their stories. We look forward to having this special DVD with subtitles in 14 languages reach even wider audiences around the world.
KW: What was the most surprising thing you learned while making the movie?
CP: A devastating thing I learned was that in South Africa, girls are more likely to be raped than to be educated.
KW: What message do you want people to take away from Brave Miss World?
CP: Brave Miss World is a guide to anyone who is close to a victim of rape or sexual assault. Linor’s mother, her best friend Motty, and her husband Oron, are all role models for how to give compassion and love to someone who has been raped. That’s one of the takeaways of the film, and a very important one which also pertains to first responders--from police departments, to school authorities, to family members. The first words you use are so important. The wrong questions, such as “What were you doing there?” or “Were you drinking?” will only lead to revictimization, self blame, and silence for someone who has just undergone a severe trauma. The right words are: "I believe you, I trust you, and I’m going to support you." The reason Linor wanted to make Brave Miss World, and the main message she hopes it communicates is the importance of not staying silent about rape. Linor strongly believes that unless you talk about it, starting with someone you trust, whether a family member or close friend, your self esteem and ability to heal will be impaired. I think her message comes across very clearly in the film. And finally, for anyone who has survived a rape crime, the film communicates that you can heal and go on to feel whole, and trust others, and have a healthy life. But it takes work. You have to acknowledge that it happened, realize that it has affected you, seek the help you need to stop blaming yourself, and believe that you’re worthy of a good life, even if the rape made you feel degraded and worthless for a long time. The film’s ultimate message is very empowering—that you can take it into your own hands and fight to heal, and come out stronger on the other side.
KW: What do you think of the recent snafu at the Miss Universe contest where Steve Harvey declared the wrong contestant the winner?
CP: It was an unfortunate mistake which was handled gracefully by the contestants who were involved.
KW: What was it like growing up the daughter of such.a revered cultural icon, especially someone so closely associated with an Academy Award-winning role [as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird] revolving around a father-daughter relationship?
CP: My father was very much like Atticus Finch. That was the role closest to him of all the parts he ever played. He was very strict, but also very affectionate. He was very decent and fair. He was working constantly when we were little, but in between films he was very present. I learned from growing up with him that nothing great comes easily. You have to sacrifice a lot to do something that’s meaningful. He may have wanted to spend more time with his kids, but he was striving very hard to do films of great quality. And he was interested in the themes of social justice. I think he was one of the only movie stars of his time who was willing to be in controversial films like “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Gentleman’s Agreement.” Those films had the power to heal. As far as being the daughter of a cultural icon, you don’t have a sense of that when you’re growing up. He’s just your dad. But maybe I inherited a bit of his character; a kind of compulsion to uphold justice. Maybe it's why I’m drawn to social issue documentaries.
KW: Why did you decide to produce the documentary about your father, A Conversation with Gregory Peck?
CP: My father was doing a stage show when he was in his late seventies and early eighties. He was traveling the country with an evening of storytelling about his life and career, showing film clips and answering questions from the audience. Barbara Kopple and I went to see one of his shows and film it as a gift to him, so he could have a record of it. Once we got there, we saw this incredible rapport he had with the audience, who were of all ages, from young students to grandparents, and he was utterly charming, brilliant, and so witty. Barbara and I looked at each other and said, this should be a film. We got on the phone that night and started to raise the money. We spent the next year and a half with him. It's a very personal film that looks back at his life and career, family and friends, and his relationship with my mom. I remember how nervous we were to show him the rough cut. There were so many personal scenes, and we didn’t know if he would want a lot of changes. He told us he loved the film. He only asked for one change. He said “Would you mind including a short clip of the speech I gave about the importance of stricter gun control legislation.” That was very characteristic of him, not to be concerned with his image or himself personally, but with the greater good. He would have been 100 this year! Several amazing tributes for his centenary are happening throughout the world, and we just launched a beautiful website for him, www.gregorypeck.com. There are generations of lawyers who went to law school because of my Dad’s portrayal of Atticus. I think people saw my dad as a father figure and as someone they could look up to. People trusted him and aspired to what he stood for, and the website gives them a place to go and remember what he meant to their lives.
KW: Congratulations! Besides producing and directing, you're also an actress. Which of the three is your favorite?
CP: Making documentaries.
KW: What did you study at Princeton?
CP: I was an English major with a concentration on playwrights: Ibsen, Shaw, Ionesco, Sartre, Beckett and Pinter.
KW: Do you go back for reunions?
CP: Very occasionally to a major one!
KW: What's your best memory of the Princeton?
CP: The feeling of emerging from the dark, towering Blair Arch into the expansive light of the courtyard below.
KW: AALBC.com founder Troy Johnson asks: What was the last book you read?
CP: "The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace," by Jeff Hobbs.
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What was the last song you listened to?
CP: "Ziggy Stardust."
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
CP: Steamed moules [mussels] with shallots, white wine and spicy seasoning. I love to cook them with my friend Suzanne Zimmer in the summertime and serve them to a big table full of friends.
KW: Ling-Ju Yen asks: What is your earliest childhood memory?
CP: Getting on the raft that my older brothers had built when the bottom of the garden got flooded by the rains.
KW: Who loved you unconditionally during your formative years?
CP: My mother.
KW: Was there a meaningful spiritual component to your childhood?
CP: I was raised Catholic and attended Marymount school where I was taught by nuns. It catapulted me into evolving my own beliefs.
KW: Sherry Gillam would like to know what is the most important life lesson you've learned so far?
CP: You have to reach as high as you can, and never quit. The mistakes, setbacks and the sorrows make you stronger. You pick yourself up and keep going and don’t stop.
KW:What was your very first job?
CP: I always had babysitting jobs as a young teenager but my first union job was as a tour guide at Universal Studios during the summer after my freshman year in college.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
CP: I try to avoid the mirror at all costs! That doesn’t mean I don’t self reflect.
KW:What's the craziest thing you've ever done?
CP:I did reckless things as a teenager. I think it was a need to prove myself that manifested in a dangerous swagger. Once, I went up in a small airplane at night with a pilot who wasn’t sober, doing loops and tricks. The kinds of things that would give me a heart attack if my kids ever did them. Being a mother is in itself another kind of stepping onto a ledge, because you really don’t know if you’re going to be good at it, and suddenly your children's lives are in your hands. With parenting, I think you really have to listen, and not just impose your will. Getting married is crazy, too. The assumption that you’re going to be able to get along with another person for your entire life. But the things that are hardest are the most transformative, illuminating, and magical.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
CP: My parents back on this Earth.
KW: The Sanaa Lathan question: What excites you?
CP: Getting ahold of a good subject for a documentary and chasing it down.
KW: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
CP: Having my laptop, radio, husband, and dog all in the bed at night.
KW: “Realtor to the Stars” Jimmy Bayan asks: What’s your dream locale in Los Angeles to live?
CP: My dream is being by the ocean, anything north of El Matador.
KW: The Melissa Harris-Perry question: How did your first big heartbreak impact who you are as a person?
CP: I crawled out from under the wreckage ready to stand up and repeat the same mistakes many times. And eventually got wiser.
KW: Harriet Pakula-Teweles asks: With so many classic films being redone, is there a remake you'd like to direct?
CP: I would much rather direct new stories.
KW: Judyth Piazza asks: What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
CP: I was so fortunate to have Barbara Kopple as a mentor. Anyone wanting to learn documentary should do everything they can to get an internship with Barbara!
KW: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?
CP: I need a few more years, I’m still striving, that question feels too premature.
KW: Finally, what’s in your wallet?
CP: My wallet is a chaotic shambles that eventually yields up everything I need.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Cecilia, and best of luck with the film.
CP: Thanks so much for your interest in Brave Miss World, Kam. I hope your readers will visit our website, www.bravemissworld.com, which now serves over 2,000,000 survivors and their families. It’s a very dynamic site and safe, curated space to share experiences and resources. On the site, you can also find out how to host a screening of Brave Miss World, participate in our #IAmBrave photo challenge, or order our brand new DVD.
To see a trailer for Brave Miss World, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4l2D91KrdQ
To order a copy of Brave Miss World on DVD, visit: http://www.bravemissworld.com/buy
4 classic clips of Cecilia's father, Gregory Peck, in his Oscar-winning performance as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird:
Atticus Finch and the Lynch Mob: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eiEzI6n_Zcs
Atticus Confronted by Bob Ewell: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=guMVb47aD-k
Atticus' All Men Are Created Equal Speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-x6njs-cGUE
Your Father's Passing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7CX_5D6y6E
To learn more about Gregory Peck, visit the encyclopedic website launched in celebration of the centennial of his birth (April 5, 1916): www.gregorypeck.com.