‘Screams Before Silence’: Sexual Violence in 2023 Invasion of Israel

A searing snapshot of premeditated violence aimed at civilian girls and women.
‘Screams Before Silence’: Sexual Violence in 2023 Invasion of Israel
Amit Soussana's mother waiting for her return. (Lizzy Shaanan Pikiwiki Israel/CC BY 2.5)

NR | 57m | Documentary | 2024

Truth is seldom easy to tell, or pleasant to absorb. As truth-telling goes, this documentary is neither. Its introductory text states that on Oct. 7, 2023, “thousands of Hamas terrorists invaded Israel in a coordinated attack that targeted civilian villages, kibuttzim, military camps and the Nova Music Festival. In just a few hours, Hamas murdered 1,200 men, women and children. Thousands more were injured and over 250 Israelis and foreign nationals were kidnapped.”

Shorn of sensationalist camerawork or gimmicky editing, this is a grim snapshot of systematic, premeditated sexual violence aimed at civilian girls and women. Founder of LeanIn.org (and former chief operating officer of Meta), Sheryl Sandberg bears near-silent witness, interviewing released hostages, medical and forensic experts, and first responders. They do most of the talking. And it is sobering.

Scene of the devastation after the attack. (Kastina Communications)
Scene of the devastation after the attack. (Kastina Communications)

Through intimate near-monologues, women and men walk and talk through what, where, why, and how it happened; English subtitles tell the story when they speak in Hebrew. Their verbal descriptions of violence are disturbing, but the filmmakers clarify through their closing credits text, “Out of respect for the victims and their families, we chose not to show explicit images.”

The film opens with footage of devastation at a kibbutz in Kfar Aza, a few miles east of Gaza. Chen Goldstein-Almog and her daughter Agam, hostages for 51 days, point to ruins of their home. Agam’s father and little sister were shot before she and her family were whisked away.

Then, survivors Michal Ohana, Tali Binner, and Raz Cohen narrate how they and their friends had gathered at the kibbutz to celebrate birthdays, have fun with music, and dance. Elad Avraham, security supervisor at the festival, describes how organizers shut off the music the moment Hamas started firing rockets and bullets at the crowd. Amit Soussana, hostage for 55 days, says she feared rape more than death.

Ms. Binner recalls loud, seemingly endless screams of women, then one of a man, presumably a spouse, begging attackers, “Azov otah” (“Leave her alone.”). Mr. Cohen remembers a semicircle of Hamas men around a girl, wishing he could’ve saved her: “I wish I’d had a gun.” But all screams were followed by silence, as victims of violence were shot soon after.

While the latter half does contain survivor accounts, it’s more reflective, trying to make sense of senseless violence and to ask if docufilms like this make any difference in the real world.

Remembering those who died. (Kastina Communications)
Remembering those who died. (Kastina Communications)

Debunking Denialism

Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, former vice president of the UN Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women says, terrorists weaponize sexual violence because, to them, violating the body of a woman symbolizes the affront they intend for a whole nation.

Simcha Greiniman, volunteer at ZAKA (Disaster Victim Identification) who has dealt with hundreds of disasters worldwide confesses, “I don’t have the words to express what we saw.”

Dr. Ayelet Levy Shachar, mother of Naama Levy (now hostage for over 8 months) weeps. Even while watching Hamas-released footage of her teenage daughter, she couldn’t believe that anybody “would harm a young girl.”

Israeli Police Chief Superintendent Mirit Ben Mayor tells of the evidence of the Oct. 7 crimes: “200,000 visuals, over 2,000 testimonies.”

Cochav Elkayam-Levy, head of The Civil Commission on Oct. 7th Crimes by Hamas Against Women and Children, argues that those crimes redefined evil in ways that require redefinition “of international criminal law.” None of it was spontaneous. Not crimes of passion but premeditated.

Interviewees exude a sense of duty to speak that overrides desires to erase or keep these memories private. Many maintain that the attack on Oct. 7, one of the most documented terrorist attacks ever, didn’t happen, or was exaggerated. In this sense. “Screams Before Silence” is similar to “The 10/7 Project,” grassroots-led truth-telling around the Israel-Hamas conflict and to NGO, CyberWell’s efforts to tackle denialism.

Devoid of propaganda or politics that envelops the region, this film is a rejoinder to denialists. By honoring the truth of the past, it turns a spotlight on the future.

At one point, director Anat Stalinsky (her face off-camera) sits in the chair that Ms. Sandberg had been using to interview, while Ms. Sandberg moves to the chair that survivors have been using. A profound switch. Both women are showing that they’re mere proxies for audiences around the world.

Interviews for "Screams Before Silence." (Kastina Communications)
Interviews for "Screams Before Silence." (Kastina Communications)

Ms. Sandberg hopes the documentary will shake audiences out of their stupor, so they never accept the unacceptable, but bear witness. She hopes they’ll take the pain and trauma of what they see “and turn it into hope, commitment, [and] conviction that we’re not going to let this happen again.”

You can watch “Screams Before Silence” on YouTube. 
Screams Before SilenceDocumentary Director: Anat Stalinsky Running Time: 57 minutes MPAA Rating: PG Not Rated Release Date: April 26, 2024 Rated: 5 stars out of 5
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Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture.