Cary-Grove grad's documentary highlights campus sexual assault

Alexandra Forni and her peers at Northern Illinois University were researching the incidence of sexual assault on college campuses when they came across the "1 in 5" statistic.

That refers to national studies showing one of every five women on college campuses has been sexually assaulted.

Yet despite its prevalence, sexual assault is not discussed among college students, said Forni, an NIU student from Fox River Grove and director of a film dramatization debuting this week about sexual assault from a victim's perspective.

Forni was among about 20 NIU students who spent a year researching the issue, creating an educational documentary and a narrative film tackling perceptions about sexual assault on college campuses.

"It's not just here, it's everywhere. It's such a pervasive problem," said Forni, 24, a 2007 Cary-Grove High School graduate now pursuing a master's degree in media studies and communications.

Forni said it wasn't until she began researching the issue that she realized some of her friends had been victims of sexual assault and had difficulty reporting it.

"I realized what an effect it had on their lives," she said. "When I had the opportunity to work on this project, I realized maybe there was something that could be done."

NIU is among five universities participating in a national movement to promote sexual assault awareness on college campuses. As part of the project, dubbed PACT5, students produced films delivering messages aimed at changing student behaviors and attitudes toward sexual assault.

The other four PACT5 institutions are Rowan University in New Jersey, California State University at Northridge, Western State Colorado University and Framingham State University in Massachusetts. The project was funded through a $200,000 grant from the Wyncote Foundation.

The PACT5 project was motivated by changes in the Violence Against Women Act, which requires colleges to educate students and employees on the topic.

NIU leadership has been supportive of the PACT5 project. President Doug Baker released a video message affirming the university's commitment to making safe its main campus in DeKalb and satellite sites in Hoffman Estates, Naperville and Rockford.

"Nobody is immune to these types of issues, but awareness helps," NIU spokesman Paul Palian said. "We take a proactive approach to not only sexual assault but also other types of healthy lifestyle issues."

Palian said the college's Health Enhancement Office provides guidance on safe dating behaviors and good sexual health practices. The peer education group, Pause Off, performs interactive theater productions focusing on violence prevention and healthy relationships, while NIU's Women's Resource Center provides free and confidential victim advocacy services to all students, he added.

"We also have a bystander intervention program," Palian said. "It's a training session for students. You can intervene early and prevent something from happening."

The goal is to screen the PACT5 documentaries and films at college campuses nationwide year-round, and to get colleges to "make the pact" to end sexual assault.

Forni's film, "In Motion," is a narrative story about a sexual assault. The film's actors include a nursing instructor, NIU police detectives and students from the School of Theatre and Dance. The second NIU documentary, "Red Blooded Men," takes a look at college life from the male perspective and societal concepts of masculinity and femininity.

Statistical information cited in the films were drawn from academic journals and national data collected through the mandatory reporting of sexual assaults on campuses per the Clery Act, Forni said.

"The 1 in 5 (statistic) was horrifying in and of itself," said Forni, who also is working on a master's degree in clinical mental health counseling at NIU and has focused her thesis on breaking rape culture. "We did a lot of work looking at sexual assault with males, did a lot of research on attitudes toward rape."

Roughly 50 percent of sexual assaults on college campuses are alcohol-related and a great majority - 95 percent - go unreported, according to statistics students gathered from the Clery Center for Security on Campus.

"The most dangerous time for college students in terms of sexual assault is the first six weeks of freshman year," said Laura Vazquez, an NIU professor of media studies who is overseeing the project.

Vazquez said it was challenging to get her film students to openly talk about sexual assault and rape. During the first semester of her film course last fall, students conducted the research, analyzed existing films and documentaries on sexual assault and identified effective filmmaking techniques.

"For the first six weeks my students never spoke," Vazquez said. "They said, 'What you don't get is no one ever talks to us about this. We don't know what to say.' That was when we kind of broke through the ice."

The NIU students' films were completed in the summer and well-received during public screenings at the 2013 University Film and Video Association Conference in August in California, and at the Downbeach Film Festival in Atlantic City earlier this month, Vazquez said.

The films, roughly 23 and 17 minutes long, will be screened for the first time on the DeKalb campus at 5 p.m. Thursday and 10:30 a.m. Friday at the Women's Resource Center.

"We've invited groups of students to come and talk about (the films)," Vazquez said, adding that there will be discussion before and after the screenings about the concept of consent and how alcohol consumption impacts decision making.

Vazquez said she has been contacted by area community colleges wanting to screen the films.

"We encourage people to watch them and think about the issues they raise," Vazquez said. "We live in a culture where people think nonconsensual sex is OK. And it's not OK. The length of a woman's skirt is not an invitation to have sex. It's really important that we intercede for our young women ... make sure they understand that victim blaming is not OK."

Alexandra Forni
Northern Illinois University student filmmakers Alexandra Forni, of Fox River Grove, and Courtney Oakes review footage from a dance scene that was part of the “In Motion” narrative film on campus sexual assault. NIU students spent a year researching the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. Courtesy of Northern Illinois University
Corey Kile, director of photography for Northern Illinois University’s student film “In Motion,” works with production assistant Kenny Lunn. NIU student filmmakers spent a year researching the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. Courtesy of Northern Illinois University
NIU film student Margaret Balwierz holds the slate as student actresses Kaitlyn Finklestein and Lexi Langlois get ready for a hospital scene in the student film “In Motion,” which addresses the issue of campus sexual assault. NIU student filmmakers spent a year researching the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. Courtesy of Northern Illinois University
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