Linor Abargil is both a rape victim and a beauty queen. She became the first just six weeks before becoming the second, when, at the age of 18, she found herself trapped in a BMW in the outskirts of Milan while her travel agent held a knife to her throat and forced himself on her, alternating whispered apologies and threats of death.
Less than two months later, she was crowned Miss World 1998, an event that transformed her into a household name in Israel and gave her the platform she needed to speak out about her ordeal.
Abargil’s story, which is chronicled in the stirring documentary “Brave Miss World,” begins with that terrible Italian car ride. The aspiring model had been in Milan for a fashion show, and was homesick. Hoping to catch a flight back to Israel from Rome, she called her travel agent, Uri Shlomo Nur, and asked him to book her a ticket from Milan to Rome.
There were no available flights, he said, but not to worry: He would drive her himself.
Just as they reached the Milan city limits, however, Nur steered his BMW off the road, pulled out a knife, and climbed on top of Abargil. He raped her while holding the knife to her neck, and Abargil, in a bid to save her own life, promised him she would never tell anyone.
But Abargil knew there was no way she would stay quiet. After winning the Miss World pageant, she went to law school, balancing classes with her skyrocketing modeling career, and she told others what had happened: first, her family, then the Israeli authorities, and finally, even the Miss World judges.
“Keeping it to yourself is like taking a gun and shooting yourself in the head,” Abargil later told the Jewish Chronicle. “Almost everybody blamed me because I’m a model and a beauty queen. I was so strong because of my family, so I don’t care.”
The only way to fight back after being raped, Abargil says, is to speak about the ordeal and encourage others to do the same. So in 2008 she decided to go bigger, and reached out to Cecilia Peck, an actress, documentary director and the daughter of actor Gregory Peck, and asked her to make a film of her story.
That movie, “Brave Miss World,” was recently released after five years of filming. It follows Abargil as she travels around the world to speak to other victims of rape. It also delves into the traumas of those who meet Abargil and are compelled to tell their own stories, including actresses Joan Collins and Fran Drescher, who both endured horrific sexual assaults and were willing to share their difficult memories on camera.
“From the moment we sat down with her, she was just so compelling, and so unashamed about speaking about rape,” Peck, who also directed the critically-acclaimed “Shut Up and Sing,” about the country-music trio Dixie Chicks, told The Times of Israel. “I think Linor felt that from the moment those two events happened in such close proximity, she suffered this brutal trauma and then was crowned Miss World, that it was her mission in life to reach out to other women. I think she was fulfilling a sense of destiny.”
Peck teamed up with Israeli-born producer Inbal Lessner, whom she had admired ever since seeing “I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal,” on which Lessner served as co-producer. Filming was far from easy; they began their project just weeks before the financial collapse of 2008, and saw their funding dry up just had they were getting started.
And the topic itself was emotionally taxing; Abargil found herself sometimes having to take breaks from filming to steady herself, and both Peck and Lessner also struggled after hearing so many raw, atrocious accounts.
“The stories were very difficult in the first few months,” Lessner, who now lives and works in Los Angeles, says. “It haunts you at night, and you’re not sure that you want to spend your day listening to and dealing with it. But you know that each woman who comes out and shares with Linor … is a big step toward healing and positive change.”
The lack of funds, which forced Peck and Lessner to spend four more years than they had originally intended in making the film, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. After receiving emergency injections of cash from Israeli businessman Igal Ahuvi, a handful of executive producers including Lati Grobman, Orna Raiz, Irving Bauman and Regina Kulik Scully, as well the Foundation for Jewish Culture and The Marc Rich Foundation, they were able to follow Linor through a genuine transformation: her graduation from law school, her marriage and her shift toward Orthodox Judaism.
They also chronicled the endless court cases that arose when Shlomo Nur came up for parole (he was extradited by Israel and convicted in 1999, but is set to be released from prison this year).
“What you see as a result is a full transformation, from being a bathing suit model to being a religious mother and lawyer,” says Lessner.
Together, Lessner, Peck and Abargil have formed an unlikely trio of support for women struggling to find the courage to speak out about their own sexual assaults. The documentary, while the centerpiece of their effort, is part of a wider campaign; women are encouraged to send tweets to Abargil at #IAmBrave and anyone interested in hosting a screening and discussion of the film can find details on how to do so on the film’s website.
Abargil, being both beautiful and well-spoken, serves the cause well, Peck says. “It’s a difficult subject,” she admits. “But I think we found a way into it that unfolds like an epic narrative and makes it watchable. It’s still a subject, even though it touches everyone, that is hard for people to talk about.”
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