Film About Child Rape Becomes a Cause

It became known as the "Dakota Fanning rape movie."

Hijacked by controversy for the one scene in which Dakota Fanning's 12-year-old character is sexually assaulted by a teenager, the movie "Hounddog" finally lands in theaters today, nearly two years after it was first screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

The controversy was brought on by a disgruntled producer who went to the media before shooting wrapped with a false report that Fanning was naked in the film and had shot a graphic rape scene. That night, CNN was asking its viewers whether a 12-year-old actress should be doing a rape scene.

Soon after, the film was being debated by Sean Hannity and protested by evangelical groups, including the Catholic League, which urged the Justice Department to investigate whether any child pornography laws had been broken.

"I was totally thrown off by it. I had no idea it was coming," said Deborah Kampmeier, the film's writer and director, about the media storm. "I was not making this film to create controversy and social commentary. I was writing this story from my heart, in hopes that it would touch someone else's heart."

The film, a Southern gothic tale set in 1959, is about a motherless 12-year-old girl named Lewellen who finds solace in the music of Elvis Presley. In exchange for two tickets to a Presley concert, she agrees to do a seductive dance for a teenager who robs of her innocence.

Kampmeier asked the district attorney's office in Wilmington, NC, where the film was shot, to do its own investigation. After viewing the film and interviewing cast and crew, the DA found no grounds for prosecution, she said.

In the completed film, the rape scene lasts less than one minute. To shoot it, Kampmeier said there was no simulation of a sex act. Instead she shot closeups of faces, hands and feet. She stood a foot away from Fanning's face and told her when to hold her breath, when to gasp.

"I have a daughter, I am a daughter, I care about the soul of girls," Kampmeier said. "If Dakota had been harmed in any way, if this had been exploitative, it would have betrayed the reason I made this film."

Instead, Fanning was "dancing on the bridge" after she shot the scene, "because she knew she had just hit the zone," Kampmeier said. "She was exquisite."

That didn't seem to matter to the people making death threats at Kampmeier or signing petitions demanding that she and Fanning's mother, Joy, be arrested for child pornography.

By January 2007, when Kampmeier arrived at Sundance, with bodyguards in tow, the FBI was standing by just in case any threats were carried out. Instead it was the film that got flayed by critics and booed by the press. Any possible distribution deals vanished.

"The problem with all this international controversy the film garnered is that it's really a small, small film, too small of a film to carry all of this controversy and hype," said Scott Franklin of the Motion Picture Group, which raised funds to complete the film. "It really raised expectations for this film. It's an intimate film and it got as much press as 'War of the Worlds' did."

Kampmeier took heart from the response she got from the Sundance audience: "lines of women, sobbing and thanking me for making the film, one man in his 60s who hadn't cried his whole life and said the film helped him face something in his life he had never faced."

At Sundance, Fanning spoke out about the scene at the heart of the controversy. She told USA Today that the people attacking the film "were attacking my family and me, and that's where it got too far. Pretty much everybody who talked about it attacked my mother, which I did not appreciate. That was extremely uncalled for and hurtful."

Kampmeier said, from the beginning, Fanning was one of her greatest allies, along with the film's other star, Robin Wright Penn, who signed on as an executive producer in 1996, when Kampmeier first showed her the script.

"There was a connection that happened between us that was so deep, so wordless, and it came out of our love of this character," she said about Fanning. "It was as if we both reached across the table and took each other by the hand and walked through this difficult world together and didn't let go until it was done."

By the time Kampmeier had signed Fanning, she had already seen financing for the film fall through four years in a row and made another film, her award-winning debut "Virgin," also with Wright Penn.

"It would always fall through because investors wanted the rape scene taken out," Kampmeier said. But she refused to take it out.

"I couldn't have done this film without the scene, but that's not what the film is about," she said. "The film is about so many things: motherlessness, healing, art, female sexuality, finding your true voice and the most important things, what the character Charles said in the movie, taking that which can poison you and changing it into something good."

After Sundance, Kampmeier recut the film to show how Lewellen goes from being silenced after the rape to ultimately connecting to her true voice.

Empire Film Group purchased "Hounddog" in March for a $1 million advance but has struggled to book it in theaters, including the three major chains, according to the New York Times. The film, which is rated R, opens today in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago and rolls out nationally over the next three weeks.

Kampmeier was surprised to find that her real-life journey had begun to parallel Lewellen's in the film.

"It's a story about a girl whose voice is silenced and that's what was happening with this film," Kampmeier said. "I can't ignore the politics of being a woman filmmaker. Ninety percent of the stories on screen are being told by men. The silencing of this story, of women's voice in general, is so disturbing."

Instead of running from the controversy, she has embraced it, enlisting prominent figures like Gloria Steinem and advocacy groups, such as Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), to support the film.

"It's become a controversial film," she said, "and I'm trying to embrace that and bring light to an issue that's been silenced in our culture. Dakota is giving voice to millions of silent women and girls. This is an epidemic in our country, and it's so courageous of Dakota to take on this role. It's a story of triumph and hope in the end."

According to Justice Department statistics, one in six women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime and 44 percent of sexual assault victims are under age 18.

Jennifer Storm a survivor of child sexual assault and the author of "Blackout Girl: Growing Up and Drying Out in America," is looking forward to seeing the film.

Raped at 12, and again at 17, Storm said the assaults "stole my voice, took away my childhood first and foremost, changed me from a vivacious girl who loved school to a dark vacant numbed-out person. Only drinking made me feel better and that led me further down the path of destruction."

She said films like "Hounddog," when done right without sensationalizing rape, can break the national silence on this subject.

"It sounds like it's going to create some much-needed awareness and create a dialogue that needs to happen at the dinner table," Strom said.