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So This Happened: The women helping women tell stories of everyday sexism

Wednesday 8th March 2017

We talk to Maha Albadrawi and Lucy Zee, the brains behind TVNZ’s new web-series So This Happened, about why women’s stories need to be told.

It’s a tale as old as time: a young woman is out in public, minding her business, happy as could be. Suddenly, the sky darkens. The air chills. The hairs stand up on the back of her neck. Before it can be stopped and with barely a moment to process what has happened, she has been intruded upon and violated, left shaken for days or weeks. Worst of all she has no idea how it could have been prevented.

These intrusions, be they verbal or physical, can target women for any reason and contrary to popular belief they are far from complimentary. They happen every day, and for most women and girls in today's society, such experiences are not so much disturbing anomalies as they are frustrating yet frequent inconveniences.

TVNZ creative producer (and Wireless contributor) Lucy Zee and marketing co-ordinator Maha Albadrawi know these stories all too well - and think it is finally time they made their way out into the open.

The two are the masterminds behind So This Happened, a new TVNZ web-series aiming to help New Zealand women have their stories of sexual harassment heard.

Turning harrowing tales of intrusive male behaviour into two minute animated videos, So This Happened exposes the entirely too casual way these experiences are integrated into women’s everyday lives.

With a diverse, all female and non-binary team working on the videos, So This Happened provides an outlet and an opportunity for those outside the patriarchy so rarely seen and heard: and with buckets of charm is as watchable as it is important.

We sat down with Lucy and Maha to talk about content, harassment, and why women’s stories need to be told.

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Can you guys tell me in your own words: What is So This Happened?

Maha: So This Happened is a series of short animated videos which are stories of women who have experienced everyday sexual assault or racism. The kind of stuff that happens every day, and is told in their own words. It's set to animation and we used different animators for each video, so we got different styles and different takes on each story. And it’s really great cos' you get to hear it told by the people who experienced it, so you get to really feel what they felt.

Minnie's story.

Animation: Chelsea Furedi

How did you come up with the idea for it?

Maha: I just had recently started getting really sick of men getting away with gross behaviour. Like, walking in the supermarket and having a guy muttering under his breath disgusting things while he looks at your boobs, that kind of stuff. I'm just like, why does this keep happening? And sometimes if I'd react to them they'd act like I'm crazy? They'd be like "I didn't say anything", I'm like "I literally heard you say it to my face".

And then what happened was, we were in the kitchen at work and there was a group of us, a group of young women, we're all about the same age, and we somehow got onto to the topic of times that we'd experienced sexual harassment and it just wasn't dealt with. We just went around and around in a circle and we just ended up with so many stories. And then Minnie, whose stories the first one that you hear, she told hers and it was quite funny? But also something that felt completely familiar. That's when I had this moment where I was just like, "I've got several of these stories and everyone I know has ten of these stories".

We tend to talk about it in these situations where we feel comfortable with each other and supported, but we don't really tell our male friends, we don't tell our dads, we don't tell our brothers, or our partners, because they don't tend to react in a way that's very supportive all the time.

So that's when I got the idea: I was like if we record these stories and if we set them to animation, then it could be something that's quite palatable and get conversations started.

Lucy: So TVNZ had this opportunity for people to create content, and this was Maha's idea and we were in this meeting and everyone was sharing their ideas and I really liked it.

So Maha came to me, and then we had this meeting, and then we had a discussion of how it should look and I suggested that we get a different animator [for each video], and an animator that wasn't a man. Because my little sister goes to animation college and she was telling me how all the guys get the work and all the attention. So my priority was, I wanted women to tell these stories because I think the more that you tell these stories, and the more people hear it, the sooner we can stop all this crap happening to us.

Maha: Because the first way to deal with a problem is to acknowledge that there is one.

Lucy: One of my main things was that I didn't want these women to feel uncomfortable talking. So we set up a room, we mic’d everyone up very subtly, kicked the man out, the sound engineer, we don't need you in here. And then just five of us girls, four of us girls, sitting around just talking.

And of course we edited it down for the time. I always think two minutes is a good amount of time for the whole video, keeping in mind that we wanted men and women and anyone to sit here for two minutes and hear someone’s story.

And then I was adamant that we were going to get people to animate them that didn't work at TVNZ. I wanted to foster new talent outside of the industry. I was like, well if I have the means to support someone... and we gave them so much freedom and it was really great meeting them because we learned so much from them.

How did you find them?

Lucy: Well I'm lucky because my sister studies animation, and I was like "do you want to want to do one?” And she was like "yes". Well I didn't say "do you want to do one" I said "you have to do one" [laughs]. And I was like "mum's going to be so proud of you".

People forget that a TVNZ credit on your C.V looks really good, and I just really wanted to give these people an opportunity.

So she gave me a list of names, and I kind of picked a couple and then emailed them.

Maha: I want to continue that, because we can't just keep doing the same things. And we wanted to get new perspectives. We told them a story and we gave them a brief for the intro and the outro, but then we said "you present the story how you think it should be presented". And they nailed it.

The animation is so clever too - I love the snake and the aubergine.

Lucy: We didn't even direct them on that kind of stuff. For me one of the things that I'm most proud of - not proud, I don't know how to word it - but my sister had made the attacker in Catarina's story race neutral. So you actually don't know what ethnicity it is. She wasn't gonna put brown or white skin, she was like "this is a monster". The fact that that was something that she decided on... we chose the right people.

You know what, people keep throwing around the word 'woke', and I know it's not cool to say anymore but these people are so woke, and that's what I was so proud of and that's what I want TVNZ to be.

Because TV's dying, it’s just what's happening, and the sooner we can get young people excited about video content, and make them trust that people like us work there - it's not just old people who watch Coronation Street…

Catarina's Story

Animation: Jess Zee

Maha: We watch content, at the end of the day we watch content and we watch more and more of it. So the other thing was we didn't want to force them to go to a channel or to TVNZ On Demand. We knew that this would live best on Facebook and Youtube, because we want people to share their stories and we want people to share it and we want to make it easy. So we insisted on hosting on Youtube and Facebook.

Lucy: We wanted to create conversation. The whole point is that, someone's sharing their story in a comfortable space. Because we want to do more, and we don't want to do just our friend's stories, we want someone from like, the other side of the South Island. People I've never met before, I'd love to talk to them.

Maha: I want to hear more stories. And its actually been quite nice, reading people's responses in the comments, people tagging their friends and going "oh my god this happened to you, so-and-so", and I've private messaged a couple of people and they've been really, really lovely and open about the idea of sharing their stories. Because I think they want to, there just isn't really a safe public forum to do this.

Lucy: It's a serious topic, and I never wanted to make a joke out of this. The key word we're trying to use is, for it to be 'palatable'. Because you tell these stories to people and they don't believe you. And I'm like, but you know what everyone can agree on, is cartoons are awesome. And for me that was a good device to tell a really awful story in a really nice, fun way.

Maha: Like a spoonful of sugar.

I think sometimes when you tell people those stories, they can't really picture it? Especially a guy, because it's never happened to them. But animated you can see how plausible it is and easily it happens.

Maha: And that kind of behaviour is excused. Either people don't believe you because they're like, "no one would act like that" or they're just like "that's just boys being boys". I'm like, just imagine if the roles were reversed, if girls were being aggressive or shouting out their car windows at a guy, then they'd be labelled psycho or desperate. But with men it's excused and it's excused from a very young age as well.

Maha, I thought your story was really cool because these stories aren't just about straight-forward sexual - harassment - women are targeted for race and sex and so many reasons apart from just guys hitting on them.

Maha: With my one I kind of wanted to explain to people who don't necessarily understand what goes through your mind when you're faced with something like a micro-aggression. Because it's like a lose-lose situation - when someone attacks you like that, they think it’s a joke and it hurts your feelings, but you also know that if you were to respond with the way you really felt then you'd prove them right. And I've had this conversation with my other friends, and they experience the same thing, and we all have this shared experience of not knowing what to do when you're faced with a micro-aggression. I kind of just want to talk about it to see what other people thought and how to do deal with it, because in the moment it's really hard.

Lucy: I really hate when you tell a story and someone’s like "well why didn't you do this, why didn't you do that". No you can't say that because you didn't experience the situation, you don't know what I have been through or how it was and how I felt.

Have you had a good response from people?

Lucy: We've had messages from people within our company that we've never spoken to before. Men have messaged us.

Maha: Really waking up to the experiences that women have every day.

Lucy: I'm quite touched and flattered, the fact that people have said "this is great that this exists". The fact they have said "it’s so cool to see these stories", that's the thing that made me go "oh my god, I'm glad working 50 hour weeks is worth it".

There were women who work on our floor who offered their skills and expertise outside of their own jobs. Because this isn't our jobs, we're doing this on top of our jobs.

Maha: They just jumped on board completely voluntarily because they believed in it.

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Watch So This Happened on YouTube, or TVNZ OnDemand.



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Katie is a journalist at The Wireless.
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