Recently, we spoke with Maggie Hadleigh-West, filmmaker of the fascinating 1998 street harassment documentary film, War Zone. As Maggie describes on her website, War Zone is about “sex, power and what happens when men—either knowingly or unknowingly—threaten a woman’s right to walk undisturbed on the streets.” In shooting the documentary, Maggie turned her camera on catcallers, giving us all a peek into the mind of the harasser. Here’s what Maggie had to say about her activism, what inspires her, and War Zone, her amazing videoHOLLA:
Most importantly, where can we find War Zone?
http://www.snagfilms.com/films/title/war_zone, or my website if you just want to see the trailer, http://www.yomaggie.com/
Tell us a bit about how you got involved in activism and the street harassment movement.
Well, for as long as I can remember I’ve been an activist. My first feminist outrage was realizing I was going to probably have to change my name when I married some guy! I was about 6. Also I grew up with two brothers and a very sexist father so from the beginning I was very clear that there was an extreme inequity. The first time I remember championing anything was I was in elementary school, and I was defending kids that were mentally challenged. That was second grade or something like that.
As for street harassment, I became pretty outraged about street abuse some time in my early 20’s, and when I moved to New York in my late 20’s, I became really crazed about it!
Is that awareness what inspired you to film War Zone? Was there a specific trigger point?
It was a combination of that awareness and some experiences in my personal life—I had a boyfriend at the time that I really loved, and he really didn’t seem to understand the impact street harassment had on me. I would talk to him about my experiences, particularly about a specific group of men in the neighborhood who repeatedly harassed me, and my boyfriend recommended that I carry mace and spray the guys. I remember thinking to myself, “this guy who loves me doesn’t understand the threat of street harassment or how it impacts my feeling of safety. These guys know where I live!” and I knew that was also true of other men in my family. It occurred to me that most men probably didn’t quite “get it” either. That was my early inspiration, although I didn’t really know what I was going to do about it. Then one day I bought a camera. I woke up the next morning and thought “Oh. Now I have a weapon!”
Interesting, so the film just sort of developed out of your growing interest and conversations you had about street harassment.
Yea. That’s generally how I work on all my films. “Player Hating: A Love Story,” my most recent film, developed right out of War Zone. I noticed that many of the men who were on the streets were disenfranchised men, and I started to think about how those men dealt with the disenfranchisement they felt from the overall culture.
That lack of understanding about the impact of street harassment that you mentioned earlier seems unfortunately widespread—in a news interview about War Zone, I saw a reporter describe street harassment as “street flirting.” What did you think of that?
Well, he, like many, was just ignorant of the impact of street harassment. And sadly, for some men, they do think of their harassment as flirting.
Your film really did capture the wide range of how men view their harassment. What do you think of as the most memorable moment or interaction captured in War Zone?
Probably Joe, the guy at the end of the movie. When I filmed him I wasn’t actually shooting for the movie—when I turned on the camera I had thought of it as collecting evidence because I was certain he was a predator. So I was in a totally different frame of mind compared to the rest of the movie. I was calm during regular shooting because I was gathering information, not trying to protect myself and other women.
Do you have any other memorable street harassment stories that you can share with us?
I have so many. One of the most surprising was when a seven year old boy harassed me, referencing my body parts, and it was just so clear he was copying something he’d heard from an older man. Another time, there was a guy on my street who I always tried to ignore because he was a drug dealer, and one day I was wearing a man’s winter coat as I passed him by. He called out to me “Baby, you’re getting fatter!” and I turned around and said “You’re getting stupider!” and we actually both started laughing. Another time I was on the subway, and I saw some young boys target me, and one kid walked up to me. He didn’t say anything but just took a physical stance and stepped into my personal space. I didn’t move at all, and he was about 10 inches from my face when I just smiled really big at him and said “WHASSUP!!” And he just burst out laughing. Another story I can relay happened to a friend– a guy was getting aggressive with her, she got scared and wasn’t sure what to do, so she turned around and yelled really load in his face, “DO YOU KNOW THE TIME??!!” And I think that just seemed so crazy that it worked in terms of him leaving her alone.
So you have definitely seen a wide range of types of harassing behaviors. What do you think is the best way for people to combat street harassment?
Just get out of the space—to me, safety is the most important thing, because of the relationship between street abuse and sexual assault, rape, and murder. It can be a very direct trajectory sometimes. Also using non-confrontational, non-aggressive, classic “sexual assault” language, like “stay away,” “I’m not interested in you,” being definitive but not escalating the situation, and then absolutely reporting the incident later on.
We’re all about reporting! Do you remember how you first heard about Hollaback?
Yes, some of the founding members of Hollaback had contacted me about War Zone a few years back when it had just begun.
It’s a great video resource. Do you have any other favorite resources on street harassment that you’d recommend?
“Back Off” by Martha Langelan was a good resource years ago, but I’d don’t know if it’s been updated-or even if it needs to be, but I really think Hollaback is the best resource.
Thanks! So what else do you think everyone should know about street harassment?
I feel like the most important thing that isn’t addressed a lot is reporting things to the police, or to organizations like Hollaback, when women are harassed. It’s just so common, and so rarely reported, and I think that increasing reporting is going to be one of the things that will eventually change everything.