In Real Life: how to tackle sexual harassment head-on

A film by Claire Kurylowski about the disturbing lengths women go to to protect themselves. Warning: contains references to sexual violence

Sexual violence is never pretty, but it takes on an entirely new and eerie pink hue in Claire Kurylowski's film, IN REAL LIFE. Starring candy-haired Tumblr princess and artist Arvida Bystrom, the latest instalment in the Visionaries series is an unnerving look at the extreme lengths that women go to defend themselves from the threat of harassment. Below the cut, the Berlin and London-based filmmaker talks about activist filmmaking and the unlikely YouTube inspiration behind the short. 

Dazed Digital: Can you take me through how you came up with this concept?

Claire Kurylowski: The point of departure for IN REAL LIFE was the YouTube video I watched entitled How to Break Out of Zip Ties which could be considered viral with over 3.4 million hits to date. For me the video reinstated the binary idea of women being accountable for their 'expected victimhood' and inversely the lack of accountability/deterrent strategies existing in the same forms and scope, if at all, for anti-abuse and anti-sexual harassment.

DD: It seems crazy that a video about how to escape from a kidnapper has so many views! What do you think it says about the state of gender relations right now?

Claire Kurylowski: Yeah, I found it quite absurd which drew me towards its interrogation. The video invalidates its functionality from the beginning; it states how it is unlikely that a kidnapper would restrain you in this way. Its tutorial value rendered obsolete, maybe one continues to watch because of the desire to see her escape, to know that you’ll be OK. You buy into its reality, the escape out of the situation it anticipates, one of expected abuse.

The comments below the actual YouTube video build a dialogue in a really shocking way, it legitimises this reality of fear; there are some really horrendous, sexist comments. The authors of these comments function like incarnations of the hypothetical kidnapper – verifying this reality – everything becomes evidently cyclical. I think there are two main sources of the hits: feminist blogs sharing it in a big way with the legitimate objective of passing on what is considered an invaluable survival tactic. Secondly, I would speculate that cis men are sharing it for a novelty value: the objectified image of a woman restrained. The sexist comments under the video as testament to this.

The video is a symptom and not the problem itself. It helps reveal the problem further and give this visibility. What’s really important here is not to label this as a problem with women’s thoughts or perceptions but to call it out for what it is, the problem that is entrenched sexism and misogyny – the lack of autonomy women’s bodies have within patriarchy.

DD: Do you think filmmakers have a obligation to deal with these issues, given their platform?

Claire Kurylowski: I think the best thing you can be is respectful and honest in your work. We all pick our fights and there are usually really valid reasons why. I think it’s important as a creative to take responsibility for consciously excluding problematic elements in your work – like, for example, don’t perpetuate imagery of violence towards women: either question it or exclude it. Increasingly I have felt that to be in a position to even make a film is a huge privilege. We should not be disillusioned that a film is activism – it isn’t in itself – but perhaps the discussions it opens might influence or encourage some further actions, and having visibility of these topics in mainstream media is important. Whether they're broaching social topics or not, I’d just like to see more women telling their stories because it doesn’t happen often enough!