He turned a horrible past into an award-winning short film, raises awareness about sexual abuse

Premiering the film, I felt weightless, like I could finally close the door on a chapter in my life. Sexual abuse alienates us from our own body. This feeling of violation makes us want to reject our very limbs. Though it sounds pessimistic, I believe you never fully overcome sexual abuse. You simply learn to separate it from who you are.

  • 1 year ago
  • February 7, 2023
5 min read
Behind the scenes photo of the short film Mar Adentro Behind the scenes photo of the short film Mar Adentro | Photo courtesy of Christian Espinoza
Christian Espinoza was born in Cuenca, Ecuador, in 1996.
He is a writer, editor and filmmaker. His stories and literary/film reviews have been published on important Ecuadorian digital platforms and in magazines. In 2022, he co-directed “Un Cuerpo Sobre El Mar,” winner of the Best Documentary Short of the Historias Por Contar program, organized by the United States Embassy and the American Film Showcase.
Un Cuerpo Sobre El Mar talks about a person’s journey in recovering from trauma due to sexual abuse in childhood. The film was also part of the FUNDAPI, an Ecuadorian non-profit organization which works on the planning and execution of projects related to Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to promote social change.

CUENCA, Ecuador — From the ages of four to eight, I suffered sexual abuse. I kept my trauma bottled up for years, living with crippling anxiety and depression most of my life.

Finally, I decided to address it with art in order to heal. For two years, I worked on a short film about sexual abuse. The film premiered November 22, 2022, at the Ecuadorian Film Festival in New York. I earned wins for the Best Short at the Samborondón Cinemark, and Best Documentary Shortint the Historias Por Contar program.

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A horrible past haunted every moment of my life

While I do not remember the events of the abuse very well, it stayed with me, nonetheless. The fallout on my mental health affected me my entire life. I grew up struggling with my own sexuality and never felt comfortable expressing it or being too close to anyone. In addition, I struggled with addiction, which is the initial reason I attended therapy. I started to isolate myself a lot. Eventually, I knew I needed to make a change, or I would not survive.

Working on the script for my short film proved difficult. Since the stories within the script happened to me, I felt mentally blocked. Putting the pieces of the blurry puzzle back together filled me with indescribable anguish. One day, while writing the dialogue, I felt the beginning of a panic attack. I could not separate the text from the vivid images in my mind. It felt too real, regardless of how long ago it happened. I spent days putting off the work until I felt ready to go back to it.

During the first few days on set, we filmed scenes where I spoke about the abuse and how it affected me daily. I tried hard to stay calm and not break down. I relived my trauma that day. Thankfully, my mother stood by me, supporting me from the other side of the room. Her presence gave me strength. Later, we recorded the voice-over narration of the film. I read a letter to the anonymous abuser. In it, I sought closure by denouncing his violence and refusing to stay silent.

Speaking out about my abuse freed me

As victims, social systems force us into silence and ask us to move on. Abusers walk freely because the justice system fails to hold them accountable. For this reason, many victims feel scared to speak out. That is why it felt vital to me to do this movie. I wanted to offer a voice to those who cannot speak. We deserve justice. We cannot allow violence to prevail, and we must show our abusers that they will never rest.

I knew the letter held importance in the film. We rewrote it several times, reworked it until it felt right. Saying the words out loud destroyed me. I remembered the words of Annie Ernaux, a Nobel Prize winner for Literature, who once described my feelings so well. She said, “Among all the reasons that may account for my past, of one I am certain: these things happened so that I might recount them. Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing, something intelligible and universal; for my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people.”

That is why cinema is so important to me. It gives us the ability to immortalize moments on a screen, always remaining in the present time of the viewer. In the short film, a person tries to reach the sea. The ocean represents infinite possibilities, and the horizon acts as a gate merging with the sky. When the character stares at this view, he sees life. I allude to the Gypsy song by Willy Colón, when he says “Words are made of air, and they flow to the air. My tears are water, and they flow to the sea.” To me, the endless sea still cannot contain the suffering a single person may feel. 

The public’s reaction to my film made the experience unforgettable

In the final week of filming, we traveled to Guayaquil for a few days. We stayed at the Wyndham Hotel, and, worked at the University of the Arts with our American mentors. Once we finished editing the short, we screened it in front of a jury in a cinema in Samborondón. Afterwards, we aired it at the Cinemark in Guayaquil, and in the projection room of the Wyndham Hotel. The jury picked our project as the winner out of the five short films chosen. I felt so proud and happy. I couldn’t believe it.

At the Wyndham Hotel, they aired the film in front of an audience. We looked at their faces and saw their shocked, uncomfortable reactions. I hoped to shine a light on what it felt like to be in the victims’ skin. In November 2022, the short film premiered at the Ecuadorian Film Festival in New York. They also played our short on the big screen at the Barrymore Film Center, in New Jersey, along with other films from Ecuador. It felt unreal. I felt weightless, like I could finally close the door on a chapter in my life.

It remains important to me to emphasize that sexual abuse alienates us from our own body. This feeling of violation against our bodies makes us want to reject our very limbs. Though it sounds pessimistic, I believe you never fully overcome sexual abuse. You eventually find peace from it, but the damage done remains in you. You simply learn to separate it from who you are. Making this short film liberated from it. When I think of the sea foam touching my feet, and floating in the ocean, I feel alive. I repeat it to myself over and over: I am alive.

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