Her face adorned billboards in Belgrade. She has appeared regularly in Serbian films, magazines, and television shows. Danijela Stajnfeld, who was trained at the prestigious Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade, won two major theater awards in 2011 at the age of 26 and was a permanent member of the prestigious Belgrade Drama Theater.
The following year she abruptly and mysteriously fell out of the public eye. It wasn’t until last summer that she publicly announced why.
In her documentary “Hold Me Right” about victims and perpetrators of sexual assault, Stajnfeld said that she, too, had been sexually assaulted by a powerful Serbian man eight years earlier, which had prompted her to move to the United States.
When the film premiered at the Sarajevo Film Festival last year, Stajnfeld said she was nervous but couldn’t imagine it causing waves. “I thought nobody remembers me, I haven’t kept in touch with anyone in Serbia,” she said in an interview.
The media firestorm that erupted a few days after the premiere proved she was wrong.
Stajnfeld’s face suddenly appeared again in the Serbian press. TV and online commentators praised her for speaking out or her for not revealing the man’s name.
She said she didn’t identify the man because she wanted the film to focus on survivors and healing rather than looking for a culprit. But the country’s tabloids speculated wildly about his identity. Reporters approached Stajnfeld’s unsuspecting parents in their small village. Critics questioned their motives. “Ill!” Read a headline. “The actress invented rape to promote her film.”
Even for someone who grew up in Serbia, where sexism and male chauvinism are deeply ingrained, the setback was staggering, said Stajnfeld. While the country has taken steps to advance the cause of women’s rights in recent years – it ratified a human rights convention against gender-based violence in 2013 – sexual harassment and assault are rarely reported in Serbia, as in the surrounding region. and shaming victims abound.
“After opening it was so liberating; I thought the story was in my hands, ”said Stajnfeld. “But it created even more insecurity and ridiculous dehumanization.”
But in the last few months the mood has changed in a few quarters, which was partly spurred on by the film. In January, several other Serbian actresses came out publicly alleging they had been raped, and a MeToo-like movement sprang to life in this region, where the culture of calling perpetrators had not yet taken hold.
Using the hashtag #NisiSama, which means “You are not alone,” and on the Nisam Trazila or “I did not ask about it” Facebook page, which has 40,000 followers, supporters urged that victims of sexual harassment be believed and perpetrated to be held accountable.
“We followed what was happening around the globe with the #MeToo movement, but I think we needed authentic voices from women from that region to have that kind of response,” said Sanja Pavlovic of the Belgrade Women’s Autonomous Center in an email.
Last week, Stajnfeld, who lives in New York, flew to Serbia, met with police and prosecutors, and identified the man she said attacked as Branislav Lecic.
Her disclosure fueled the media flash, also because 65-year-old Lecic is a famous personality in Serbia, not just a well-known actor, but also a professor and former minister of culture. Weeks ago he had spoken out against sexual assault.
“If a woman says no, that’s the end. I don’t understand that someone can’t control their urges, ”he told a Serbian newspaper.
Stajnfeld says that this statement partly forced her to call him publicly.
Lecic has denied any sexual contact with Stajnfeld, with whom he starred in a 2012 play “Daily Command” when she said the attack took place.
“I’ve never had sexual contact with her. Anything else would be a lie! “Lecic wrote in a WhatsApp message.
But Stajnfeld provided prosecutors and media representatives with an audio recording of her confrontation with him in a Belgrade restaurant in December 2016, in which he confirmed that she had said no to his progress. Excerpts from the audio, distilled from a longer tape with the man’s voice in disguise, are included in the film.
In the recording, she says several times that she wishes he had respected the fact that she objected to his actions, but she doesn’t go into details of what happened next.
“I felt at risk at the time. Can you understand this? “Says Stajnfeld on the tape.
“I can understand that, but it is a big mistake because my expression of tenderness does indeed mean my respect,” replied Lecic, saying it was an achievement “that you got my attention and feeling.”
Lecic said what happened should “feel like an honor, not put you in danger”. “Who do you think I am?” he went on. “As if I don’t respect who I am.”
In the recording, Lecic also pushed back Stajnfeld’s assertion, when she says no, she means no. “It doesn’t work that way,” he said, later adding, “Life is unpredictable, like a game.”
In the past few days, when communicating on WhatsApp, Lecic said that he and Stajnfeld had met at the restaurant to discuss a possible collaboration and that the audio provided by Stajnfeld was incomplete: a longer version, he said, would become the wider Context reveal that she was merely improvising dialogue and she may claim he attacked her to promote her film.
“Maybe she was expecting a little more, maybe she wants revenge because nothing happened, and maybe she wants to build her story through me,” he wrote. “Bad marketing is marketing too.”
But Stajnfeld provided a 77-minute audio file that she says represents almost the entire 90-minute or so conversation: the tape was cut when her phone ran out of battery. Parts of their conversation are inaudible and drowned out by background noise. Yet there is no evidence that they rehearsed the dialogue. Although the voices are sometimes muffled and the joke often appears friendly, Stajnfeld’s voice becomes more severe as it describes how hurt she was by his actions. Lecic responds in a way that suggests he believed what happened was consensual.
When they started rehearsing the piece, Stajnfeld said she viewed Lecic as a mentor and friend until he suggested she have sex. Then one day, in his dressing room, she said, he abruptly slid his hand over her dress. Stajnfeld said she withdrew and fled, stunned, but decided not to tell the director because she feared that she would not be believed and that it could affect her career. Lecic denied that there was a sexual encounter.
At the time, she said in an interview, she had already reached out to Lecic, who she considered an influential political figure, for a letter of reference for applying for an American work visa. She said she was looking for opportunities in the United States but never intended to give up her Serbian career.
She said Lecic first insisted that they go for a walk in a park nearby. Then, she said, he took an elevator home in the wrong direction, frightened her and told her he would take her to see a beautiful view of Belgrade.
When they arrived at a house on a hill on the outskirts of town, she said Lecic stripped her and sexually assaulted her, despite crying and saying no repeatedly.
“At that moment I was tortured like this,” she continued. “He asked me to do things for him. I wanted to do everything I could to stop this torture. I couldn’t move my arms and mouth, I couldn’t stop crying, “she said.
Franz Stefan Gady, who used to be with Stajnfeld and lived in Stockholm at the time, said that within a few days she had presented him with a report on sexual assault by the “older man” in the play.
Stajnfeld said she shared the same details of her encounters with Lecic in the locker room and around the house last week to police and prosecutors. But she hadn’t gone to the authorities at the time, she said, because she feared her story would leak to the press and ruin her career. Instead, she booked a ticket to the United States, where she began to unravel in New York. She had panic attacks and later contemplated suicide, but with the help of therapy and victim support groups, she was determined to overcome the trauma. She began interviewing and filming survivors, and what started as a 10-minute short film grew into her first full-length film as a director over the course of three and a half years.
Stajnfeld said she never intended to put her own story in her film, but after seeing the rough cut she knew she had to include her experiences as well.
“For the sake of justice, for the sake of my healing, for the sake of other victims in the region, I speak now,” she said in an interview with The Times.
The film is due to be shown at the Martovski Film Festival in Belgrade later this spring, followed by a US release.
After Stajnfeld’s film premiered last summer, media commentators said she should be ashamed that she slept with a man to get a role, that she should name him or be prosecuted, that she dishonored women who really raped and that in a recent televised interview she looked too happy to be a victim.
“Public opinion took a tabloid approach, hungry for blood, public humiliation, shame and guilt,” said Snezana Dakic, a Serbian television presenter. “And that’s exactly the opposite of how this problem should be treated.”
Regardless of the personal catharsis that the film represents, more and more people see Stajnfeld’s film as a spark for the support of victims of sexual assault in Serbia and the surrounding Balkan region.
“Danijela’s case has given other women, actresses, wings to talk about what happened to them,” said Dragana Grncarski, a former model and public figure. “If you come out openly, you prevent such things from happening to other women.”
Indira K. Skoric provided translations.