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In the interactive documentary The Space We Hold, you’re given a choice to hear or silence the stories of three “comfort women.” Each was a victim of sexual violence by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. Users who choose to listen are invited to add text responses to a growing constellation of stars, each representing a person who has taken the time to connect with these stories that have been suppressed for so long.
It’s estimated that the Imperial Japanese Army kidnapped 200,000 girls and young women, some as young as nine years old, for sexual slavery. The Space We Hold was created by Tiffany Hsiung, Christopher Kang, Patricia Lee, and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). It is based on The Apology, a 2016 feature-length documentary by Toronto-based filmmaker Hsiung that tells the stories of three women. Both projects are supported by the NFB, which released the online interactive this June. The Space We Hold also premiered at the Sheffield Documentary Festival in the UK that month, and in October, it will be exhibited at the Future of Storytelling Festival in New York. This July, the South Korean government released the only known footage of “comfort women.” Despite this increased attention, the history remains something of an open secret.
“While history might refer to them as comfort women, to me and some of the others who have heard their stories, they are the grandmothers,” says Hsiung in the narration for The Space We Hold. Once users click to hear the grandmothers’ stories, they hold down the space bar to activate them, encouraging an engaged listening experience.
The speakers are Grandma Gil in South Korea, Grandma Cao in China, and Grandma Adela in the Philippines. Each one was just a teenager when she was imprisoned, raped, tortured, and beaten at the “comfort stations” set up by Japanese soldiers. Cao describes how she had to strangle her own baby, born during her two enslaved years; Gil recalls five years of brutality and forced sterilization, after which she never saw her family again; and Adela lights candles at a home altar as she wonders if she can ever tell her children about her rape. The specters of guilt and societal shame shadow each of them.
“Tiffany’s feature film followed the incredible personal journeys of these three women, whether they were seeking a formal apology from the Japanese government or summoning the courage to finally share their secret with their families,” said David Oppenheim of NFB Ontario Studio, who produced the project with Patricia Lee of Cult Leader, in a release. “We wanted to create an interactive documentary experience that engaged people in an act of listening that was unique in online spaces, where the challenges of reconciliation are so visible. And where we can begin to know what it means to listen to testimonies of sexual violence in a digital age.”
As Hsiung emphasizes in the documentary, violence against women endures as a weapon of war, from genocidal rape during the Bosnian War to the sexual violence of the Rwandan Genocide. Stories like those shared by the grandmothers are part of our contemporary, collective memory, even if many would rather forget. And when rape remains underreported by women around the world, and is ignored when vocalized, offering a digital space for listening and witnessing is powerful. As stated in The Space We Hold, “Their stories are difficult to hear, but even more difficult for them to tell.”
The Space We Hold is available for free online through the National Film Board of Canada.