In 1998, when Linor Abargil, the reigning Miss Israel, was crowned Miss World in the oldest of all international beauty pageants, she shed tears — perhaps of joy, maybe of anger, possibly a mixture of both.
Seven weeks before her coronation, the 18-year-old beauty had been brutally raped at knifepoint by Shlomo Nur, a trusted travel agent, while a passenger in his car.
Most rapes end in shamed silence or the indifference of authorities, but Abargil, born in Netanya into a Moroccan Jewish family, was made in a different mold.
With strong backing from her parents as well as a growing number of supporters, she set herself two goals: to see that her attacker would be brought to justice and that she would become a global advocate in the fight against sexual violence.
Five years ago, Abargil met filmmaker Cecilia Peck, daughter of actor Gregory Peck. Over the following years, the two women traveled together in Africa, Europe, Israel and the United States, filming meetings with rape victims — or, rather, “survivors,” as Peck calls them.
After another year for editing, the result of their work is the award-winning documentary “Brave Miss World,” which opens in Los Angeles on Nov. 15.
According to Peck’s research, cited in the film, the sheer number of victims of sexual violence worldwide is staggering, although survey results vary widely.
“In the United States, one in five college women are raped, but only 12 percent of them ever report the assault,” Peck said.
One common reason for maintaining silence is given in the film by a Chinese-American girl, who says that if the rape became public, “Mom would be so disappointed.”
The victims are not only women — Peck cites statistics that one of every six men has been sexually abused during his lifetime.
The film does not show graphic footage of rapes, but its on-camera testimony by survivors is horrifying enough.
One girl describes how between ages 6 and 11, she was repeatedly raped by her father.
There’s also a blind woman, whose criminal complaint was dismissed because she could not describe the features of her assailant.
In South Africa, dubbed “the rape capital of the world,” a woman tells how a rapist first attacked her and then, later, her daughter.
Women students from Princeton and UC Santa Barbara charge that university officials ignored complaints against the attackers.
Actresses Joan Collins and Fran Drescher, both rape victims, testify to the profound traumas of the attacks, despite later success and “normality.”
Among the long-term aftereffects described by the victims are an inability to enjoy normal sexual relationships, persistent tiredness as well as sleeplessness, anorexia or extreme weight gain and alcoholism.
The trauma is often made even more unbearable by the frequent indifference or skepticism of police, courts and clergymen, and, worst, by blame heaped on the victim by parents and relatives, Peck said.
As an example of a positive response, Peck cited the reaction of Abargil’s mother, Aliza. When she received her daughter’s call about the rape, the mother responded immediately with, “It’s not your fault. Don’t take a shower, go to a hospital and file a report with the police. We’ll support you.”
Abargil has now enlisted thousands of women in her campaign against sexual violence and is expected to reach many more through screenings of “Brave Miss World.”
Her second goal — to bring her attacker to trial — has taken a long time, and it is not yet over. The rape occurred near Milan, Italy, and Italian authorities dismissed her complaint. Eventually, Nur was tricked into returning to Israel, where he was tried, found guilty and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
However, after serving a brief part of his sentence, every six months Nur comes up for a parole hearing, during which the whole case is rehashed once again.
Despite all this, Abargil has created for herself a full, new life. After a short-lived marriage to a Lithuanian basketball player, a member of an Israeli team, Abargil is now married to an old boyfriend, with whom she has twins — one boy and one girl — and in late October of this year she gave birth to a second baby girl. That happy event kept her, among other things, from giving an interview for this article.
Professionally, Abargil went to law school and is now working as a lawyer for the Tel Aviv district attorney’s office.
Personally and spiritually, the onetime model and beauty queen has turned to a strict Orthodox lifestyle, including long, modest dresses and strict kosher observance.
Peck fervently hopes that many men will view the film and that their girlfriends or wives will bring them along.
“Women already know this story, it’s the men who are shocked,” Peck said. “Men must realize that rape changes the victim’s life forever, and fathers must teach their sons to respect women.”
The film’s executive producers are Lati Grobman, Irving Bauman, Christa Campbell, Regina Kulick Scully, Orna Raiz, Howard Rosenman and Geralyn Dreyfous. Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer scored the movie with Ben Harper and Martin Tillman.
“Brave Miss World” opens Nov. 15 at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino and Nov. 16 at the Monica in Santa Monica. Co-producers Cecilia Peck (director), Inbal Lessner (editor) and Motty Reif will participate in Q-and-A sessions following selected screenings. For details, visit www.bravemissworld.com.