In the span of just 13 minutes, the Oscar-shortlisted short documentary Hysterical Girl unpacks a lot.
The film directed by Kate Novack not only elucidates one of Sigmund Freud’s most famous case histories—on a suicidal teenage girl the psychoanalyst called “Dora”—but how Freud’s writing about her continues to impact our culture more than a century later.
“We have one foot in 1900,” Novack tells Deadline, “and we have one foot in 2020.”
The documentary draws a link between the Dora case and more recent examples of the reaction to women who have accused powerful men—Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and others—of sexual misconduct or assault.
Novack observes, “I think it then becomes really hard to argue, ‘Oh, no, that’s the case from the past, Freud isn’t relevant anymore, we’ve moved on.’”
As the film reveals, Dora had been sexually assaulted at age 13 by an adult male, a family friend. Dora’s parents dismissed her story as false, but Freud believed her. Crucially, though, he labeled Dora’s problem as “hysteria,” and informed his patient that the trauma she felt resulted from trying to repress sexual feelings aroused by her assault.
“This father figure [Freud], this authority figure, responded to her on the one hand by believing that this had occurred,” producer Andrew Rossi explains, “but by trying to convince her that there was some other reason that it took place, and that actually she ‘wanted’ it.”
Freud interpreted a dream Dora related to him as “a fantasy of forced seduction,” implying her actual sexual assault amounted to that.
“The [film] really is about this young sexual assault survivor having a voice,” Novack comments, “and about the legacy of Freud’s theories in helping to silence and shame survivors.”
Freud’s conclusions about Dora map onto the notorious 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Thomas, when Anita Hill testified he had sexually harassed her during an earlier phase in the jurist’s career. Hysterical Girl intersperses clips of the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee cross-examining Hill.
“I find the references to the alleged sexual harassment to be the product of fantasy,” Republican Senator Arlen Specter declares. Later in the documentary Specter intones, “Miss Hill was disappointed and frustrated that Mr. Thomas did not show any sexual interest in her.”
The film includes a rapid-fire succession of similar moments from recent American history—conservative commentator Ann Coulter dismissing Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford, Rush Limbaugh branding as a “slut” a woman who supported insurance coverage for contraceptives. In another brief clip, Paula Jones recounts her fear of accusing President Clinton of sexual harassment when he was governor of Arkansas. Whether it’s Jones, Hill or Ford, or innumerable other women, such claims have met with knee jerk skepticism.
We live, in a sense, in a world Freud shaped.
“He helped to bring systems of disbelieving women into the 20th, and then beyond into the 21st century,” Novack says. “The Dora case is sort of exhibit A in that trajectory. The Dora case tells that story most vividly in a way that really, sadly I think, lands somewhat seamlessly in the contemporary moment.”
The filmmakers cast a teenage actress, Tommy Vines, to play Dora. Instead of costuming her in turn-of-the-20th-century attire, she wears clothes of today, situating Dora not in the misty past but the present.
“Tommy was 16 at the time, the same age as Dora,” Rossi points out. “She seems to embody this youthful fragility, and the whole world is ahead of her.”
Dora, whose real name was Ida Bauer, went through 11 weeks of therapy with Freud, but then broke it off.
“Dora persisted in denying my interpretation,” Freud wrote, ascribing the young woman’s repeated rejection of sexual advances from her attacker to “jealousy and revenge.”
Hysterical Girl contains glimpses from films like Last Tango in Paris and Rosemary’s Baby —directed by men—to further illustrate the durability of narratives that purport to explain the psychology and motivations of women.
“It can be depressing how deeply embedded these ideas are. They’re so embedded that they can be invisible,” Novack observes. “I almost view Freudian thinking, especially around this issue, as like a religion—it’s there, but you don’t see it. And so I think that by calling it out and naming it, it can be an important part of the process. I hope that the film can contribute in that way.”
The documentary is part of the award-winning Op-Docs series of the New York Times. The newspaper shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for exposing the Harvey Weinstein scandal, reportage that set off a societal reckoning with sexual abuse of women by men in Hollywood and other industries.
“[The Times] played such an important role in breaking and really moving along and pushing it to be really an international story, the Weinstein story,” Novack notes. “For the film to exist on their site, it was a natural audience, and it really meant a lot to us personally to have it there.”
The final five Oscar nominees in the documentary shorts category will be announced Monday, March 15. In the meantime, Novack and Rossi are savoring the shortlist recognition.
“I hope that it will bring awareness to the film, and that more people will see it,” Novack tells Deadline. “It means a lot also that maybe some of the filmmaking [choices] resonated with people who are our peers.”
“To the extent that it is taking a position which is political, and that it’s taking some formal risks, or is not conventional, it’s really heartening to have this recognition of the film,” Rossi affirms. “If people can think about the issue of survivors coming forward and being disbelieved, and from this maybe reconsider some of the entrenched cultural norms, every effort to change that is tremendously important.”