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Note: This post may contain spoilers.

Jessica Vale’s Small Small Thing (2013) portrays the complex picture of rape in Liberia through the harrowing story of Olivia Zinnah, who was raped at age 7 by a family member and who developed a horrible fistula as a result. Vale skillfully balances this delicate story against the troubled history and war-ravaged society of Liberia.

In a brief segment, Small Small Thing explains some historical contexts of Liberia, from its founding by freed U.S. slaves in 1840 through the 23-year civil war to the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2006. The civil war brought women’s slavery, rape, and child soldiers, and Sirleaf’s efforts attempt to restore peace and rights for women in a country that operates on two systems: the government infrastructure and the bush one.

The first shots of Olivia show her shy, smiling, and laughing a little, which offers some hope but does little to offset the nightmare of her experiences. Olivia lives in a hospital and befriends another girl, Clara, who also suffered multiple rapes. Both are afraid to talk about what happened because of threats to their lives and because, most likely, they believe people will not believe them.

While Vale offers some narration and sometimes is heard just off camera, the documentary gives greater voice to the people of Liberia and their understandings of the rape culture there. Hospital staff and administrators work with the girls and their families to correct myths. The Gender-Based Violence Department seeks justice for them. Children and young adults living on the street share their experiences with rape and prostitution. A former military member describes the emasculation he feels at losing the power associated with his rank. A family living in the bush discusses Olivia, her mother, and their views of the situation at length.

Olivia’s story becomes her mother Bendu’s story as well. Bendu struggles with being shunned by her family for attempting to help Olivia and with trying to make a life in the city while she carries another baby. Ultimately, she leaves Olivia in the hospital and returns to her village after the child’s birth.

Olivia still finds some hope for the future in wanting to become a doctor and helping others, but she later dies from septic shock from a bowel obstruction after a surgery originally determined for when she was older.

Small Small Thing is a tough documentary to watch for its subject alone. I appreciated Vale’s limiting of the voiceover, which offers facts and background to move the documentary along but avoids editorializing the interviews and situtations. In doing so the complexity — and the horror, and even the slightest hope — for Olivia’s situation comes through despite her early death.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh is a documentary blogger and mass media professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.