When she was 18 and holding the title Miss Israel, Linor Abargil was crowned Miss World in 1998. But this beauty queen had a horrific story: Just six weeks before, she had been held captive, stabbed repeatedly and brutally raped by her Israeli-born travel agent on her way home from a modeling assignment in Italy.
Ten years later, Abargil enrolled in law school and decided it was time to speak out in the hope of helping other women.
A new documentary, "Brave Miss World," directed and co-produced by Cecilia Peck, chronicles Abargil's remarkable journey as an activist. The film opens for Oscar qualification Friday at the Laemmle Town Center in Encino and the Laemmle Monica.
Filmed over several years, "Brave Miss World" follows Abargil as she travels to the U.S., Europe and South Africa to give speeches and meet with women and men who have been raped. Among the women she reaches out to are actresses Joan Collins and Fran Drescher, who both survived horrific rapes.
"Brave Miss World" also explores her relationship with her parents, her marriage and decision to become an Orthodox Jew.
Her rapist, Uri Shlomo Nur, will be released in 2014, after having served his 16-year prison sentence.
Peck, the daughter of the Oscar-winning actor Gregory Peck, is a former actress. She was one of the producers of the 1999 TCM and "American Masters" documentary on her father, "A Conversation With Gregory Peck," and co-directed with Oscar winner Barbara Kopple the 2006 Dixie Chicks documentary "Shut Up & Sing."
She recently discussed "Brave Miss World" on the phone from her home in Los Angeles.
How did you get involved with the project?
She found me.
She always thought it was her destiny to speak out against rape. She was the victim of this horrendous crime and won the Miss World crown within six weeks. She underwent this very difficult public trial during her year as Miss World. She was only 18, but she fought to put this serial rapist in prison. When he was convicted, she made one statement in Israel. She said to all the women in Israel, "If this happened to you don't be afraid to report it. If I can do it, you can do it." The incidents of reports rose dramatically in the next year and several laws were enacted in Israel.
She always wanted to [speak out] on an even bigger scale, but it took her a long time to heal. She came to the States looking for a filmmaker who would come with her. That's when 'Shut Up & Sing' was screening. She saw it and said, "She is who I want."
What was your first experience meeting her?
She was so riveting in person and unashamed to talk about what happened. She said, "Why should I be ashamed? The fault is not mine." She wanted to lift the burden of shame. Also, the way she talked about her mother and what her mother had done for her. That night [of the rape], she called her mother, who said, "Linor, don't take a shower, go the hospital. It's not your fault. I am going to help you." She said that changed the rest of her life. If her mom had made her feel ashamed, she would have buried it.
But her mother, father, friends and fiance were concerned when she started to speak out how reliving that horrendous attack would affect her.
They were worried, but again that is Linor's courage in being willing to put her own stability at risk to make a difference that was so inspiring.
She also makes quite a transformation over the years spiritually by becoming a devout Orthodox Jew. Do you think embracing her religion was also a way of dealing with what had happened to her?
Observing her over the years, that is the conclusion I would draw. It seems like she really turned toward it as a source of strength once she realized how traumatic this outreach work was. When I met her she was the most gorgeous, glamorous supermodel you have ever seen, and by the end she is a very different person. She would say until you find religion or whatever that we are all lost. She has found a deeper meaning to life, so I don't know if she would connect it with her need of strength.
Many of the women you interview in the film have never discussed their rape before. Was it difficult to get them to talk?
For so many of the girls and women in the film, meeting Linor really gave them the courage to speak out. For many of them it was part of a healing process to realize they didn't have to keep a secret inside and speaking out on camera may be a help to other girls and women.
Abargil got married in 2010 and had twins last year. What is she doing now?
She is practicing law at the district attorney's office in Tel Aviv. She is also continuing to speak publicly about rape throughout Israel. She has become a very powerful, outspoken activist and advocate for women.
"Brave Miss World" is opening at Laemmle Town Center and Laemmle Monica. Are you looking for a distributor?
We have two incredible broadcast offers. We have thousands of requests from high schools and colleges to screen it. We have set up an educational screening series starting in January in collaboration with Know Your IX, the coalition of students who have been raped on college campuses.