Cecilia Peck, left, and Linor Abargil in Princeton, N.J. (photo by Motty Reif)
Former Israeli beauty queen and international cover girl Linor Abargil is a sharply intelligent woman with a cause: survivors of rape. Empathetic yet unsentimental, highly visible but also private, Abargil is a uniquely complicated individual.
Those who have been directly or indirectly affected by rape will have a visceral, positive reaction to Abargil’s story, as depicted in the feature-length documentary Brave Miss World, which is now streaming on Netflix. While Cecilia Peck’s film suffers from a meandering structure, Abargil’s toughness and tenacity provide a steady source of inspiration.
Shortly after she was anointed Miss Israel in 1998, the 18-year-old Abargil went to Milan for some modeling jobs. Preparing to leave Italy and return home a few months later, she was raped by an Israeli travel agent who’d been recommended by her modeling agency.
Abargil escaped with her life by promising the assailant that she would never tell anyone, but quickly reported the crime to Italian and Israeli authorities. When he returned to Israel, he was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced. (The film marshals allegations that the perpetrator – an Egyptian Christian married to an Israeli woman – was a serial rapist and an ongoing danger to society.)
The film picks up Abargil’s saga many years later, after she’s begun a website (now based at bravemissworld.com/speak-out/share-your-story) for rape survivors to confide their experiences, as well as the ongoing effects of their trauma.
Brave Miss World follows the peripatetic Netanya native from Tel Aviv to Cleveland, Johannesburg, New York, Princeton, UC Santa Barbara and Beverly Hills, where she meets with rape survivors and speaks at charity luncheons. Supplying solace and strength as needed, Abargil offers in-person proof that it’s possible to heal from a sexual attack and lead a satisfying life of unapologetic self-expression.
It’s not always a smooth ride, of course, particularly when Abargil’s rapist is up for parole and she has to confront past events and ongoing fears. Her determination, along with her belief that the failure to prosecute more rapists is an injustice that contributes to the ongoing suffering of survivors, is truly inspiring.
Abargil is a strong-willed, self-confident woman, and it’s always interesting watching her interact with strangers. But the documentary lacks her courage, tiptoeing around anything that might make her less sympathetic and saddling her with dull voice-over narration devoid of the bite of her personality. The omission of any discussion of how young women are objectified in advertising and fashion photography is an especially curious oversight given both Abargil’s extensive career as a model and her outspoken nature.
Brave Miss World was shot over a period of time that encompasses Abargil’s enrolment in law school as well as her abrupt transition from secular to religious Jew, which flummoxes her ever-loyal parents and may unsettle some viewers.
Ultimately, Brave Miss World does a clumsy job of blending a character study with a social-issue documentary. It’s soft-centred, unlike its subject, and largely content to proffer good intentions and a parade of hugs instead of exploring the tangle of issues surrounding rape.
Abargil, however, is a pretty remarkable person who never stops pushing herself beyond the familiar and comfortable. She’s well worth getting to know.
Michael Fox is a San Francisco film critic and journalist.