Almost seven years after democratically electing its first president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, both sides of the decades long Liberia civil war still bare emotional and physical scars. The hardest hit by the horrendous violence were women and girls as young as infants through sexual assault. More over, rape is still the most reported crime in the country. There isn’t a piece of work which illustrates this horrific reality more than Jessica Vale’s haunting documentary Small Small Thing.
Centered around the beautiful and bubbly personality of twelve-year-old Olivia Zinnah, that childlike wonder has a dark contrast when first introduced to her. She’s frail, suffering a swollen stomach due to malnutrition and can even feel the sensation of self-defecation. The pretense of male doctors of JFK Hospital in Liberian capitol Monrovia scares Olivia to the point of shrieking. Once examined, it is revealed that she suffers from a severe fistula or abnormal connection between her rectum and vagina. Oliva’s condition is revealed to be the result of a rape taking place when she was seven years of age by her cousin. This where Small Small Thing’s objective becomes clear in displaying the socio economical, political and religious factors that make sexual assault a disturbing norm in the country formed by former United States slaves.
Feeling that added complication is also Olivia’s mother Bendu who kept her daughter hidden for two years due to associating the rape inflected sickness to some form of curse. Following the rape acquisition, both are exiled from their nearby tribe as Olivia’s father also refuses to testify. Like many women who speak out against the injustice, both are seemingly stuck without any real support. The situation get more complicated as Bendu becomes pregnant by a husband who has just abandoned her.
Some of Small Small Thing more insightful scenes are the interviews Vale conducts with men who detail the intimidation method of rape as child soldiers during the civil war which left around half-a-million dead. These moments lend a context for men who use a cowardly act to mask a bleak life of no opportunities and psychological brokenness.
Though Olivia would later die following bowel obstruction surgery at age 14, she would becoming an unlikely spokesperson for the atrocities affecting the nation. The United Nations would use her story to push for president Sirleaf in curbing violence against women. For a nation with a female president, Small Small Thing makes a point in the oxymoron in a leader who ran with a platform of fighting for women. All hope isn’t lost. Some very progressive Liberian women have opened a compound for girls like Olivia to receive an education. Olivia may not have realized her dream of becoming a doctor but she has done more than enough to help heal a suffering minority.
Small Small Thing may not provide the answers to all of the country’s problems in regards to sexual assault. That’s fine as it has one brave little girl’s story and knowledge of brave people working overtime to end the evil practice.