There’s no rosy nostalgia to the wedding photos featured in Knots: A Forced Marriage Story, a 75-minute documentary written and directed by Kate Ryan Brewer that calls attention to the disturbingly few barriers against coerced marriage in the US. In succinct and gnawing first-person interviews, three women detail how intense parental pressure, teenage gullibility and isolation forced them into marriage with people they barely knew. There’s Nina van Harn, raised in the fundamentalist Christian patriarchy movement in rural western Michigan and married at 19 to a man selected by her father; Sara Tasneem, married at 15 to a 28-year-old stranger by her father; and Fraidy Reiss, paired by an Orthodox Jewish matchmaker in Brooklyn at 19.
Along with the three women’s personal testimonies of coercion, confusion, shattered breaking points and eventual escape (all through arduous divorce proceedings), Knots weaves in bits of legal and historical context for a deeply troubling portrait of archaic marriage laws in the US. As the film points out, 48 states allow marriage for those under 18 through various exceptions, while 13 states have no age minimums for marriage at all.
It’s a bleak picture, enhanced by Miriam Mayer’s spare, ominous score and recurring shots of a stirring dance performance by Bella Waru. Both gesture to the desperation, fear and anguish felt by the narrators, especially in regards to sexual trauma, which is referred to openly but not discussed in great detail. The spectre of coerced consummation is harrowing enough; Sara, at 15, was so unaware of what marriage entailed that she remembers asking her adult escorts to the wedding where she’d be sleeping that night.
Knots is a straightforward advocacy film, and that’s fine: you don’t need cinematic bells and whistles to marvel at the women’s astounding resilience, or writhe at the gaslighting lines about honour, duty, and respect they were fed for years. There’s little faith to be found in the US political system, which has been slow to enact child marriage protections, but Knots offers three testaments to the human spirit, and the ability to start anew.
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