Director of "An Army of Women" Julie Lunde Lillesaeter.

Director of “An Army of Women” Julie Lunde Lillesaeter.

Norwegian director Julie Lillesaeter has directed a documentary about 3 Austin (Texas) women attempting to seek justice for their rapes or sexual assaults. Ultimately, the 3—Amy, Marina, and Hanna—join 12 other women in a groundbreaking federal class-action lawsuit. It is the first lawsuit to argue that sexual assault isn’t prosecuted enough, primarily because it is a crime that predominantly affects women. The plaintiffs also made clear that they were frequently not believed, despite proof that one perpetrator went on to assault 5 other people after raping one of the victims.

Three, in particular are highlighted: including Mary Reyes and Marina Garrett. Lawyers Jennifer Ecklund and Elizabeth Myers charged, in the original 2018 lawsuit, violations of survivors’ Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

The women are shown addressing the Austin City Council about the failure to prosecute their cases in a timely fashion.  One of the women had been fighting for justice for 15 years, since 2008. Their rallying cry: “We’re here to force change in a system that seems to be incontrovertibly broken.”

At the time, Norwegian director Julie Lunde Lillesaeter was living in Austin. It was 2019. She told Sarah Marloff (Austin Chronicle) “I was really shocked. I was naively thinking that when assaults happen, there’s a system in place to handle it properly, and make sure it doesn’t happen again. :When I learned about the lawsuit, I realized the system is really failing spectacularly. And there doesn’t seem like anyone in charge wants to fix it.”


Lillesaeter felt the cause was worthwhile and that the David versus Goliath elements would spark European interest. She said, “I think it’s really hopeful, as serious as it is. It’s a sort of a story that show you can change systems. Even if it’s an Austin story, it feels very relevant no matter where you are.” The documentary has already sold in Germany, France and the Scandinavian countries.

Ultimately, the women persist and change the system, winning these concessions:

  • Enhanced training for police department and prosecutors.
  • Adding staff to the Austin Police Department sex crimes unit.
  • Notification of survivors about progress in ongoing cases.
  •  Creation of a soft interview room.
  • Releasing data to the public about cases involving sexual assault.
  • Survivor involvement in policy decisions.

Each plaintiff in the case got $75,000 with $100,000 toward legal fees, and $4,670,000 was assigned for policy improvements.

The women’s group also targeted then District Attorney Margaret Moore and helped elect current Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza (who is currently running for re-election.)


An Army of Women"

“An Army of Women” at SXSW highlights failures in the Austin, Texas, system for prosecuting sex offenders.

The film is slow-moving. It primarily takes place in courtrooms and the 84 minutes move very slowly. Since that is the point of the lawsuit, perhaps that is appropriate.

When one of the women, Marina, was awarded $20,000 after years of struggle in courtrooms, she seemed extremely excited about how much money she would be receiving. Marina’s story involved her drinking on 6th Street and being dragged into an alley and raped against her will. She said that the police did not believe her.

Even one of the lawyers said that she felt the amount ultimately awarded Marina was “pretty disappointing from a messaging standpoint,” despite the fact that Marina was exulting, saying, “I am so excited about the settlement.”

It seems clear that the Austin Police Department fell down on the job. The plaintiffs had high hopes that the new Travis County District Attorney (Jose Garza) would be a better listener and would do more in office to prosecute sexual assault than his female predecessor had done. (Recent ads during this primary election season run by Garza’s Republican opponents suggest failure(s) on Garza’s part in this department, but that would be standard operating procedure in elections.)

One of the plaintiffs (Hanna Senko) used a pseudonym at the outset of the film, calling herself Amy Smith, Victim #1. By the end of the film, she is willing to use her real name.  Her case involved being drugged and date-raped by a man she knew. Difficult to know what the reasoning was for initially concealing her true identity.  Marina Garrett, by contrast, began advocating for change back in 2016 when the city’s rape kit backlog made headlines. Several members of the Austin City Council also apologized to the women for how they had been not been believed and how long it had taken for justice to be achieved. Receiving an apology from the city was important to the women plaintiffs.


One reason the film seemed so long is that the subject matter is unwieldy. As Director Lillesaeter acknowledged, shaping the story into a concise narrative was a challenge. She said, “There’s so much more that could have been said…When you make a film like this, you have to make choices.”

It’s an important fight and it took too long a time for the long-suffering women to triumph, but the pace of this film also took too long a time.