SMALL SMALL THING , THE OLIVIA ZINNAH STORY
In December 2012, Olivia Zinnah, age 12, died of septic shock from a bowel obstruction. Her death was a result of complications from surgeries intended to repair the extensive injuries she sustained when she was raped at the age of seven. This is her story.
Small Small Thing begins at JFK Hospital in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, and urban center of this West African country. Olivia Zinnah is 9 years old, severely malnourished and handicapped. Her condition is life threatening. Believing her injuries to be the result of witchcraft, Olivia’s mother had been hiding her in their village for years.
The doctors conclude her condition is the result of a brutal rape that took place when Olivia was 7 years old. When pressured to reveal her rapist, Olivia names her cousin.
This diagnosis has severe consequences. Originally from deep in the Liberian jungle, Olivia and her mother are shunned from their tribe for seeking outside help. They are left stranded in Monrovia at the mercy of President Sirleaf’s government, facing the most difficult decision of all. What price are they willing to pay for justice?
“Looking into Olivia’s huge brown eyes, full of hope despite everything…There is no gore here, and no on-screen violence, but this is in every way a horror movie.”
– The NY Times
In January 2009, Director Jessica Vale was in Liberia directing a documentary about US surgeons in third world countries. Unable to leave the hospital without armed security, she ended up spending time in the fistula ward where she met 9 year old Olivia Zinnah who was admitted with severe injuries resulting from a rape. The visiting surgeons gave her a colostomy bag, ultimately saving her life. Jessica and her co-producer Barnie Jones were shocked as over the course of the next few weeks more children were admitted to the hospital with similar injuries. They began to investigate but ended up with more questions than answers.
Upon their return to New York, I joined the film team as a producer. Jessica and I returned to Liberia to further investigate Olivia’s case and figure out why girls as young as 2 were suffering such horrific violence. In July 2009, right before our departure, we discovered that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the UNFPA had ordered more surgery on Olivia and something had gone terribly wrong. Ann Marie and Peter Dottino, her original surgeons returned to Liberia to help.
Given that Monrovia was still unsafe, we enlisted the help of an under cover police officer and a local radio journalist on the ground. With a very limited budget, and donated camera gear, we spent six weeks conducting an extensive investigation into not only Olivia’s case, but into the legacy of violence left by 30 years of brutal civil war.
We traversed Monrovia interviewing various health and government officials, street prostitutes and former fighters. We returned to Olivia’s village, Todee, the scene of the original crime. Olivia and her mother Bindu had been ostracized from the village for naming the perpetrator and seeking outside medical help. We wanted to hear their side from the village elder. With the help of the UN we traveled even deeper into the bush to Vonjama, along the border of Guinea. There we met with traditional medicine men, tribal leaders and a former child war commander.
In 2011 CNN aired a segment about Olivia Zinnah. Although Olivia’s story was much bigger than just her, she, and her colostomy bag had become the face of the child rape crisis in Liberia. With the international attention, we launched a crowdfunding campaign to ultimately raise over $30,000 for post production and finishing from both the US and Liberian communities.
In January 2012 we discovered Olivia had recently been adopted by Dr. Wilhelmina Jallah, the head of the fistula ward at JFK hospital. Bindu had returned to her village with her other children and dropped all charges against the accused rapist, Olivia’s cousin John. Olivia’s colostomy had been reversed, and although the fistula had not entirely healed, she was happily attending school.
We finished the film in October grateful that Olivia seemed to have a brighter future ahead. But in December 2012, Olivia was rushed back to the hospital with a bowel obstruction. Dr Jallah was unable to get emergency surgery approved. A week later Olivia eventually got a new colostomy bag, but it was too late. She died a few days after the surgery from septic shock. Small Small Thing was re-edited in January 2013 to reflect the developments surrounding Olivia’s death. It was not the ending we had hoped for.
Small Small Thing went on to tour the world on the festival circuit winning over 11 international awards. We screened theatrically in NY, and sold a television version of the film to Al Jazeera’s witness. As part of the media tour we appeared on ABC News and the Melissa Harris Perry Show to raise awareness of this horrendous human rights issue.
FESTIVALS & AWARDS
Winner Best Documentary Feature, Montreal International Black Film Festival
Winner Best Documentary Feature, Kansas International Film Festival
Winner Best Documentary Feature, First Glance Film Festival - Philadelphia
Winner Best Human Rights Documentary, Baghdad International Film Festival
Winner Best International Documentary, Bronze Lens Film Festival of Atlanta
Winner Special Mention, Best Documentary Category, Dallas International Film Festival