Ora DeKornfeld created Sensei, a short documentary about Brenda Mayfield, a Durham woman who became a martial arts teacher, or sensei, after being raped. We asked Ora to share with us her video and how it came to be. Watch the documentary and read more about Ora and Brenda below. (*Trigger warning)
The first time I spoke with Brenda was on the phone. I had seen her number listed on a flier advertising ‘No Nonsense Self Defense’ at Joe’s Diner in East Durham and decided to give her a call. Her voice was immediately familiar and warm. She was so open, telling me about her childhood in foster care, the violence in her neighborhood and how she uprooted her life in Boston to move to Durham seven years ago. She didn’t know me at all and yet she warmly agreed to help me when I proposed to make a documentary about her. Little did she know this documentary would practically mean living together for the next month.
I followed Brenda’s every move— we went everywhere together, anywhere from the Harris Teeter to buy microwave dinners when her oven broke to trick-or-treating around the neighborhood on Halloween. She quickly got used to the camera and learned to ignore me. Though our hangouts usually ended with Brenda saying, “Okay Ora, get out of my house,” as we spent more and more time together, we became friends.
When we sat down to interview, Brenda walked me through the night she was raped. Like many sexual assaults, she said her attacker was a friend. She had hung out with him several times. She trusted him. After that incident and repeated close encounters with violence in her neighborhood, she decided she needed a safer place to raise her two sons, Brandon, 21, and Malachi, 10. She moved to Durham, NC, seven years ago, where she sells Mary Kay, teaches martial arts to children, and works at a couple local enrichment programs. While she’s much happier in North Carolina, things are not easy. As a single parent, Brenda is struggling financially. Working four jobs rarely leaves her with any time to just exhale.
As I entered the editing phase of the project, I was confronted with several moral dilemmas. I wanted to make sure I was telling Brenda’s story in an honest way while sending the right message. In this piece, I sought to remind women that they are capable of defending themselves with a basic knowledge of self-defense without implying that it is somehow a woman’s fault when she is unable or chooses not to fight back. I tried to strike the right balance between promoting self-defense as an important tool while simultaneously absolving blame from the victim.
As I got deeper and deeper into the piece, I feared I was simplifying Brenda into a single story of ‘rape victim.’ I think it’s important that the video acknowledges and celebrates the many dimensions of Brenda: resilient survivor, driven entrepreneur, Yankee transplant, stern teacher, loving mother, and badass mac-n’-cheese maker. While I wasn’t able to incorporate all facets of Brenda’s personality, I was intentional about not boiling her down to a single story.
When I finished editing, I made plans with Brenda to show her the video before anyone else. I was nervous. I thought about backing out and just sending her the Vimeo link to watch on her own. I was afraid she’d be angry at how I’d portrayed her. We sat down on the plush brown couch in her living and I played the video for Brenda. I watched her as she watched the video, anxious to see how she’d react. When the video ended we sat there in silence. We both cried a little, and then we embraced.
“This is why God put me on this earth,” she said, one hand pointing towards the computer while the other wiped the tears from her eyes. “To tell this story.”
Brenda wants to share her story with as many people as possible. She hopes her story will help victims to heal and inspire change.
Ora DeKornfeld is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in Communications with a concentration in Media Studies & Production. Additionally, she is pursuing a double minor in Gender Studies and Social & Economic Justice. She is passionate about telling stories that explore the human experience and social change through photography, audio, and video.