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shock attack Writer who survived horror rape in Belfast to bring her story to the big screen

Winnie M Li was viciously beaten and raped by a 15-year-old boy in a notorious assault in Colin Glen Forest Park in 2008.

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 Winnie M Li

Winnie M Li

Winnie M Li

Rape survivor Winnie M Li is bringing the story of her attack in Belfast to the big screen.

The writer was viciously beaten and raped by a 15-year-old boy in a notorious assault in Colin Glen Forest Park in 2008.

Winnie says the incident changed the course of her life and ended her career as a film producer, working with actors including Daniel Craig.

Writing her novel Dark Chapter, a fictionalised account of the rape told from the woman and the perpetrator’s viewpoint, helped her recovery and she’s now developing a film script from the book.

She’ll be sharing her story and helping other victims and survivors at an online workshop this week, organised by Nexus and her Clear Lines festival.

But the 42-year-old says no one should feel they have to go public.

“I don’t want other victims to say that’s something they have to do,” says Winnie.

“My rape was so widely reported on the day of the assault. A very personal and private trauma was spoken about very publicly.

“I thought how come I’m not being given the chance to speak. There was an automatic assumption I’m going to live the rest of my life in shame. I felt if anyone was going to speak about this it should be me.”

American Winnie, a Harvard graduate who had studied at University College Cork, was in Belfast for a reunion on the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement when she was approached by Edward Connors as she walked in the west Belfast park. He asked for directions and then brutally beat and raped her.

In 2009 he pleaded guilty to the violent attack and was sentenced to eight years. He served four years and has since violated his probation on multiple occasions.

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It was reported at the time that Winnie had 39 separate injuries, but she says the psychological impact was worse.

“I was very traumatised. I had flashbacks, panic attacks, agoraphobia.”

The decision to write a novel about the rape helped to make some sense of it.

And the funding from NI Screen to develop a film script from the book has set her career back on its original path. Winnie had attended the Academy Awards in 2006 as the producer on an Oscar-nominated short film and was a producer on 2008 movie Flashbacks of a Fool with Daniel Craig.

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 Winnie M Li

Winnie M Li

Winnie M Li

She plans to keep the rapist’s viewpoint in the movie version, which is at an early stage.

“For me that’s vital to what the work is about.

“In Dark Chapter I was trying to make sense of his actions, which are almost impossible to make sense of – to see a stranger and beat them up and rape them.

“Someone made this decision, without putting much thought into it and caused me a lot of pain and anguish and suffering and changed the course of my life.

“I wanted to explore this and understand the person and the upbringing and use my imagination to make sense of those things and render the situation understandable.

“When I finished the novel, I felt more at peace. I no longer needed to be spending years of my life thinking about this.”

The script is in development and with her experience in films Winnie knows that it could take years to hit the big screen.

“I never expected this as a way to re-enter the film industry.

“I thought my life was over. I never expected a year after my assault to still be coming to Northern Ireland, or to have found a community there, to have a book published, to be a mother.

“But 13 years on I have been able to grow and develop a rewarding and healthy life.”

She set up Clear Lines in 2015, focusing on sexual abuse and consent, and was due to bring it to Belfast last year but the event was cancelled due to Covid. This week’s online event with Nexus, Northern Ireland’s specialist sexual counselling charity, is a first for Northern Ireland.

With the backing of Arts Council funding, it will include writers who have found healing from sexual violence through writing.

“For me it’s really important to showcase the work that other writers have done,” says Winnie.

“There are ways of recovery and there is no shame in telling your story and saying this is something that has impeded your life.”

Winnie, who is now settled in England with her partner and their young son, also took part in the Gillen Review, set up following the Ulster rugby rape trial to look at how cases are conducted and victims are treated.

She believes that sexual crimes against women are still hugely underestimated and underreported.

The author and activist has combined that theme with her insider knowledge of the film industry in her second novel, Complicit, inspired by the #MeToo movement. It grew out of multiple rape claims against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and led his to spectacular fall and 23-year jail sentence.

“I did meet Harvey Weinstein in 2006 at a pre-Oscars party. It was a completely unspectacular encounter but when I heard the news about him, I wasn’t surprised. It’s an industry that enables people like him,” says Winnie.

*To register for the free online event, hosted by Nexus on Thursday May 20 at 5pm go to: www.nexusni.org/literary-event

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