A new PSA for Mariska Hargitay's nonprofit aims to end the rape kit backlog

Boutique agency Invisible Man teamed up with the Joyful Heart Foundation for the powerful spot.

When a rape victim comes forward in the aftermath of an assault, they have the option to have their body investigated as a crime scene. The resulting evidence is known as a rape kit, and it can be crucial for tracking down or prosecuting a perpetrator.

That is, if it’s ever analyzed: hundreds of thousands of these kits sit, untested, on shelves in police precincts and DNA labs across the country. There are no laws in most states mandating how soon they must be tested, or that they be tested at all. For the victims whose trauma the kits signify, justice can be hard to find. 

But it doesn’t have to be like this. This week, project-based agency Invisible Man debuted "Shelved," a new PSA on behalf of the Joyful Heart Foundation, founded by "Law & Order: SVU" lead actor Mariska Hargitay. The organization seeks to support sexual assault survivors and change the cultural conversation around assault—and right now, their target is those decaying tests. They want to clear out every last one of them. 

"The goal is to eradicate the backlog and make sure it doesn’t happen again," said Invisible Man founder and Rachel Howald. "It’s the most tangible thing you can point to around issues of sexual violence."


Stark and agonizingly slow-paced, "Shelved"—directed by Ellen Kuras, an indie filmmaker and cinematographer best known for her work on "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"—follows a woman sitting on a forklift that carries her through a warehouse full of people sitting silently on shelves. Each of them represents an untested rape kit—her fate as well. 

The cast is noticeably diverse; no two people look alike. That was very intentional, said Howald. "It had to reflect everybody—all ages, all genders." The contrast between the main character and her silent compatriots was intentional, too. "It had to reflect the kits that have been sitting on the shelves literally rotting away because they’re biological samples, as well as the kits that just went in," Howald said.

It also reflects, implicitly, the widespread effects of sexual assault: although the production decided against intentionally casting survivors, that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. "We knew we would have survivors by default, [since] this affects one in four women and one in six men," Howald pointed out.

Despite the heavy subject matter, the campaign was easy to produce. Howald had worked previously with Joyful Heart on their "No More" campaign, which enlisted celebrities to combat domestic violence. So when she heard the foundation next wanted to tackle the backlog, she did some research and, without even a brief, wrote a script—which was used, almost verbatim, for the final spot. 

Filming, too, proved unusually smooth. "I was amazed at how every person along the way said yes, from the director to the crew to the guy who let us use his warehouse for free," Howald said. "His workers spent hours, if not days, taking pallets off the shelves to clear them for us." 

As the campaign moves forward on social, with influencers and others spreading the word, Howald is hopeful that it will be a success. While even one untested rape kit is too many, the straightforwardness of the problem makes it simpler to solve.

"Most nonprofit missions are pretty amorphous, but this is literally a math problem: there are this many kits, and if we change certain legislation and dedicate a certain amount of funding, they will go away."

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