‘City of Joy’ director talks Netflix pickup, bringing Congo into global conversation

Despite our 24 hour news cycle, the war in and around the Congo has largely gone unreported in the major media. Yet the death and devastation continues, and for millions of women and girls, rape has been used as a weapon. The stigma towards victims of sexual violence and rape has made the healing process of these women all the more difficult. Which is why in 2011 Dr. Denis Mukwege (an ob/gyn treating many of these women), Christine Schuler Deschryver (a Congolese woman and advocate her fellow refugees), and Eve Ensler (playwright and feminist activist) founded City of Joy, a treatment center in the Congo to help women begin the difficult process of recovery in a protected space. Documentarian Jane Mukanilwa followed the first year’s “class” of women, documenting both their unthinkable stories of violence, as well as their remarkable steps made towards recovery at City of Joy.

Lesley Coffin: When did you learn of City of Joy?

Jane Mukanilwa: I had been creating web videos for a while. I’d met Eve Ensler years ago, when I’d written a script that she’d fallen in love with. And we’d fallen out of touch after a few years, but then one day she called me up. And she said to me, as I travel around the world, there’s often someone with a camera and I don’t know what is in this footage or what can be done with it. And she asked me to make web videos out of it. And I started getting footage from all over the world. In 2007, she was invited to the Congo and we received footage from that trip. And that was the first time I understood just what was going on in the Congo. I’d of course had a vague idea and knew of the genocide in Rwanda, but I didn’t realize that the Congo was on the border and that the violence was connected.

After hearing some of those stories of the violence that had occurred, and created three or four web pieces, I couldn’t believe the level of violence but also the palpable resilience of the women to live and find hope in their lives. I thought, if I’d been through the same thing, I think I’d just lie on the floor and never get back up. So after creating those three or four online videos, I learned that Dr. Mukwege and Christine were creating City of Joy. And that it came from the women who had been in these videos who were asked “What do you need?” and said, “We need a place to recover and heal that’s safe.” And so Dr. Mukwege, Christine and Eve came up with this idea and shortly after the concept was in place, I saw Eve in Los Angeles and said that it would make a good documentary. I wanted to follow the first class of women, and pretty quickly partners came on board and the money was raised overtime.

Lesley Coffin: In the film, I think it’s Christine who mentioned that she was a little suspicious or concerned about Eve coming because there had been well-known people who’d come to the Congo, but it seemed to be more concerned with their own PR and nothing came out of the pictures and footage they’d taken. Were you met with similar resistance?

Jane Mukanilwa: In the making of the film, I felt that I couldn’t hide Eve’s presence, I had to grapple with the reality of her presence there and the resistance Christine had to even meeting Eve, I had to explore that. Because Christine’s concerns were the exact questions audiences might have. Christine truly felt that way about the experiences she had had, where people came, took photos, and did nothing. But once she met Eve, she had a completely different experience and now they’re bonded like sisters. In terms of my presence there, when I started filming City of Joy was just being built. The class trusted Christine, Eve and Dr. Mukwege, so the women perceived me as someone they could trust, because I’d been brought in by them and with their blessing.

Lesley Coffin: Did you find women were willing to talk with you or was it a select few comfortable enough to sharing their personal stories on camera?

Jane Mukanilwa: The camera only caught some of their time at City of Joy and it was hard to show every step of their transformation. But there was definitely a transformation within them, owning their past and gaining confidence. And they needed that to tell their stories to the world. The stigma of rape in the Congo is so ingrained in their culture, there’s a lot of fear these women have that they’ll be ostracized or abandoned by their families. The psychological shift that has to occur to own their story, tell their story, get beyond their story, and imagine a future beyond their story are huge these women make. And some of them wanted to share their stories.

Lesley Coffin: I’m sure the film couldn’t capture all the activities and treatment which happen at City of Joy, and your film has a specific focus. What day to day events did you not capture or choose not to edit into the film?

Jane Mukanilwa: Therapy and storytelling is key, but there’s also a lot of vocational training. There’s agriculture and crafts. They teach women the laws so they know their own rights. They really try to have a mix of the practical and the artistic, they dance and exercise. There are over 1100 graduates and they are doing all sorts of things and have now created a community of women who want to transform their community. And that is the definition of City of Joy’s mission. They really believe that change comes when you start at the roots. City of Joy is distinct because they want change to start from within, they don’t want to ask for handouts and make their community dependent on outsiders.

Lesley Coffin: Has there been a lot of support in the surrounding community?

Jane Mukanilwa: There is. A lot of people work in and around City of Joy who live in the surrounding community. Dr. Mukwege’s hospital’s only a few blocks from City of Joy and there is a very strong relationship between the hospital and City of Joy. But just driving through the streets with Christine or Dr. Mukwege, you see the reactions people have to them, you drive for 45 minutes and they are waving at everyone, literally tens of thousands of people. They are known for the work they’ve done.

Lesley Coffin: Has City of Joy and Dr. Mukwege’s hospital improved the cultural-social understanding about rape and removed some of the stigma that exists for women in the Congo?

Jane Mukanilwa: The girls and women in City of Joy still feel that shame of having been ostracized. Some have been kicked out of their families and villages. It’s still present, but little by little we are seeing change. And as women have gone back into their communities, they are working and educating others. There’s so much to do, but the grassroots effort is making a big difference. As Dr. Mukwege explained, our way of thinking has to change because we want these girls to become leaders within the community.

Lesley Coffin: Were you concerned with how the film balanced the stories of these women’s trauma and the story of how City of Joy was started by Christine and Dr. Mukwege?

Jane Mukanilwa: It was a huge issue and not just the balance of subjects but the mood. We had to capture how divesting these experiences were, while still capturing the incredible highs and joy these women found. The laughter at City of Joy is an incredible thing to see. And then we asked, how much history do we needed to include. How much do people really know about Congo and the War. You could easily make a feature film about just the war. But like you said, the question is how to focus on both the three founders and the girls going through this transformation. And getting to know Christine and Dr. Mukwege, they grew up in Congo and have their own history fighting what’s been going on. Their stories aren’t the same as the girls’ stories, but they also resonate. I did want the girls’ stories to ultimately create the spine of the film. Dr. Mukwege and Christine’s stories happened before we started shooting. But one of the things that moved me about these three founders was the fierce devotion they have to each other and to the girls. Christine and Dr. Mukwege could live elsewhere, but they won’t leave. They love this country and want to see it change.

Lesley Coffin: They say in the film they aren’t looking for donations, they aren’t looking for outsiders to come in. But what is the call to action you want to see this film create.

Jane Mukanilwa: First of all, Congo’s never in the news. More than eight million people have been killed in the past 22 years. Millions of women who’ve been raped and tortured. We need to bring more attention to that, we need to bring Congo into the global conversation. We were lucky to be picked up by Netflix for global distribution and will be in 190 countries. That is amazing and will make a huge difference in terms of raising awareness. But I hope this will also help the international conversation regarding the shame about rape. Congo’s not the only place where societies shame women who’ve been through that trauma. The whole concept of City of Joy is grass roots efforts create change. And there’s no reason there can be only one City of Joy. There has been a call to start more City of Joys in other countries, I can’t think of country that wouldn’t benefit from having something like it. But within Congo, there can also be smaller City of Joys in more remote areas. And in terms of conflict minerals, being aware of the companies we’re giving our money to. And yes, we need to talk about politics, who we have in the White House, asking ourselves what they support.

© Lesley Coffin (9/14/18) FF2 Media

Photos: City of Joy (IMDb)

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