What Happens When Rape Is Used As A Weapon Of War

Photo: Courtesy of The Uncondemned
Witness JJ
Last week, Women for Women International hosted the UK premiere of a documentary about the horrific rapes that took place during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The director of the film, Michele Mitchell, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of what she saw and heard during her research. She and her co-director, Nick Louvel, decided not to include many of these stories “because I knew some day I’d be sitting next to these women in a movie theatre", Mitchell says, "and I didn’t want them to have to watch the worst moments of their life played out on a screen.” The UN estimated that up to half a million rapes took place during the 100 days of the genocide in Rwanda. As the country began to recover from the devastation, these violent rapes were brushed under the carpet because the carpet also had close to a million dead bodies on it, and the women who had been tortured and humiliated, often in public, were low on the country’s list of priorities – as low as the petty theft of a bag of beans, in fact. Titled The Uncondemned, the film tells the story of a group of passionate young American lawyers and activists who succeeded in prosecuting one of the men responsible: Jean-Paul Akayesu. In doing so, these lawyers, some of whom were in their first jobs, achieved the very first prosecution of rape as a crime of genocide, because a group of Rwandan women were brave enough to tell their stories in court. The case of Akayesu is now so renowned that it is taught in law school.
In every conflict throughout history, we hear rape referred to as a weapon of war, and dismissed as a by-product. A UN report published in January estimated that 3500 people, predominantly women, are currently imprisoned as sexual slaves by ISIS. This week the man who grabs women “by the pussy”, who has been accused of rape, was elected president of the United States. We spoke to the award-winning director Michele Mitchell – formerly a political anchor at CNN HLN and the investigative correspondent to Bill Moyers – about the pertinence of her film on the morning the world woke up to President Donald Trump.
How does it feel in America this morning? I feel like I’m in a nightmare. Yesterday [the day before the election results were announced] I was in New Orleans running at 6.30 in the morning on Bourbon Street, which at that time in the morning smells of vomit and despair, and I was wondering ‘is this what it’s going to feel like on the morning of November 9, like vomit and despair’ – that's what it feels like.

As a woman, and a woman journalist, and a woman who has made this film about gender violence, how do you feel about Trump’s election?

My first reaction was: Bring It. You [Trump] being elected does not excuse you from this behaviour that is both unacceptable and criminal. No person should take this result as ‘it’s ok to do these things’. I am very concerned that the people who are deploying sexual violence in conflict are going to feel enabled by this. And I have very little doubt in my mind that sexual violence in conflict is going to be very low on the list of priorities in the Trump administration. This is a man who long ago was kicked out of the Republican establishment – he hasn’t been around the quarters of power for a very long time for good reason, and he’s back? Oh my god. What’s interesting about the Republican campaign is that Donald Trump was almost like the wizard of Oz, when Toto pulls the screen back and he’s not this floating giant head but a man behind a curtain. I remember watching Donald Trump imitating the reporter with a disability and thinking ‘Oh my god. What are people telling their children right now?' Lots of people like to work for the White House and the president and the allure of what that means isn’t going to go away and remember, bullies love power. Trump has surrounded himself by people who are bullies, by any definition.

What women’s stories do you think will arise from this?

It will be very dangerous to back down from doing the kinds of stories, not just that I did with this film, but also that you’ve seen in the last few months where women have been speaking up and speaking out. Those stories have to keep coming and there’s more urgency than ever. We have to make sure that we in the media continue to cover gender violence, which is about all of humanity. We’re past the point of no return.

As an investigative journalist, you've worked on thousands of tough stories in war-torn countries – why did you choose this life? What motivates you?

I always wanted to be the great American novelist and my dad was like ‘well that’s great but you don’t have a trust fund', so I went into journalism and when I started working for Bill Moyers [former White House press secretary] I started to realise the power of the media and how telling a story visually could really move hearts and minds. You can make an intellectual argument with a film. Haiti: Where Did the Money Go? [Mitchell's first film] was definitely intellectual, it had an emotional resonance. But the leap from that to The Uncondemned was pretty broad. I’d never thought about making films, I just wanted to keep covering stories and writing books. And Haiti: Where Did the Money Go? actually started as a web series and one of my former colleagues said ‘oh you should make a documentary’ and I thought ‘oh how hard can that be?’ It’s very hard! But I didn’t know that and I made it and it won a lot of awards and all of a sudden people were like ‘oh you should make another’. It didn’t even occur to me to do another one until I was in LA in 2012, stuck in traffic on the 405 freeway and I heard this guy who was the GOP candidate for the US Senate in Missouri, Todd Akin, on the radio say that 'a woman couldn’t get pregnant through rape because she has a way to shut down her body.' And I just lost it. I knew I had to tell this story, and I knew it had to be rape and conflict because there is no ambiguity about what that is, no one will ever contest that and if they do they will be laughed at. What kind of story could I do that would move the needle and I thought, well, what if I told a story about what to do about it. And then I found the Akayesu story.
Photo: Courtesy of The Uncondemned
Michele Mitchell
It’s a very motivational film and you’re left with all this energy to do something about it but if you’re not a lawyer or a journalist or an investor – what can you do?

There are so many things you can do, starting with using the right words. Which is something you can do every day. Cultural shift starts with using the correct words and stopping using all others. It starts with: don’t call this a sex crime, it’s an act of power, torture, humiliation. We’ve seen some cultural movements which give you the road map – the gay movement is a wonderful example of how to eradicate certain words and change the language that you use, and it’s so important. There are lots of organisations in this space, like our partners Women for Women International UK, Equality Now, Global Citizen – they all have campaigns going on that you can participate in. The infrastructure is there. Having said that, one of the things we’ve tried really hard to do is to not have a specific call to action because fundamental change takes work and you have to decide how you want to spend your time; I would never be so arrogant as to say ‘this is how you should spend your time’ in the frame of a movie. Something that should be seriously discussed, especially as you’re in the UK, is all of the women refugees in camps coming out of conflict where we know there has been sexual violence. What emotional health services do they have on offer? That should be concerning to all of us.

There are a lot of horrific stories spoken about in the film, one in particular stayed with me about the girl who was repeatedly raped – and about the woman whose labia were cut off with scissors. Did you hesitate before including these details?

We had to make a lot of decisions about what violence to include and not include. There’s a reason why I had PTSD as a result of working on this film. I’ve seen horrible things – things that I wish I could burn out of my brain. But you never find out what happened to the three women who testify in the film, there are no specifics, and we did that on purpose because I knew that some day I’d be sitting next to them in a movie theatre and I didn’t want them to have to watch the worst moments of their life played out on a screen. I couldn’t imagine if that was the one thing the world knew about me. But we still had to have something in there that would allow the audience to fully grasp the horror of what happens – that there is no ambiguity about this. We’ve had people say to us several times that they are upsetting scenes – I remember reading those stories in the report and almost throwing up. We included those two stories because they give you just enough to fully understand what happens out there.

On a lighter note, I was struck by the humour in the film. You get these funny anecdotes from the lawyers and from the women who unite to tell their stories. It's also a gripping courtroom story. Why did you want to include the humour in it?

Firstly, because these women have a great sense of humour and, secondly, because that's what life is – it’s not all a steady drum beat and it’s not all bad all the time. Life has tragedy and comedy. Think about what happened in this film behind the scenes – the fact that my partner [the filmmaker Nick Louvel] died in a car accident which was so horrible and shocking – but at the same time, I think about all the funny things that happened making this film. Life has horrible moments and the way you survive is through humour; humour is a wonderful survival skill.

Screenings are taking place across the US in November and UK screenings will follow, check here for updates:

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