(Trigger warning – references to rape and sexual violence throughout.)
Madeleine Gavin’s City of Joy provides a sensitive insight into the plight of Congolese women today, without reducing their stories to the usual, easy-to-sell emotional porn. Having achieved what countless others before her have (unsuccessfully) tried to do, I have no doubt that City of Joy is one of the most important films that I have seen to date.
As a kid, I grew up within a household that favoured a ‘glass half-full’ attitude towards life. Determined to always find even the slimmest silver lining in whatever life threw at us, my mum would always say, “as nice as they are, the easy bits won’t teach you anything new – the only way to grow is by getting through the tough bits”. The beauty of City of Joy lies in the way that the characters we meet embrace this ethos, and how aptly Gavin’s direction depicts this. Providing an honest account of the atrocities endured by women within the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo over the past couple of decades, Gavin does not intend to engender pity; instead, she celebrates the incredible (and often ignored) strength and resilience of these women.
‘City of Joy’ is the name of a refuge centre for victims of sexual violence within Congo. Founded by Dr. Denis Mukwege (a 2016 Nobel Peace Prize nominee), Christine Schuler Deschryver (an internationally-renowned human rights activist and Congolese woman), and Eve Ensler (author of the critically-acclaimed play, The Vagina Monologues), the centre was created as a result of Dr. Mukwege identifying a disturbing trend in the patients that were being admitted to his hospital. What initially seemed to be the occasional woman suffering from injuries, caused by seemingly random sexual violence, soon became an obvious misrecognition; in truth, women of all ages (including infants as young as six months old) were continously being admitted to Panzi Hospital following extreme physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the militia. Dr. Mukwege began to realise that rape had, in actual fact, become an established weapon of war within the war-torn streets of Congo.
Providing an honest account of the atrocities endured by women within the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo over the past couple of decades, Gavin does not intend to engender pity; instead, she celebrates the incredible (and often ignored) strength and resilience of these women.
Deschryver oversees the running of the City of Joy centre, and is a focal voice throughout the documentary. Disagreeing with the use of the word ‘rape’ in describing the experiences of the women residing at the refuge, she asserts that the repeated use of sex as a weapon of war can only be justly described as sexual terrorism. As Deschryver recounts the centre’s long and tumultuous journey since it was first established in the summer of 2011, she opens up about the emotional toll that working first-hand with the victims of these atrocities has taken on her. Passionately, she attempts to describe the anger and frustration that accompanies feeling so utterly powerless; whilst trying to help heal the victims continuously created as a product of this vicious ongoing cycle, she condemns the Western world for so easily ignoring these events just because they’re happening a little too far away.
Nonetheless, amidst all of the atrocities described, the ethos of the City of Joy centre remained clear throughout the film. Rather than condemning these women to be victims for the rest of their lives, the centre provides them with the tools to transform the pain that they’ve experienced into power. Via group discussions, self-defence workshops, dress-making and a mishmash of other activities, Dr. Mukwege encourages these women question their own sense of self, transforming the way that they view themselves (from followers, into leaders). Whilst intended only as a short-term interim between being released from hospital and rejoining the outside world, the centre hopes to have a sustainable, long-term impact upon the lives of its students. As their confidence grows, the students are able to begin addressing the trauma that they’ve experienced, whilst simultaneously redefining their place within Congolese society.
Disagreeing with the use of the word ‘rape’ in describing the experiences of the women residing at the refuge, she asserts that the repeated use of sex as a weapon of war can only be justly described as sexual terrorism.
City of Joy can be set apart from other documentaries dealing with similar subject matter, in that it makes every conceivable effort to honestly reflect the stories and personalities of the subjects. Rather than simply depicting the issues as she has seen them during her own visits (condensed and polished so as to be more easily digestible to a Western audience), Gavin ensures that the take-home message of the documentary is provided and reiterated by the subjects themselves. As such, City of Joy successfully avoids resorting to the use of stereotypes (not once does Jane Mukunilwa, one of the first students at the centre, fall into the trope of a weak, passive victim), nor does it make the ongoing situation seem inevitable or unchangeable. Gavin must be commended for ensuring that the film so sensitively carries the positivity that the organisation’s ethos encapsulates; put best by Eve Ensler in response to being questioned on whether ‘City of Joy’ is an apt name for a refuge centre for survivors of sexual violence – “these women don’t need to be unhappy forever”.
…put best by Eve Ensler in response to being questioned on whether ‘City of Joy’ is an apt name for a refuge centre for survivors of sexual violence – “these women don’t need to be unhappy forever”.
What struck me most about City of Joy was the empathetic way in which these women and their stories were depicted. Although they had endured horrors entirely unimaginable to the majority of the audience, Gavin presented the stories of these women with the intention of celebrating the immense strength and resilience that they bore in the face of extreme adversity. Light-years away from many of the previous attempts to document the events within Congo over recent years, Gavin’s City of Joy is an absolute must-see at this year’s Raindance Film Festival.
Image: Paula J. Allen