City of Joy is a documentary directed by Madeleine Gavin; centered around pain, resilience, and the miraculous transformation of Congolese women.
Athena Film Festival is a four-day celebration of women’s leadership and empowerment through films, documentaries, and shorts. The festival and its featured films converse with women from all over the world concerning their plight and perseverance; and the art that is often found amidst even travesty. Barnard College, the battleground of the film festival, has a significant history of its own: the women’s liberal arts college was founded in 1889 as a rise against Columbia University’s exclusion of female students, eventually becoming affiliated with the institution in 1900.
City of Joy is the name of a community in Bukavu, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, that seeks to heal and empower survivors of rape violence. The film documents Congolese women as they speak of their individual traumas, many of which are immensely difficult just to listen to. One woman recounts her past when she was kidnapped and taken to a forest where she was raped and tied to a tree for two months, during which time she had become impregnated by the violation. The forest signifies danger and fear for many of these women. Her story does not end there but goes on to detail more unrepeatable atrocity. At the City of Joy, no one particular story is considered more traumatizing or significant than another; instead, each woman is encouraged to perform her story, dance, laugh, and begin a process of recovery through acknowledging each other’s shared sense of loss and anguish. The graduates of City of Joy then return to their own communities to become its very leaders—taking on responsibilities as educators and activists and passing on the knowledge and passion they had been fortunate enough to learn at City of Joy.
Christine Schuler Deschryver (or Mama C), who is the director of the community, explains why the center is called City of Joy despite it having been founded upon and surrounded by the pain of so many raped women. These women are not defined by the violence of their past, she says, but by their hope and resilience against such threats. Joy is not only what they deserve, but what they can actually achieve through this empowering community. You can see it in their steps and their voices. What makes City of Joy so fruitful are its leaders: Dr. Denis Mukwege, who has dedicated his life in helping injured women from sexual violence, Eve Ensler the ingenious artist/activist of The Vagina Monologue who herself had been raped and beaten by her father as a child, and the girls of the community who are transforming themselves into leaders everyday. The key to joy, the documentary asserts, is gratitude.
We attended a panel after the screening with the joyous women behind the film: Christine, Eve, and Madeleine. Their voices seemed to emit a palpable sense of passion and intelligence that touched upon the entire room.
What makes the film so accomplished is that you had to tell this story over a long period of time. Building a narrative and art from the beginning in addition to putting it in the complex context of the Congo—with what has and continues to go on there—how was that challenging as a filmmaker?
Madeleine: It was a challenge but an honor that these women and the girls at City of Joy and Dr. Mukwege trusted me to tell the incredibly important story about these unbelievably heroic people. I remember talking to Eve over dinner in the Congo one night, and I was telling her that I never really knew what the word “joy” meant until then. The joy I felt in the Congo through my experience was something raw, and deeper than anything I had ever felt here in this country. The deeper I got into the film, the deeper I felt a responsibility to tell this story. There are so many things I can talk about in terms of the structure because there were so many things I was dealing with—of the past and the present, with the context of the war. The challenge was to tell enough to give the context, but not to overwhelm the story with it. I wanted to tell a story that reflected the tones and the spirit of the people who are there; and that meant joy and hope despite the unbelievable pain.
Tell us about the music in the film.
Christine: There is one Ugandan [song], but the rest are all Congolese music. Some are pure Congolese songs; I was also given stems for lots of other songs from Congolese artists, which I was able to work with. With the help of two composers, we were able to separate the instruments to create music out of those Congolese stems.
Eve, you’ve spent so much of your life bringing attention to violence against women and girls in so many different places. But something about the Congo struck a different chord with you, and something about the story of the war and how it has been going on with nobody paying attention to it. Place that context for us against the work you’ve done and the work that needs to be done.
Eve: I was looking at Christine who was completely destroyed when I first met her, and now she is the fiercest leader in Congo, responsible for so many women who are themselves becoming leaders and powerhouses transforming the communities. Then I was thinking about the men in charge and how they’ve just gotten worse and worse. It’s amazing to see the story of Congo and the story of America—and how women are on the frontlines making the world better, and then power destroying, destroying, destroying, and destroying. I’m sorry but it’s true. Even recently, there was a secret memo from the “predator in chief,” I refuse to use his name and I urge you to do the same; but there was this secret memo that they are now going to let go of all the work that has been done in regulating conflict minerals. All the work that has been done over the last ten years so that conflict minerals would not be sold to war lords and these rapes will not continue is being let go so corporations can be served.
I guess what I feel about the Congo is that it’s a place that represents the story of the world. It’s this energy of insane capitalism, horrible racism, histories of colonialism played out on the bodies of women. That’s happening everywhere in the world. But the extremity of it in the Congo, the depth of brutality, the depth of absolute indifference of the world…How many times has Dr. Mukwege been to the UN, the EU, the U.S.; how many times do you have to say the same thing over and over again that thousands of women are being raped out of their minds just so people can have access to resources and the powerful and rich can be richer and richer and impoverish more and more people.
And tonight I got angry watching the movie. I’m sick of this world that we are living in. I’m sick of looking at how the most beautiful women in the world have to rise up and go back to their communities after their bodies have been eviscerated. Now more than ever, when there is such a predatory mindset in this country, where now we have a regime that is going to rape women, rape immigrants, rape laws, rape the Earth—we all have to get as radical and brave and outrageous as Mama C in the Congo.
What is happening at the City of Joy that makes it a particularly unique and special place?
Christine: It is about trusting these grassroots women and believing that the change will come from them, and not from the government. When the Congolese women were asked what they wanted, they didn’t want money; they just wanted to be empowered and be healed. They think it’s important to protect motherhood and the women of Congo.
We were lucky enough to be provided land; more than 300 acres, so we transformed pain into power by planting peace. After City of Joy, some girls work at the farm, and I really think the best healing is in Nature. People have to stop thinking that Earth belongs to us. We have to remember that we all belong to Mother Earth. There needs to be more places like City of Joy, where people can go in and be empowered.
Share us how we can be engaged with the City of Joy.
Christine: We do have a website: http://drc.vday.org/
You can donate and learn a lot about City of Joy.
Eve: We can also make sure that this president does not allow what has been earned and fought for the last ten years in the Congo for the conflict minerals to go backwards. We will be back at the beginning of war again if this happens. This is another thing we will be protesting everyday until the “predator in chief” is gone.