Duhozanye: A Rwandan Village of Widows. Directed by Karoline Frogner. New York: Women Make Movies, 2011. 52 minutes.

Grace, Milly, Lucy… Child Soldiers. Directed by Raymonde Provencher. Montreal: National Film Board of Canada, 2010. 72 minutes

Reviewed by Amina Mama

The two films reviewed here, Duhozanye: A Rwandan Village of Widows and Grace, Milly, Lucy… Child Soldiers, explore the gendered and racialized politics of war. Depicting military practices and the ways in which communities recover from violence, these films demonstrate how girls and women experience wartime in ways that are distinct from men. By highlighting the experiences of individual women, viewers get both an intimate portrait of human suffering and strength as well as an understanding of how the traces of war linger.

Duhozanye translates to “let’s comfort each other” in English, and it is also the name of a women’s association that brings together both Hutu and Tutsi widows previously married to Tutsi men murdered in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Together they work to live on after being subjected to unimaginable atrocities and to support one another to reclaim themselves from the carnage they have survived. One of them states: “I am grateful to these widows. Together we have become this society.” Karoline Frogner’s film, Duhozanye, pays tribute to the endurance of women and their coming together to support each other and build a community—the “village of widows,” as the film’s subtitle indicates. The women of Duhozanye rebuild their lives, earning the respect of the surrounding community. We are told, “the widows are heroes. They manage to carry on even with all the terrors they have survived. They have not taken revenge and fought with their neighbors.” 

Daphrose Mukarutamu’s story frames the film. She tells us how she lost eight of her children, of the grief that led her to contemplate suicide. The discovery of a surviving child compelled her to live on and to found Duhozanye. Shot more than a decade after the genocide, Duhozanye teaches us about the horrors that have been endured, as the long-term effects on the bodies and souls of women are narrated in intimate, gut-wrenching detail. As woman after woman is filmed, viewers may be divested of the illusion that individuals can fully “heal” after such extreme damage to their bodies and lives. It is by coming together that they find the will to continue to live, to create new livelihoods and thus re-establish some semblance of dignity among themselves.

Rwandan men clearly did not attract much sympathy from the directors, and viewers are afforded little insight. Nor is the complexity of the gendered features of violence explored: Rwandan men’s brutality is depicted as without conscience, thus leaving room for nothing other than horror. In the film we see them disavowing responsibility for their actions, refusing to accept wrongdoing or apologize during scenes in which Daphrose Mukarutamu gives moving testimony before the local Gacaca Court. The young man who killed her husband and son hangs his head to evade her questions: “How do you feel about what you did? How can you live with it?” He blames the “evil” that took over, apparently preferring to remain unforgiven than to confess, even though this earns him a lengthier prison sentence than his accomplice who confesses. Even when men are unloading water supplies for the village of women, the narrator cannot help wondering aloud if they too were part of the genocide. Frogner seems to find herself compelled—somewhat redundantly—to add her pathos-filled, obviously foreign voice alongside the widows’ horribly detailed firsthand accounts of the more merciless atrocities.

The heavy reliance on testimonies of death, rape, and brutality makes dismal viewing. Teachers need to ask what students can learn beyond viewing brutality and the endurance of people to merely survive in places, which they may already associate with the “heart of darkness.” At the very least educators should be encouraged to contextualize the material by providing other historical examples of genocide and considering the responses of different governments and the broader international community. To this end, I recommend using Genocide Archive Rwanda, the PBS teaching guide for the film Ghosts of Rwanda, and the Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences.1

Grace, Milly, Lucy… Child Soldiers tells the stories of three Ugandan women, following their experiences of being captured and forced to fight, kill, plunder, and serve as wives of men in the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army. Opening scenes show stunningly beautiful landscapes that contrast with the women’s narratives, each revealing different horror stories. Distinguishing this film from others about Uganda is the exploration of how each woman responds differently to the terror of capture, skillfully demonstrating what it meant for them to carry out atrocities and to be forced to become “wives” and bear children for their captors.

Grace Akallo’s story is given prominence, as she translates her seven months in captivity into a story of hope. Now an internationally traveled speaker, she founded the NGO United Africans for Women and Children’s Rights, before getting married and earning acceptance to a liberal arts college in the United States.  “Co-wives” Milly Auma and Lucy were both captured at age nine. After being held for more than a decade, Milly has remained in her rural community (as did Lucy) and has successfully found a new life, turning to local NGO work, as one of four who founded Empowering Hands, which offers counseling and support to other child soldiers and displaced people.

These stories contrast with Lucy’s. After her abduction, Lucy spent eight years as a soldier and perpetrated horrors that she still dare not tell her mother of. Promoted to Lance Corporal—possibly the only status she has ever enjoyed—Lucy earned notoriety for her ill treatment of new recruits, something that remains a factor in a post-war life tormented by horrors that local healers cannot exorcise.

Grace, Milly, Lucy… offers deep insights into the lives of resilient young women, and thus is a powerful teaching resource. The main message is that survivors do not always heal, as Lucy’s story shows, but solace can be found in working to help others and exposing the atrocities to the international community. Teachers might usefully encourage questioning as to why—as shown in almost all the documentaries on Africa’s catastrophes—survivors are largely left to rely on self-help. It is also important to teach such footage in a manner that provokes questions about longer-term security and economic development in contexts where divestment of public services in poorer nations has reduced the role of government to highly problematic provision of security services.  The message that salvation lies in self-help NGO activity leaves aside questions of context and accountability. Yet how can NGOs begin to address the deeper systemic challenges of underdevelopment, poverty, and insecurity that might prevent and forestall brutal long term conflicts and the damage they cause? In addition to drawing from United Nations documents such as the Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, the website for the International Women’s Cross-Cultural Exchange might usefully accompany this film.

1UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences, by Rashida Manjoo, A/HRC/26/38 (Geneva: UN Human Rights Council, 2014).

Amina Mama is professor of gender and women's studies at University of California Davis, and serves as editor of Africa's open-access gender studies journal, Feminist Africa (feministafrica.org).