Pushing the Elephant. Directed by Beth Davenport and Elizabeth Mandel. New York: Women Make Movies, 2010. 83 minutes.

Fighting the Silence. Directed by Ilse van Velzen and Femke van Velzen. New York: Women Make Movies, 2007. 53 minutes.

Weapon of War. Directed by Ilse van Velzen and Femke van Velzen. New York: Women Make Movies, 2009. 59 minutes.

Reviewed by Ngwarsungu Chiwengo

A historian, according to Haydan White, creates stories by using literary genres and by arranging and choosing to include and exclude events in a given manner to answer the questions: what happened, when, how and why?1 The three documentaries, Pushing the Elephant, Fighting the Silence, and Weapon of War, are fashioned in a similar manner through their use of expository and observational documentary and other filmic techniques. Documentaries present the reality of what happened, but the re-presentation entails transformation of what no longer is present, and, thus, mirrors the filmmaker’s perspective of the events. To best understand stories of genocide and violence, it is, hence, imperative that students be given insights on how movies produce meaning.

Pushing the Elephant, directed by Beth Davenport and Elizabeth Mandel, is a moving story about the tribulations and reunification of a Muyamulenge mother, Rose Mapendo, and her daughter, Nangabire in the United States. The point of view at the beginning of the documentary encourages the viewer to embrace Mapendo’s mobility, affluence, and freedom in the United States, for the film unfolds with Mapendo driving a car and reminiscing about the past when President Laurent Desire Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) ordered the killings of all Tutsis. This genocidal act was unexpected because the Tutsi people were born in the Congo and considered themselves Congolese (even though birth does not confer citizenship in this country).

This expository documentary affirms the authority of Mapendo through the authenticating humanitarian award she is granted; the numerous speeches she presents at the United Nations as well as in Geneva, Nairobi, and Uvira; fundraisers she has organized; and pictures of her activities. This authority is, once again, reinforced by the historical background provided in the film, the centrality of the Banyamulenge within Congolese conflicts, and her experience of genocide and its impact, so there is no reason to doubt what she has “seen,” but the documentary raises numerous questions, nonetheless.

Mapendo advocates for peace and speaks for all refugees against female abuse and genocide, yet the filmic narrative focuses primarily on the Tutsi violence implicitly tied to that of Rwanda. When she travels to the “dangerous” Congo, she visits only the Gatumba cemetery, where 160 Banyamulenge have been interred. Additionally, while she meets with women in Uvira who take pride in her concern for the Banyamulenge, Mapendo never converses with other Congolese women who were traumatized and raped, such as those from the Babembe, Bavira, and Bafulero ethnic groups. It is also notable that Mapendo almost never speaks in Kiswahili, the most common vernacular of eastern Congo, to address the majority of her eastern Congolese counterparts. Additionally, Mapendo intriguingly cites President Joseph Kabila, considered to be an illegitimate Congolese, as the man who enables her to escape death in Congo, which further contextualizes the perspective she presents about the genocide.

The cinematic technique juxtaposing unkempt and foodless African cities with developed American landscapes creates the Congo as a place of horror and America as peaceful and nurturing, despite the dignified representation of African characters. This imagery delineates the ascent of Mapendo into wellbeing and wealth and reinforces Africa as backward and savage. Therefore, to fill in some of the gaps in this narrative I suggest accompanying the film with Beatrice Umutesi’s Surviving the Slaughter: The Ordeal of a Rwandan Refugee in Zaire and in the United Nations’ DC: Mapping Human Rights Violations. 1993-2004, which adds complexity to Congolese massacres and the Hutu genocide.2

Ilse and Femke Velzen’s Fighting the Silence (2007) was produced the same year as Lisa Jackson’s The Greatest Silence, which is also about sexual violence and genocide in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but Jackson’s film was better publicized.3 The expository narrative point of view in Fighting the Silence begins with a radio broadcast in Kiswahili about how women of Congo and Fizi live in problematic environments, preventing them from speaking about rape. It encompasses several voices of interviewees, including girls and women who experienced sexual violence, spouses of survivors, and activists. While the women speak of the horror of rape, one of the spouses blames his wife for being assaulted and speaks of the impossibility of being married to a woman who betrayed him and of sharing his spouse with a Murundi, meaning a person from Rwanda/Burundi.

These rapes are not Congo specific but importations from foreign countries; a Congolese military official contends three times that the atrocious and maiming rapes did not exist in Congo but were introduced by three countries: Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda. The claims about foreign rapes, however, are never proven because of the absence of interview confirmations by the rapists from these foreign groups. Rape, however, is resolutely confirmed by Congolese men who have raped their wives and by the Congolese Lingala- and Kiswahili-speaking soldiers expounding on the rapes they have committed out of lust. The film only hastily expresses the complexity of this sexual violence against women by proclaiming men, too, have been raped. Despite the “contrasting views on rape” given by the film, it invalidates foreign rapes and instead gives the message that the only reprehensible and actual rapes are those committed by the male Congolese rebel soldiers and civilians.

The last film, Weapon of War, by Ilse and Femke Van Velzen unfolds at night with a soldier stating in Kiswahili, “If you want to have sex with a woman, then you cannot control yourself any longer and you look for one immediately. When we rape girls, we grab them and stuff a piece of cloth in their mouth, so they cannot scream. Others hold her down so that nobody hears anything. When you’re done, it’s the next guy’s turn. When everyone’s done, we leave.” This statement is followed by a view of the landscape of eastern Congo, historical background about the numerous Congo wars since 1996, the numbers of soldiers and combatants serving in them, and the more than 150,000 raped women and girls.

To assert its authority and legitimacy, this observational documentary uses a wide range of interview testimonies from people such as the ex-soldier Kashara, troubled by the immoral rape he committed; the woman Keshara raped; Taylor, a soldier of Nkunda Batware (Nkunda was a general in the DRC’s military); the mother of a soldier, Jeanne Kashafu; the woman who is coerced into a marriage by chaplain and ex-captain Basima (also in the DRC’s military); a Mai-Mai soldier, Kasereka; and, foremost, of Basima, around whom the majority of the events evolve.

The film adeptly conveys the trauma of the eastern Congo population, the soldiers’ attitude towards women and rape, and Basima’s own history of being a brutal rapist and wife beater. Even though the film has a positive resolution, it remains fragile. Kashara, the ex-soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, obtains forgiveness from the woman he raped when he gifts her a piglet, but without additional context, a foreign spectator might not comprehend that gift giving is a means of restituting the vital force of the woman and thus is not a purely altruistic move. However, again, the complexity of sexual violence and genocide remains elusive. One of the soldiers in Laurent Nkunda’s group fighting to prevent Banyamulenge genocide and to work toward democracy claims the hierarchy encourages soldiers to rape women, but his statement is not given enough attention in the film. Moreover, the documentary ends with Basima claiming, as he heads for Goma (a city in eastern Congo) to give further workshops on rape, that the future of the DRC is bleak because rape will continue even though he and the Congolese population desire peace.

These three documentaries attempt to tell the history of Congolese conflicts and give agency to both men and women in allowing them to tell their stories of rape, but the absence of political and historical discourses on the conflicts and the lack of examination of Congolese declarations of vicious foreign rapes obscures the political and economic maneuvers producing the narratives of rape and conflict. Consequently, when the question who rapes Congolese women? is asked, the only response is Congolese men, for foreign culprits are nonexistent, and, thus, the only people who need to be educated are the Congolese, depicted as xenophobic in Pushing the Elephant and as violent and uncontrollable sexual predators in Fighting the Silence and Weapon of War. The Human Rights Watch, The War within the War and Gerard Prunier’s Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe, Our Voices Matter. Congolese Women Demand Justice and Accountability and the works cited in the endnotes will enrich and correct our understanding of the history and politics from which the rapes arise.4

1 Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1973), 5-29.

2 Marie Béatrice Umutesi, Surviving the Slaughter: The Ordeal of a Rwandan Refugee in Zaire, trans. Julia Emerson (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 284; United Nations,  Report of the Mapping Exercise Documenting the Most Serious Violations of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Committed within the Territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo between March 1993 and June 2003 (Vienna: United Nations, 2010).

3 The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, directed by Lisa F. Jackson (New York:Women Makes Movies, 2007), 76 min.

4 Human Rights Watch, The War within the War: Sexual Violence against Women and Girls in Eastern Congo (New York City: Human Rights Watch, 2002), 128; Gérard Prunier, Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 529; Our Voices Matter: Congolese Women Demand Justice and Accountability, directed by Bukeni Waruzi (Brooklyn:WITNESS, 2010), 26 min.

Ngwarsungu Chiwengo, professor of English at Creighton University, obtained her license (BA) at the National University of Zaire (currently UNILU) and her Ph.D. at SUNY/Buffalo. As a Fullbright scholarship grantee, she taught at the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa for two years prior to her return to Congo (DRC) where she taught at The University of Lubumbashi as Assistant and Associate Professor and chaired the English Department. Upon her return to the United States, she taught at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, and is currently teaching at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.