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Fighting Sexual Violence with Film in the DRC

May 26, 2010

Dutch filmmakers and twin sisters, Ilse and Femka van Velzen recently visited SFCG DC to speak about their documentaries dealing with sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). They have collaborated with SFCG to screen the film in-country.

Margot Wallstrom, Special Representative on sexual violence in conflict for the UN has called the DRC the “rape capital of the world.” During the civil war – which lasted for five years – rape was used as a weapon, one which victimized more than 80,000 women and girls. War officially came to an end in 2003 but conflict, militia violence and thus sexual assaults against women continue. This is especially true in eastern Congo. Over 8,000 women were raped in 2009 alone.

Ilse and Femke were in Angola, near the DRC border when they first heard stories about rapes in the Congo. At the time, sexual violence was largely underreported and the stories, both in content and quantity shocked the filmmakers. They had created their company, IF Productions, with the intent to tell human stories about social injustice. The stories they were hearing from and about Congolese women were too powerful not to give voice to—and so their film, Fighting the Silence was born.

Fighting the Silence

Fighting the Silence tells the stories of women whose lives have been rent apart by rape. A woman is shown systematically, almost frantically, washing her head over and over again.

“They don’t wash,” she says, speaking of the soldier who attacked her. “Their clothes are riddled with lice and they rape…This is why I wash every time I smell their scent.”

Another man speaks about coming home to find his children standing around his wife who lay on the bed crying. Upon learning that she had been raped by soldiers while their children watched, he sent her back to her village. “I cannot share my wife with a Burundian,” he says flatly. Unfortunately, such a reaction is not uncommon. Though rape has become widespread the stigma makes many women reluctant to speak out, for fear that they will be abandoned or ostracized by their families and communities.

Fighting the Silence is a powerful film with a hands-off approach to documentary filmmaking that allows the subjects to speak for themselves. However, Ilse and Femke quickly realized two things: 1) They were only telling half of the story and 2) They needed to take the film back to the Congo. They addressed these points with their new film Weapon of War and by partnering with Search for Common Ground to bring the films to Congolese audiences through mobile cinema.

Weapon of War

Ilse says that they began Fighting the Silence with a very black and white view, where every soldier was seen as a rapist, as the enemy. But this only tells a story of victims. Weapon of War looks at the conflict from the perspectives of the perpetrators. Interviews with former soldiers produce accounts of horrific acts committed with seemingly little remorse. One masked former rebel says that while no one was specifically ordered to rape, they celebrated when rapes occurred. Their strategy was successful, he says because the use of rape has forced the government to negotiate with them.

Rapes are increasingly carried out by civilians and many of these have a military background.  This is reflective of the fact that the Congolese military does not have provisions in place to properly demobilize or reintegrate its soldiers. Weapon of War is thus, not only a way of giving a more complete story, but is also being used as a teaching tool for the military.

Captain Pierre Basima, who features heavily in the film, is at the forefront of this information campaign. A protestant priest and SFCG-trained activist, he works closely with the mobile cinema unit. He has made it his mission to educate the military on treating women and civilians in general with respect.

Mobile Cinema

Changing the dialogue surrounding sexual violence in the DRC is a fundamental goal in the van Velzen’s approach to their films. After Fighting the Silence was shot Ilse and Femke were determined that they should bring it back to the DRC, where it could have the greatest impact. They showed the film to all who participated in it, getting feedback on their portrayals and the film in general. They also broached the subject of showing the film to Congolese audiences. To their surprise, all involved said they wanted the film shown if it could help others.

Looking for partners to coordinate the mobile screenings, they were frequently directed to Search for Common Ground. With a small team, the mobile cinema unit travels through the eastern Congo spreading its message and facilitating after-show discussions. Over 2,000 people attended the first screening in Bukavu. Now they are increasingly taking the film to rural areas, where violence is often greater. There are some logistical issues: it must be dark for the film to be seen, but many people are reluctant to be out at night for fear of violence or robbery. Still, cinema is quite popular and the subject is something that has touched all of the communities they visit.

 “We cannot change people from one day to another,” Femke says. “But this starts the conversation.”

Go here for more information on the mobile cinema and IF Productions.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Joye permalink
    May 26, 2010 1:14 pm

    This looks incredible! I admire those involved in this for looking at something so dark and taboo
    and bringing it into the light. And with an eye to actual change instead of more horror reporting.
    I will find both of these.

    • sfcg permalink*
      June 3, 2010 2:37 pm

      Thanks Joye, the films are really amazing, you should check them out if you get a chance. The filmakers really let the subjects speak for themselves. It’s especially impressive (and horrifying) how they were able to find so many perpetrators of violence who are willing to openly discuss their crimes.

  2. October 18, 2010 9:51 am

    i need to get film fighting sexual violance in the DRC

  3. Judy permalink
    October 27, 2010 11:20 am

    Hi, I am an MA Journalism student, currently preparing to start my dissertation work on my specialism which is War and Conflict at Swansea University. I am keen on tackling the DRC conflict and/or other African conflicts, more specifically to study how rape is used as a weapon of war, and how this is further represented in the media. My ideas are still very sketchy, but I would appreciate if you would put me in touch with some resourceful contacts.

    I would be very keen on tackling one of SFCG’s initiative as a dissertation research.

    Judy, Kenya.


  1. Focus on DRC: Mobile Cinema « The Common Ground Blog
  2. SCFG launches “Vrai Djo” Campaign to combat gender-based violence in DRC « The Common Ground Blog
  3. SCFG launches “Vrai Djo” Campaign to combat gender-based violence in DRC « The Common Ground Blog

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