Director's Notes: michele mitchell
Q: Why this topic?
A: It was a combination of a few things happening at once in 2012. I had been very interested for a while in tackling the issue of sexual assault—I just didn’t know how I wanted to do it. I had been to enough refugee camps in post- to know how rape is used in conflict, and then a friend of mine visited me in New York. She headed the mission in Goma, DRC, for Doctors Without Borders. She told me about the horrific injuries she saw to rape victims. I said, “Something’s got to be done about this. It has to be illegal.” She says, “Who’s prosecuting?” So I had that in my mind: “Who is prosecuting?” That same year, you had politicians running for higher offices—Senate, among others—saying things like “a woman can’t get pregnant if she’s raped because her body shuts down.” I remember thinking, “Well what about all those women in Bosnia where they were purposefully impregnated by Serbian soldiers? How does this guy explain that?” But I also wanted to tell a story that shows what to do about it. That’s how I started looking for the first time that rape was prosecuted as a crime of war.
Q: Did the Akayesu case come up early in your research?
A: No—in fact, we were convinced we would be focusing on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Nick was looking at flights to Sarajevo. And then, in January 2013, I was at a screening of our Haiti documentary. It was at the Pickford Theater in Bellingham, Washington. I was drinking a glass of red wine with Nicole Phillips, a human rights lawyer who was doing the Q&A with me afterwards, and I told her about the new project. She said, “Oh! Akayesu! You want to speak with Pierre Prosper.”
Q: What were the risks involved?
A: The biggest risk was making contact with and then interviewing the FDLR milita in East Kivu, DRC. Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda is one of roughly 28 militias operating in the Kivus, and it’s made up of the original Hutu Power who carried out the 1994 genocide. They fled across the border into then-Zaire, where they regrouped. Before the FDLR came to Congo, rape was not used in conflict. Now, they’re 20 years in, and Congo has become ground zero for mass rape as a tool of terror. The FDLR hadn’t given an interview to an American in many years, and in general the leadership steered clear of journalists. I had no contacts in DRC, so building that network, finding the right people to help me make the request, was critical. Even once I had it in place, I was cautioned that they wouldn’t talk, or that if they did, it would be very dangerous to travel to do the interview. Going three and a half days into the mountains, no way to contact the outside world, with multiple militias actively in combat, was really crossing our fingers and hoping it all turned out all right.
Q: How difficult was it to find the women: Godelieve and Witnesses JJ, NN and OO?
A: Binaifer Norwojee has kept in touch with Godelieve, so when I e-mailed Godelieve for the first time and mentioned Binaifer’s name, that was good enough to set up a coffee meeting. I landed in Rwanda in August 2013, and the next day I met Godelieve. That led to a lunch with JJ, NN and OO.
Q: What was it like, meeting them for the first time?
A: They’re women who changed history, so I was nervous, I was excited. And then, while the story is a very interesting legal thriller, if the witnesses weren’t in the film, the film wasn’t going to serve the purpose that we were hoping it would serve, which is something empowering. I had also just come out of Congo, where I had seen some terrible things that were still very fresh in my mind. I invited the women to lunch at the Hotel Mille Collines. I didn’t want to upset them. I didn’t want to ask them to do something that I wouldn’t want to do. We were prepared to not do the film if they didn’t go on. The first thing that happened was they all ordered drinks: “Fanta,” “Fanta,” “Fanta,” “Fanta.” One person ordered a beer–-a Primus. Then they all started changing their order: “Primus,” “Primus,” “Primus,” “Primus.” Godelieve asked me, “Do you know which one is JJ?” I said “It’s got to be the one who ordered the first beer.” And it was. She was just that naturally charismatic. I told them about the project. They immediately agreed to go on camera, which surprised me.
Q: In this film, they break their code names for the first time.
A: They played such a big role in something that changed things for all of us, and nobody knew about them. I’ve felt journalistic responsibility before, but not this intense. They’re rural women, they have very limited education, they thought that everyone had forgotten about them because no one talks to them about rape and they can’t really talk about it. After everything that had happened, they trusted us so much, and we really wanted to make sure that we were truthful to their story, because they were going to get one shot at it being told, and we were their shot. We really wanted to do right by them.
Q: How did it go when you interviewed them?
A: We did not ask them what happened to them. We knew. We asked them, “Why did you decide to testify?” The toughest question was, “Why do you think rape is being used in conflict?” That was the one time that when NN was answering that she did break—you could see the look in her eyes starting to shift. I thought, “Oh no, I’m making her go back,” but the shift had already happened. We shut everything down. We were ready to walk away from that interview, but after a little while, NN said, “No, no. I’ll sit down and finish.” And then she smiled and said, “How else will I find an American husband?” So that was kind of funny.
Q: How did they react to the film?
A: The first thing they said was how much good they hoped it would do for people around the world, which shows everything that they’re about. There wasn’t even a thought about their safety or anything else. They were just like, “This is going to help a lot of people.”
Q: Did you try to interview Akayesu himself?
A: Akayesu is in prison in Mali. At the time, several veteran Western reporters were killed in Mali because of the security situation. As a result, we couldn’t get insured to go. When you go to these places, you need production insurance, and when we couldn’t get insured, it became a risk we didn’t want to take. At that point, that helped us sharpen the focus of the film on the prosecution and the women. It wasn’t going to deal with Akayesu and his defense.
Q: You decided to crowd-fund this film.
A: The women agreed to talk, and it was so important to run with it. Once people like that are talking, you can’t just say, “I’ll be back in three years,” because maybe they’re not going to want to talk to you in three years. So we decided to crowd-fund. It wasn’t always reliable—there were a lot of times when Nick and I asked each other, “Ok, what utility’s getting shut off?” or “Whose credit card isn’t maxed out?” But some of the best moments of making this film have come from the constant engagement of the community. We had a lot of people say, “I don’t have a lot of money but I have time, I have talent, I want to help.” It’s been great. We’ve met fantastic people as a result.
Q: Do you have a favorite scene?
A: The whole Lisa Pruitt sequence. That was a new discovery—nobody knew that part of the story until we started working on this. For somebody to have that moment of vindication, 17 years after the fact, for something that meant so much to her, and to see how much it meant to her, was really great.
Q: What impact do you hope, or think, this film can have?
A: We’re never going to stop rape from happening in conflict, but we can make it a lot more difficult for people to get away with doing it. What I hope is that this film takes the sex out of sex crimes; it’s not about sex, it’s about power, it’s about humiliation, it’s about torture. This is an act of deadly intent, and we will not combat it effectively unless we start looking at it that way. I hope people walk out from seeing this film and think, “Oh, I get it now.” I hope that they take it seriously. Once people do that, that’s 99% of change.