Director's Notes: nick louvel
Q: What were the challenges of making the film?
A: We had ambitions to make this film feel cinematic, which presented a series of challenges. One of them was telling a complex story without the use of narration. Some of the interviews ended up being over 5 hours long, because we needed our subjects to cover everything that might otherwise be summed up by title cards or voice-over, had we decided to take a more journalistic approach. That challenge was then transferred to the editing room, as we needed to compress the story and create suspense.
We also wanted the movie to have a filmic look, but we had few means, and no crew. It was an arduous process to be in the field with 2 digital cinema cameras, a collection of lenses, a stabilizer, audio equipment, and lights, with just the two of us to juggle everything. It’s a risky way to work, because it’s easy to miss something and make a technical mistake, which can cost you a scene.
Q: What stylistic decisions did you make?
A: When you’re in the field, a lot of decisions are made on the fly, but our general approach was to go for a more composed, less handheld look, as much as possible.
The sit-down interviews are the backbone of the movie. We wanted to connect everyone from the prosecution side by setting them in an environment with a muted color scheme, an abstract international space. We shot the witnesses in a professional sit-down style as well, to give them equal importance, but we wanted to celebrate them somehow, so we placed them in a more multi-colored environment, adding to the vibrant clothing they wear. They are a burst of color when they finally appear.
Q: What risks did you take?
A: We took safety risks, but they were calculated. Through reliable intermediaries, we set up a meeting with the FDLR militia — men who have committed some of the worst atrocities one could imagine. We travelled several days to meet them at a secret location in the North Kivu mountains of DRC, which gave us plenty of time to doubt their intentions. But as soon as we got to them, it was clear that they wanted us to feel secure. They saw us as an opportunity to improve their image. For 12 hours, it was a game of mutual deception.
Q: What was it like to meet the witnesses and Godelieve for the first time?
A: They were so sweet and self-effacing, I had to remind myself that these were the women I had been reading about for months, the heroes who were willing to die in the name of justice. I sensed in them a constant mix of fragility and strength—fragility from the trauma, and strength from their battle to overcome it. More than anything, I was struck by the sheer love and the humanity that they exuded. Getting to know them has been a transformative experience.
Q: Have they seen the film?
A: Yes, we showed it to them in June. Their first reaction was not what we expected — they laughed hysterically! They thought it was so funny to see themselves on the screen. After they settled into the story, I noticed that Witness OO was looking down, texting on her cell phone, as though ignoring the film. It felt like a self-protection reflex. Thankfully, she overcame that. They told us afterward that they loved the movie, and we hugged. After they left, Michele and I pretty much collapsed with relief. We’d been anticipating this for 2 years.
Q: Jean-Paul Akayesu was the first person in history to be convicted not only of rape as a crime against humanity but also of genocide, but he was considered a “small fish.”
A: Akayesu, to me, is the perfect representation of the banality of evil. As Hannah Arendt said: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” Akayesu did make a choice, but it was a passive one. He was not an original proponent of the genocide, nor a mastermind, nor a sadist. He was a low-level official who went along with the political winds. He is the most common of villains. Had the genocide not occurred, he would still be a respected community leader. The irony that he, of all people, became the judicial symbol for the genocide in Rwanda carries a deeper meaning.
Q: You chose to crowdfund this film—what kind of complications did that bring?
A: I recently spent a day baking a carrot cake, because one of our Kickstarter rewards was “a carrot cake baked by Nick.” I was laughing about it, thinking of all the hoops independent filmmakers have to jump through to get their movies made. Crowdfunding takes a huge amount of effort, and constantly pulls you away from the actual making of the movie. Reaching out, asking for favors, getting people excited, organizing events — these all take a lot of time, and accrue funding slowly, in small amounts. But, the remarkable people we have met through this process has made it all worth it beyond description. We have a worldwide grassroots community behind the movie now, waiting for it to come out, and ready to advertise it. We have also made lifelong friends we would never have otherwise met.
Q: What is your favorite part of the film?
A: My favorite part of the film is the witnesses’ journey from Rwanda to the tribunal in Tanzania, when they’re laughing about that whole experience, because they’re so funny, and you just relate to them so much. That, and when Pierre reminds us at the end, that these were rural women who had no electricity, no running water, and who were able to change the landscape of not only international criminal law, but of legal theory and principles.
Q: What do you hope the film can accomplish?
A: There is still a misperception that systematic rape in time of war is simply the nature of man, that it is inevitable, and that attempting to curb it is a hopeless endeavor. We are in a battle against cynicism. I hope this film will make a convincing case that these beliefs are in large part unfounded, and they cannot be used as a justification for apathy.
I hope that the stories of these witnesses will connect with other survivors, not just in conflict zones, but also domestically. The women in the film, speaking directly to the audience, are deeply convincing. I hope some viewers will be inspired by them to come out and speak about their rape, and hopefully start a process of healing.
It's my hope, too, for reasons gendered and otherwise, that presenting rape as a tool of war helps clarify it a human rights issue above all, one that both men and women have to answer to, in the same way we would answer to the uses of chemical weapons, rather than some individualized shame or trauma that must be shouldered alone.