Madeleine Gavin’s debut feature, City of Joy, is as heartbreaking as it is uplifting, as shocking as it is life affirming. Ever since the two Congo civil wars of the 1990s, rape has been used as a horrific military tactic in the country; hundreds of thousands of women and children have been and continue to be attacked repeatedly by members of militias who are attempting to gain access to the country’s rich mineral resources, including coltan, tin, tungsten, and gold, which are much sought after by global corporations. In 2007, gynecologist/obstetrician Dr. Denis Mukwege, activist Christine Schuler-Deschryver, and playwright Eve Ensler cofounded the City of Joy, a securely walled and guarded safe space in Bukavu in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo where survivors of rape and sexual violence come to get their life back, learning to reclaim control of their bodies and their minds. “My sisters, you will change the suffering you’ve endured into power,” Schuler-Deschryver declared at the official opening in 2011. Elegantly photographed by Taylor Krauss and Lisa Rinzler, highlighting the spectacular beauty of the area and the bright, colorful outfits worn by the women, the film focuses on several of the survivors’ horrific tales and how they are overcoming their fears. Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues and Necessary Targets, explains, “The magnitude of the stories were beyond anything I had ever heard in my life.” Indeed, the women’s accounts are extremely difficult to listen to, but that’s part of the healing process for everyone. “When all women are free, that’s when you stop talking,” Ensler tells them, encouraging them to say the word “vagina” and to become more familiar with a part of their anatomy they should not fear. “I went to bed with no worries. We were at peace. No reason to be afraid. But one day everything changed, and I ended up in a place I never thought I’d be,” Jane Mukunila says of her brutal torture. Her transition is a centerpiece of the film.
“City of Joy was established as a center for survivors of rape and gender violence in the DRC,” program manager Mama Bachu Bahati reads from the organization’s mission statement. “The goal is to transform these women into leaders.” Risking their own personal safety, Dr. Mukwege, Schuler-Deschryver, Mama Bachu Bahati, self-defense instructors Duncan Bomba and Winnie Anyango, and others seek to empower these women to build strong new communities as they graduate from the program and reenter the world. “I think this love, this desire to fight for others, even when things for you have been completely destroyed, I believe that is the story of the struggle of the Congolese woman,” says the doctor, who has treated more than forty thousand women at Panzi Hospital. Gavin also edited the film, which boasts an outstanding soundtrack, with a score by Tomandandy and songs by Lokua Kanza, Geoffrey Oryema, and Papa Wemba to more fully immerse viewers in Congolese culture. Exhilarating and terrifying, City of Joy is a brutally honest and intensely important film, one that demands that nations such as the United States take action and put an end to the use of rape as a military weapon. The film is having its world premiere at DOC NYC on November 11 at 7:00 at the SVA Theatre, with Gavin, Ensler, Dr. Mukwege, Mukunila, and Schuler-Deschryver participating in an extended conversation afterward. DOC NYC runs November 10-17 at IFC Center, the SVA Theatre, and Cinépolis Chelsea, consisting of more than two hundred films, workshops, panel discussions, and other events, the largest nonfiction festival in the world.