City of Joy, the documentary which premiered at DocNYC Film Festival in November of 2016 and screened last weekend at Athena Film Festival in NYC (February 9-12), is a monumental film about an oasis of security, wholeness and well being in the midst of an extreme conflict zone in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Created by first-time director, Madeleine Gavin, the documentary is an exceptional and moving work shot on site at The City of Joy in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo. It features Eve Ensler (The Tony Award winning playwright of Vagina Monologues), the activist who helped launch V-Day and One Billion Rising) the global non-profit that has raised over $100 million dollars to end violence against women and girls.
The filmmaker chronicles the evolution from start to finish of City of Joy. It reveals how Eve Ensler, Dr. Denis Mukwege, (2016 Nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize), and Congolese human rights activist Christine Schuler Deschryver, (Director of the City of Joy), unite, get the acreage, establish a compound of buildings, and then staff them with caring Congolese men and women who provide programs of renewal.
On a grass roots level of activism, most importantly, it is the Congolese women survivors who are to be credited for it is they who initiated the idea of such a sanctuary. They along with Ensler, Dr. Mukwege, and Schuler Deschryver have established a miracle in a dangerous area of conflict. The City of Joy is a refuge for those who have been ravaged by the unspeakable horrors of conflict predation. The women who arrive at the doors of this city of light and love have experienced first hand and/or witnessed the genocidal weapons of warfare that keep killing psychologically and emotionally long after soldiers have left because the traumatic acts are inhuman: repeated gang rapes, mutilations, eviscerations, torture, violent murders of family or friends.
The film illuminates the backstory; it shows how the three founders and Congolese women came together and struck upon their first conceptualizations of such a place where survivors of violence could heal and become transformational leaders, having turned their pain to power. Gavin cobbles together clips of their nascent discussions about the location and the decided upon name of “The City of Joy.”
Her video segments capture bits and pieces of the entire process from August 2009 to February 2011 when the City of Joy opened and its first class of women began in June 2011. Gavin uses interviews with the main subjects and women survivors who also share who they are and how and why they became involved. She also films the on-the-ground working programs for the first class as they engage in life skills programs, learning how to strengthen community, provide services, and promote healing and wellness. Through these productive hands-on experiences, women who have survived debilitating emotional and physical traumas are transformed and empowered to be leaders who will bring back the skills they’ve learned to their communities.
Each woman has a devastating story which she shares and uses to connect to others in discussion groups. Gavin films some of the women telling their stories in a circle and we realize through their descriptions of the horror that they are no longer slaves of the painful memories.
The power of story-telling has freed them. Every time they discuss what happened, they overthrow the humiliation, oppression, and feelings of helpless hopelessness. They become one step closer to the eventuality of healing. In their new found wholeness they can launch themselves into the realms of empowerment, strength and leadership. At the end of the program, they look in the mirror and see different women, beautiful, hopeful, triumphant. At the end of 2017 1000 women will have graduated from The City of Joy.
During the chronicle of the revelation about the building of The City of Joy, the filmmaker revisits the history of the area (the ravages of Belgian colonialism, the Rwandan genocide and more), the subsequent rise of the corporations and militia conflicts, and the need for such a place of refuge. Gavin uses archival clips of the refugee crises created by war and unspeakable violence.
Rape is a preferred weapon of choice by the militias. Sexual genocide is delivered at the hands of the soldiers who use rape as a weapon to subdue and destabilize the population and destroy any sense of community, society and family. Creating a refugee crisis of citizens who flee, the militias then take over the ghost villages in the region and deliver the land prize into the laps of their corporate overseers.
With clear and concise footage and narration by her main subjects, Gavin emphasizes that the DRC is an area of untold wealth in gold, diamonds, minerals, uranium and oil. Destitute young male teenagers with nothing to lose, remunerated with guns and power, flourish unchecked by outside military resistance from Europe, Asia and the UN.
As a result, the lust for DRC’s king’s ransom in natural resources has kept the country besieged by corporate plunderers and their puppet militia who terrorize oppress and enslave the local populations so they may deliver the goods to their profit-mongering handlers who spin the raw materials into billions in profits. Global corporations from the U.S., Europe, Asia, indeed from most continents are in the DRC. Militia uprisings and war between and among militia groups has been ongoing. As a result six million have died from violence, hunger, disease.
Ensler and the others clearly point the finger at the corporations as fomenting the militias that destroy communities, families (men will not accept wives who have been raped), and the land. The City of Joy is a viable grass roots answer that confronts the devastation left by corporate powers. In various segments Gavin reveals through the testimony of women like Jane (her story guides us through the film), and others that such dire situations can be overcome. There is hope, people care and, as long as there is breath/hope there is the adventure of a fulfilling life.
This incredible documentary which uplifts the power of community to open the door to life and healing when everything screams for suicide and annihilation, tells a hard story that those in power may not want to watch, but must if they wish to be a positive force for good in the future of our planet. It is the story of what it takes to square off against the four horsemen of the apocalypse: conquest, war, famine, death, to then rise above each of these terrors and dance in the salvation of joy. It takes saying no to greed, isolation, selfishness, corrupt power, and saying hello to community, grace, generosity and wholeness.
Recent political developments in the U.S. and European nations have shown that misguided conservative elements threaten to defer humanity and decency for the sake of corporate hegemony and the promise of increased profits. That this should occur at the expense of citizens’ lives and well being is anathema for the vast majority, (the 99%). This film is a clarion call for activists everywhere. For that reason and for the joy of seeing women who have come through the powers of darkness with resilience to have embraced the light of love, this is a moving, uplifting must-see film. For more information on how you can help CLICK HERE.