The Uncondemned, its world premiere at the Hamptons Film Festival, chronicles the complex process of how rape was identified as a component of genocide. Since time immemorial, rape and war have been malevolent associates. Rape, an act of extreme violence, was considered by conquerors to be the spoils of war. And it was used as a powerful weapon to demoralize and vanquish.
A toothless attempt to eliminate this “law of the jungle” occurred in 1919 when the UN designated rape as a war crime. From 1919 to 1948, when “genocide” was first designated a war crime, until 1993, when the UN Security Council created the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), to prosecute genocide/war crimes in the Balkans, no one was prosecuted for the war crime of rape.
The following year, when rumors of the cataclysmic event known as the Rwandan Genocide came to the attention of the world press, and atrocities, rapes, and ethnic cleansing were reported, a second tribunal was established to convict war criminals. These tribunals of 1993 (Yugoslavia), and 1994 (Rwanda), were the first to be convened after the Nuremberg trials of WWII, and they eventually tried and convicted war criminals for the judicial concept of genocide. Initially, both tribunals did not define rape as a component of genocide. Then a number of women in Rwanda anonymously went on record to discuss the violence that they experienced. In tandem, others in positions of power tirelessly petitioned the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), to designate rape as a war crime.
The film highlights the events leading up to the courtroom drama of the landmark case against the accused mayor of Taba, Rwanda, Jean-Pierre Akayesu. The case, which was nearly impossible to prosecute, ultimately created a monumental and historical sea change in how men and women legally perceived systematic rape during a massacre. Because of the outcome of the case, rape is legally defined as a component of genocide/ethnic cleansing. Acts of rape, killing, torture and mutilation currently are deemed war crimes punishable before an international court or tribunal (ICJ), which has been in existence since 1998.
Directors Michele Mitchell and Nick Louvel relate the events that occurred when the international tribunal was formed to hold accountable those responsible for the Rwandan holocaust that took place during a period of 100 days in 1994. When the Hutu militia’s lust-filled, bloodthirsty rampage was stopped, over 1 million Tutsi had been mutilated, tortured and hacked to death in what witnesses recount as atrocities that beggar the imagination and make one question how human beings can perpetrate such vengeful, unspeakable brutality.
Directors reveal the great difficulty officials had in locating the ones who spearheaded and promoted the bloodletting. No one wanted to testify against those responsible and lose their lives in retaliation. Some did come forward anonymously. From the countless hours of witness testimony, the tribunal identified a number of individuals. These were put on trial for genocide. As an integral part of the annihilation of a people, the act of rape, was a strategy used in the Rwandan genocide. There were witness accounts of systematic mass rapes and Mitchell and Louvel quote from the record.
A segment of the film is devoted to an interview with Lisa Pruitt, consultant to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda who filed a report of these witness accounts. Though Pruitt sought justice for the women who were raped by militia, the presiding officials who Pruitt worked for deemed Pruitt’s actions excessive. In the filmmakers’ interviews, Pruit discusses how she was ridiculed and how officials labeled the witness accounts “unreliable.” Her report was buried. Disgusted and feeling demeaned, Pruitt left, believing that justice for the raped women most probably would never be served and the horrific abuses they experienced would go unanswered forever.
The filmmakers reveal as justice churned its momentum, the wheel came around and what was secret was uncovered; serendipitous events brought the report to light. Investigators like attorney Patricia Sellers read the testimony of an eye witness who saw women being raped in a building where Mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu was present and knew of the massive, systematic violence against the women. Binaifer Nowrojee a researcher at Human Rights Watch, hearing of the rumors of sexual assault, went to Rwanda and finalized the report from the accounts of anonymous witnesses.
With gyrating flashbacks, fast forwards, archived video clips and briskly paced commentary from prosecutors, investigators, victims, officials and eye-witnesses, directors Mitchell and Louvel piece together an intriguing narrative of the incidents that lead to the arrest and conviction of Mayor Akayesu in 1997. These include key individuals like Co-counsel Pierre Prosper and Co-counsel Sara Dareshori. The prosecutors were instrumental in bringing justice to the raped women who the Hutu themselves characterized as “the living dead.” The Hutu let them live physically because they believed their minds and souls would be so destroyed, that life after the shame, torture and humiliation of rape would daily kill them, though they would not die physically. Video clips from the courtroom proceedings are intercut with interview clips of Sellers, Binaifer Nowrojee, Prosper, Dareshori, and Pruitt. In interviews, Prosper and Dareshori discuss the hurdles they faced as young and inexperienced lawyers who confronted an overwhelming psychic and emotional struggle for justice in the face of arrogance and presumption.
The directors clarify the obstacles all of these individuals faced as they worked together to convince the tribunal to add rape as a part of the indictment against Akayesu. To convince the tribunal that rape was a component of genocide, cultural mores had to be overthrown, while taking to task a paternalistic culture which deemed women as not equal to men and as such had no voice and should not be listened to. Another uphill battle was to encourage the women to come forward. Because of the nature of the culture’s privacy about sexual matters, the women were embarrassed and humiliated internalizing the shame of rape as their fault. They were defeated by the emotional trauma of their horrors and did not want to have to relive them by verbalizing their experiences. Furthermore, evidence had to be found connecting Akayesu to the systematic rapes that occurred.
Through the commentary of the key players, directors focus on the details. Eventually, one eye-witness rallied the other women to speak out and raise their voice about what they suffered. As they spoke amongst themselves, they became stronger; one spoke up, so did another and another. Eventually, though they had been stripped of their identity, voice and personal power, gradually, they were able to support one another to take a stand and gain confidence. One woman saw others raped in the same building where Akayesu was present; he did not stop the rape/genocide. When the women coming forward and told the truth theirs was a powerful gesture that impacted the global criminal justice system and made rape an act of genocide.
Three key witnesses were flown to the site of the trial and from behind a curtain, they testified before the tribunal which had added rape to the indictment against Akayesu. After hearing all the testimony, the tribunal convicted Akayesu. The directors reveal the import of this historical moment and this first conviction of the Rwandan genocide as the “conviction heard around the world.”
Mitchell’s and Louvel’s film is a revelation. Not only do we understand this amazing battle of the key players to change the legal justice system regarding rape as genocide, for the first time, the three women who had been anonymous speak live before Mitchell and Louvel’s cameras. It is fitting at the conclusion of the film that they bravely give their names confirming the truth of their testimony. By speaking their names into the cameras, they “uncondemn” themselves. They have been released from the condemnation and soul annihilation of rape. By lifting their voice in truth, they are free from guilt and shame.
As the directors capture on camera the women’s thoughts and feelings of relief, triumph, power, confidence, we recognize they have won an assertion of life and affirm the purpose for which they live and continue to speak out. Where they had been discarded on a rubbish heap as “the living dead,” they now empower other women who have faced similar circumstances and encourage them to speak out. They are breathing their own life into others whose souls were annihilated and who were called the “living dead.”
Mitchell and Louvel in their thrilling fast-paced tell-all film, The Uncondemned, remind us of the courage and spirit required to bring justice to a region in people’s hearts where evil had prospered under cover of fear, brutality and the threat of death. They reveal how to become triumphant over oppression. We see how in the smiling faces and the joyful eyes of the three Rwandan women who could not be beaten down because they had found the love and support of one another. In this excellent film the directors remind us of eternal verities: truth is stronger than a lie and the bullying fear that would suppress it; when we speak out against injustice and harm, life and self-powerment become the forces that overthrow “living death.”
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