‘City Of Joy’ Docu Follows An Unlikely Trio Of Activists Joining To Tackle Sexual Abuse In The DRC

If you don’t have any plans tonight, we highly recommend watching the Netflix original documentary ‘City Of Joy’, directed by Madeleine Gavin. Trust us when we say, this film will make you cry, get angry, but most of all feel inspired and hopeful to know that despite dark moments, there will always be heroes in our community fighting for human rights.

‘City Of Joy’ takes place in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, an area often referred to as “the worst place in the world to be a woman.” This region has endured 20 years of devastating violence. It is estimated that up to 8 million people have been murdered and hundreds of thousands of women have been raped and tortured. Rape has been used as a weapon of war in the conscious destruction of community to get at the precious resources in the area.

The film follows the first class of women at a leadership center in Eastern Congo called City of Joy (from which the film gets its name). It also focuses on the founders of this center, three activists who imagined this revolutionary place where women who have suffered horrific rape and abuse can become leaders and work toward changing their country, in spite of all they have endured.

Viewers get to witness the unlikely friendship that develops when a devout Congolese doctor, Dr. Denis Mukwege, (2016 Nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize), radical playwright and activist, Eve Ensler (Tony Award winning playwright of The Vagina Monologues) and a charismatic Congolese human rights activist, Christine Schuler Deschryver (Direct of the City of Joy) join forces to create this safe haven in the middle of violence-torn Eastern Congo, a place they call The City of Joy.

It is the story of the incomprehensible power of the human spirit as we witness the characters’ discovery of hope, even when so much of what was meaningful to them has long been stripped away. We spoke to the director of this powerful film to learn more about the characters, the messages, and why this film is important right now.



How did you first become involved with the documentary ‘City of Joy’?

I first heard stories coming out of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2009. At the time, I knew very little about the DRC, other than Joseph Conrad’s classic and a sort of vague sense that horrors had been committed there during colonialism long ago, and finally that it bordered Rwanda where the 1994 genocide had occurred. But I knew shockingly little about the violence, the torture, the rapes that had been rampant in Eastern Congo since the mid-1990s.

When I began to hear the stories of Congolese women and what they had experienced, the devastation to their communities, their families, their children, their bodies, I was shattered. It was impossible to imagine how these women could move forward with their lives after suffering as they had or after witnessing their children going through such atrocities. And yet there was a resilience and an insistence on hope in these women that was palpable. The awe I felt in the face of this incomprehensible strength is what initially motivated me to want to make this film.

Once we began shooting, my commitment to this story grew. I knew of Co-Founder Eve Ensler’s work and her dedication to ending violence against women but getting to know Co- Founder Christine Schuler-Deschryver and seeing the work of Co-Founder Dr. Denis Mukwege, had a profound effect on me. These two individuals – as well as many others who teach and work at City of Joy – are risking their personal safety every day in an effort to save the country they dearly love.

As a first-time director, how was your experience working on a project with such a powerful story and characters?

This was definitely a challenging project to take on as a first-time director and I felt an enormous responsibility.

I remember the first day I was in Congo, realizing that I understood the meaning of the word “joy” in a more visceral way than I ever had before. In the United States, people of course experience highs and lows, but rarely do my friends and I radiate anything like the joy I encountered that first day – and many days to follow. I felt strongly that I wanted to communicate this in the film. I knew I could tell a story that was explicit about some of DRC’s history, and that also told about the rampant use of rape as a weapon of war.

But I wasn’t interested in making a film that was too straight ahead because I had seen films where I got a lot of information but didn’t really feel anything. I wanted this to be different, more experiential. I wanted to make a film that allowed audiences to feel what I felt when I first went to Congo – the tremendous strength, vitality and commitment that these individuals had to each other and to imagining a future for themselves and their country.

So the shifting tones between pathos, humor, irreverence and joy were something I strived for, trying to keep the film visceral and surprising in its emotion and arc. It was a challenging process and, given the issues of access and security in the DRC, I was constantly having to reimagine what I might be able to shoot. To this end, I used all sorts of methods and invented things along the way. I tried to create the feeling of nostalgia, shooting visual elements that represented a world past and the subsequent loss of that world.

I worked a lot with sound and music and the interaction of these elements. I saw the war itself as a character that we revisit throughout the film, learning bits and pieces each time. I tried to give enough history but not too much and I questioned myself constantly in the balancing of these elements.

What was it like to witness and capture the unique dynamic between Eve Ensler, Christine Schuler Deschryver and Dr. Denis Mukwege who run City of Joy? How did this unlikely trio form a working relationship to launch City of Joy?

The three individuals who founded City of Joy are definitely distinct personalities. We used to joke and refer to them as the Devout Christian Dr., the Radical Feminist and the Powerful Congolese Mama. They are an unlikely team. And yet they all carry within them a fierce outrage about the injustice in the DRC and a deep devotion to the women who suffer much of that injustice. This outrage and this devotion are what brought them together and are what led to the building of the center, City of Joy.

Right now we are seeing a lot of stories from people sharing their #metoo experience in the film industry, the tech world and beyond, who are finding their power and voice in sharing their experiences. The same sentiment is shared by the women of City of Joy, where they feel less alone once they speak out about being raped. How did it impact you getting to share their stories with the world?

The sharing of stories is key to the work at City of Joy, and this has an added resonance now because of what we are seeing with the #metoo movement all over the world. I agree with what James Joyce said, “In the particular is contained the universal.” Themes in stories have connected us across spans of time and across geography and there’s no doubt that new voices are being heard right now, and are echoing similar concerns across continents and cultures.

The women at City of Joy come from communities where the stigma around rape is powerful. A woman who is raped faces being ostracized by husbands, fathers, entire villages. Often the mother is their only remaining support. This cultural context makes the work at City of Joy ever more revolutionary. The courage these women have to speak the unspeakable, to own the past and then to move beyond it toward hope for the future is amazing. Witnessing this transformative process was inspirational.

How is City of Joy raising awareness about rape being used as a weapon of war in conflict zones so that the rest of the world pays attention to this epidemic?

The revolutionary work taking place at City of Joy is being spread across Congo by the over 1100 graduates, and across the world by the team at City of Joy. Graduates have returned to their communities as leaders, sharing skills and information with their peers and families, starting businesses, educating and leading at the community level. These actions have a huge impact as women learn about their rights and gain control. City of Joy is internationally known as an example of what is possible when women are given the chance to live in community and to heal themselves. There have been numerous requests for more City of Joys to be started both in Congo and elsewhere and activists around the globe are raising funds for such centers.

Platforms like Netflix are increasing the capacity to reach more and more people and to recognize how connected we are. We are thrilled that the voices of Congolese women will finally be heard around the world.

To see this group of amazing women come together and draw strength from one another is really powerful. What do you hope audiences will take away from watching this film?

I hope audiences will be moved by the individuals in this film. I hope people will be outraged by what the women have suffered and that they will begin to understand how connected our world is, that we can’t separate corporate greed from the violence in villages that we could never even find on a map. I hope people will leave the film with the belief that change is possible and that we all have a huge role and responsibility in fighting for that.

There are many people in despair about so much political unrest in the world right now. How do you hope ‘City of Joy’ will offer some positivity and hope to those who watch?

We live in a scary time with enormous despair all around. And yes, I do think CITY OF JOY offers something positive for all of us. If these women can find hope in a world where hopelessness literally surrounds them, then perhaps we can be inspired to fight even harder to find our own way forward.

What is next for you as a director?

I’m currently in production on two documentaries. One is a vérité film centered around an indomitable group of octogenarian singers in New York City who, in spite of facing debilitating illnesses, find transcendence through their music, pushed forward by their irascible, larger-than- life music coach. The other is a thriller centered around the best-selling memoir, THE GIRL WITH SEVEN NAMES, which depicts the life of Hyeonseo Lee and her harrowing escape from North Korea. The film will go behind the scenes to reveal a country’s people who even today remain shrouded in mystery, mythology and repression.

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