During the recent PSVI Film Festival in London, I watched several films about conflict-related sexual violence, including Libya: Unspeakable Crime (2018). This documentary film primarily focuses on male victims/survivors, who rarely come forward to seek help. We are told that when a Libyan man suffers sexual violence, local people will ask ‘What did he do to deserve it?’ Graphic details are given about some of the extreme abuses and depravities that men have been forced to endure in Libyan prisons and other places of detention. The men’s faces are not shown, and in many ways this makes the film more powerful. One wonders about the men’s eyes and the emotions that they express. In one part of the film, a man enters the room. He has a walking stick and sits down slowly. The camera pans to the lower part of his face, to his beard which is flecked with hints of grey. He looks to be in his mid-fifties at least. We are told that he is just 27 years old. I think about the possible injuries that he may have suffered; untreated injuries that he is too afraid or ashamed to reveal. His body looks worn and haggard. It moves with difficulty. 

In the film Breaking the Silence – Sexual Violence under the Khmer Rouge (2017), a different type of movement catches my attention. As Cambodia deals with the legacy of Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea, there has been significant emphasis on artistic projects. One of these is a classical dance drama (called Phka Sla) about forced marriage during the Khmer Rouge regime. The dancers move with ease and grace, using their bodies to tell a story and to inform younger generations about the past. Phka Sla moves audiences in an emotional sense. According to John Shapiro, the executive director of the Khmer Arts Academy, ‘Empathy is one of the most important things you can share with and develop in any population’. 

Photo taken at the PSVI film festival in London 2018 showing the panel discussing the Netflix documentary City of Joy

The film that had the biggest impact on me was City of Joy (2016). Established in 2011, the City of Joy – based in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo – provides women who have suffered conflict-related sexual violence with new skills, it informs them about their rights and it seeks to empower them to become leaders. The City of Joy’s fundamental aim is to transform pain into power. I never imagined that I would laugh whilst watching a documentary film about conflict-related sexual violence. At one point in the film, Eve Ensler – author of the Vagina Monologues – asks all of the women to lie on the floor, each one with her head on another woman’s stomach. When the women feel the stomach under them moving with laughter, they too have to laugh. The writhing mass of bodies conveys a sense of solidarity, joy and movement. Despite everything that they have gone through, the women are rebuilding their lives and helping each other to go forward.

The City of Joy is an inspiring film. I left the auditorium feeling uplifted and intrigued about the possibility of creating Cities of Joy in other countries. This is something that the human rights activist and City of Joy director, Christine Schuler Deschryver, would ultimately like to do.  But then I think about some of our CSRS research participants in Uganda. Some of them are living with intense pain, from bullets lodged in their bodies and unhealed physical wounds. Their movements are slow and laboured, like the man in the Libyan film. The women at the City of Joy have received treatment from the Panzi Hospital and this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Congolese gynaecologist Dr Denis Mukwege. This has helped them to transform their pain into power. Such transformation, however, will always be extremely difficult if survivors struggle to move comfortably in their own bodies.