Congolese rape survivors re-enact trauma in new film

by Nellie Peyton | @nelliepeyton | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 6 March 2020 15:03 GMT

Actors are pictured during the shooting of the film SEMA in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo, May 2, 2019. Handout/Doña Moleka Owanga via Thomson Reuters Foundation

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The movie SEMA, meaning "speak out" in Swahili, is a fictional story about two rape survivors in their struggle to rebuild their lives and combat stigma

By Nellie Peyton

DAKAR, March 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rape survivors in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo will take their stories to the screen in a film premiering in the United States this weekend, written and acted by the women themselves.

In Focus: International Women's Day

The movie SEMA, meaning "speak out" in Swahili, is a fictional story about two rape survivors. Based on personal experiences, it follows their struggle to rebuild their lives, combat stigma and, in one case, accept the resulting child.

Its first international screening will be at the DC Independent Film Festival on Sunday, International Women's Day.

"This film is much more than a film," said Macherie Ekwa, a 26-year-old director from Congo whom the survivors chose to work with after her first film, Maki'la, was critically acclaimed.

Actors are pictured during the shooting of the film SEMA in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo, May 2, 2019. Handout/Doña Moleka Owanga via Thomson Reuters Foundation

The shooting was intense but gratifying, said Ekwa, who guided the survivors through a rape scene that had her and them in tears.

Rape has been widely documented as a weapon of war in eastern Congo, which remains largely controlled by militia groups since the end of a 1998-2003 war in which foreign armies and rebels vied for control over mineral resources.

The film was created by about 60 members of the National Movement of Survivors of Sexual Violence, partly to raise awareness and partly as a form of therapy, said Tatiana Mukanire, the 36-year-old coordinator of the movement.

"Personally it was therapeutic because I've had moments of not accepting what happened to me, of hiding what happened to me, and with the film I realised it is important for future generations to understand what we lived through," Mukanire said.

"The discriminatory practices toward women in Africa make it so that we don't really understand the consequences of sexual violence toward women, and that's a big problem," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Actors are pictured during the shooting of the film SEMA in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo, May 2, 2019. Handout/Doña Moleka Owanga via Thomson Reuters Foundation

The idea for the 48-minute film was devised with the help of gynaecologist Denis Mukwege, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for his efforts to end sexual violence as a weapon of war.

Mukwege has devoted the past 20 years to helping women raped by armed rebels, treating more than 55,000 women at the Panzi Hospital he set up in Bukavu in eastern Congo.

Although the sexual violence there is well-known - at one point earning Congo the label of "rape capital of the world" - it is sometimes considered a myth even in the capital Kinshasa, said Ekwa.

"Making a film like this, it's really to bring people closer to reality and show that what's happening is real," she said.

(Reporting by Nellie Peyton, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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