In what might be one of the most important and uplifting documentaries premiering at DOC NYC, City of Joy follows a community for women survivors of violence in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The documentary displays how these women triumph over abuse and join forces to revolutionize their community. The doc is equally stirring as it is inspirational, and encourages a catalyst for change at every turn. As a fantastic reassurance of what women can do when the work together, this is one documentary not to be missed. We sat down with the director Madeleine Gavin, to tell us more about this film.
Can you tell us what City of joy is all about?
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.” The film follows the first class of women who enter a leadership center in Bukavu, in Eastern DRC for a 9-month leadership training. 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 learn to lead others and work toward changing their country, in spite of all they have endured.
What was your motivation for making a documentary about women survivors of violence in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo? When did you first become aware of these women?
What motivated me to want to make this film began a few years before this leadership center, City of Joy (from which the film gets its title) opened. At the time, I was creating web pieces that tracked some of the work Eve Ensler (author of The Vagina Monologues) and V-Day (the movement she founded) were doing to end violence against women and girls around the world.
I remember the first piece I did about the Democratic Republic of Congo. I had known about the genocide in Rwanda but, at the time had only a vague knowledge of the DRC and the violence occurring there since the mid 1990’s. As I began to learn more about was going on, the torture, the devastation to women’s families, to their communities, their children, their bodies, I was shaken to the core. Having a young daughter myself, it was impossible to imagine how these women could envision a life with meaning after being through what they had or witnessing their children go through such atrocities. And yet there was a resilience and insistence on hope in these women that was palpable. To say that it was awe-inspiring is really an understatement but it was this awe I felt in the face of the incomprehensible strength of these women that initially motivated me to want to make this film.
Once City of Joy opened and we began shooting and following the first class of women there, my commitment to this project became even stronger. 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, left an indelible mark on me. Risking their own personal safety, the founders of City of Joy – as well as many others who teach and work there – have a fierce devotion to the women of Congo and to the country they dearly love. I felt I needed to tell the story of this devotion, this dedication to hope in a world where so much hopelessness surrounded them.
How long did it take to film and what did you find to be most challenging part of making it?
We shot on and off for a little over four years. There were many challenges in the making of this film. There were times when, because of the logistics of shooting in Congo and issues related to access and security, I had to reimagine what I had wanted to shoot, mid-shoot. This was often difficult because material I dearly wanted might become impossible to shoot. But one of the most challenging things overall I would say was trying to find the balance between the devastation of what these women had suffered and the incredible force of hope and joy that they embodied. I didn’t want audiences to go numb in the watching of this film and to shut down and stop listening. So I grappled a lot with the shifting tones. In the shooting, there was of course wrenching, heart-breaking emotion. But there was also a huge amount of humor, irreverence and joy. It was really important to me that audiences experienced the powerful and often incomprehensible array of emotions I myself experienced in Congo.
In a sentence or two, tell our readers why they should see the City of Joy.
I think audiences should see City of Joy because there is so much they can learn from the individuals in it and because our worlds are connected and we need to take action to care about others the way these women care about each other. I myself feel like I learned a lot about the meaning of the word “joy” from the women of Congo, a very important word that the graduates of City of Joy are taking along with their courage and strength, into their work in villages all over Congo.
It is an incredibly important topic, particularly now. I think people will get a lot out of your message. What specifically do you want the audience to take away from City of Joy?
I hope that audiences will be moved by the individuals in this film, by their strength, their courage and their dedication to each other and to changing their country. I also 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 violence in villages that we could never even find on a map. I really hope people will leave the theatre with the belief that change is possible and that we all have a huge role in that. If these women at City of Joy can move beyond experiences that would paralyze many, then I really hope audiences will actively join their fight.
Can you give tips to any prospective Documentary film makers? What did you learn while making the film?
I learned so much from the people in the film, first and foremost. But in terms of filmmaking itself, I definitely learned to be even more flexible with narrative, sometimes intentionally and sometimes out of necessity. I really wanted this film to have its own particular style of story-telling, to be an experience for an audience rather than information. I grappled a lot with this and, whether I was fully successful or not, I learned an enormous amount about pushing boundaries of narrative. Regarding tips for others, I would only say that trying to be true to the specificity of what you want to explore in a film is so important. Being open to criticism and new ideas is equally important. Doing something that goes against the central core of your film, however, is often worth fighting against. Of course trying to figure out the sweet spot of where that line falls can be difficult but is also key.
What’s next step for both you and the doc?
City of Joy is the first film I have directed. Before this I have worked primarily as an editor in both documentary and narrative. I love both forms and tend to go back and forth between them. Right now I am working with Rebecca Cammisa (WHICH WAY HOME) on her new film for HBO about radioactive waste that was illegally dumped in downtown St. Louis. I am also developing a new project that I hope to direct.
City of Joy premieres tonight at 7:00 PM at SVA Theatre
For more information and to buy tickets click here.