Blog: Dispatches from Bukavu and Beyond

City of Joy: the powerful Netflix documentary where ‘everything is about love’

Published in The Guardian
By Clara Mae

How does one find joy amid unspeakable tragedy? Madeleine Gavin’s documentary City of Joy, about a community built around women who have survived horrific violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), gives us a glimpse at both an incredible injustice still occurring today, and how Congolese women are combating it with their own grassroots movement.

The documentary follows the beginnings of City of Joy, a center established in 2011 in the eastern region of the DRC to help women who have been victimized by the ongoing mining conflicts in the area. The center was set up by the Panzi hospital founder Dr Denis Mukwege, women’s rights activist Christine Schuler Deschryver and Eve Ensler, author of the Vagina Monologues and founder of V-Day. Schuler Deschryver is the director and works with staff to oversee day-to-day operations, while Mukwege serves as an adviser and Ensler helps to fundraise and raise awareness.

“Everything is about love at City of Joy,” Schuler Deschryver told the Guardian. She described how many of the women who first arrive at City of Joy associate being touched only with violence. “So when you hug her and tell her she’s beautiful, that you love her, that you will fight for her, suddenly she’s like: ‘Oh my God, I exist. I’m a human being.’ You see the joy that [the women] have and know what they’ve passed through. I think that’s one of the reasons I wake up every morning.”

A large, gated community within the city of Bukavu, City of Joy serves as a type of boarding school: the women stay there for six months, and during that time they focus entirely on healing. Ensler describes it as a “kind of spiral of love”: there’s a collective of social workers and “Mamas” who built City of Joy with their own hands, and they’re the ones who do the cooking and take care of the women. “The women have someone take care of their children so they can purely focus on their own recovery, on getting better,” said Ensler. “And they have every kind of class imaginable. I mean, they have from group therapy to learning their rights to self-defense to learning permaculture and agriculture to learning English. It’s a whole roster.”

This format was entirely determined by the Congolese women themselves. “Dr Mukwege, Christine and I spent weeks and weeks talking to the women and listening to stories,” said Ensler. “We started asking women what they wanted. What did they need the most, what would help them the most? And the majority of them said that they needed a safe space where they could heal. Where they could learn, where they could become leaders and do something to change the direction of the country.”

Eastern DRC is rich in the four most commonly mined conflict minerals: coltan, tin, tungsten and gold. Once processed, these minerals are sold to companies all over the world to make consumer products such as phones, laptops, cars and appliances. Coltan, in particular, is the integral ingredient that allows smartphones and electronics to hold a charge. Some of the companies that use coltan, and thus benefit from these conflicts, are Apple, Nintendo, Sharp, Nikon, Sony, Canon, Toshiba, Lenovo and Samsung.

The demand for these invaluable resources has led countless militia groups to vie for control of the mines, and this proxy war has created unspeakable atrocities in the surrounding areas, with many of the victims being women and girls. It’s almost impossible to accurately track the magnitude of this humanitarian disaster, but a study published in the American Journal of Public Health estimated about 48 women are raped in the DRC every hour. At his Panzi hospital, Dr Mukwege has performed reconstructive surgery on over 40,000 women who have been brutalized by sexual violence as a result of militia taking over their villages. In speaking to the Guardian in 2015, Mukwege called rape the “monstrosity of the century”.

Schuler Deschryver said the militia use “rape as a weapon” solely to “terrorize people”. This conflict has been raging since 1996; while the war that sparked these events officially ended in July 2003, both Ensler and Schuler Deschryver have seen little meaningful, lasting change from the world powers and multinational corporations that benefit from the sale of these minerals.

Dr Denis Mukwege, Christine Schuler Deschryver and Mama Bachu (center).

Dr Denis Mukwege, Christine Schuler Deschryver and Mama Bachu, center. Photograph: Netflix

“You know, I think this is where I become like a crazy person, because it’s over 12 years later and Dr Mukwege, Christine and I have made the rounds to every person with power on the planet and it’s still going on,” said Ensler. “Nothing has changed. And then you start thinking like, OK, do the people of Congo matter to anyone? Do the women of Congo matter to anyone?”

There have been some attempts to audit the sale of conflict minerals. In 2012, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) adopted a rule mandated by former president Barack Obama’s Dodd-Frank Act that companies registered with the SEC had to disclose the use of conflict minerals sourced from the DRC, and they had to submit their reports by May 2014. While well-intentioned, regulating the minerals did not successfully snuff out the violence or existence of various militia groups. Amnesty International published a study in 2016 that concluded that many of the companies subject to reporting requirements under Dodd-Frank were still “contributing to the funding of armed groups or fuelling human rights abuses in the DRC”. As late as March 2018, those same companies were still “trying to ensure” their coltan was ethically sourced, and just last year Donald Trump drafted an executive order that would suspend the Dodd-Frank rule entirely.

“I don’t think they want it to change,” said Schuler Deschryver. “They want to keep going on so they can just plunder Congo with no witnesses.”

It’s an endlessly frustrating situation, and the hope is that the wide release of City of Joy on Netflix will help people to realize how interconnected we all are – and how we should be demanding our own countries and corporations do better. “I think people are so surprised to find out how complicit we all are in these wars and in the rape,” said Ensler. “Because the fact of the matter is, every time a village gets ransacked, and every time a rape is used to get people to flee their villages, it’s so the village can be taken over because of the mines. And so we’re all part of this story, whether we know it or not.”

Residents of the City of Joy

 Residents of the City of Joy. Photograph: Netflix

Residents of the City of Joy
 Residents of the City of Joy. Photograph: Netflix

The women of City of Joy, meanwhile, continue to do the important work – healing themselves, healing each other and figuring out, hopefully, how to heal the country itself.

The key to this is teaching the women how to become leaders in their communities. “When we can we help [the women] realize their dream,” said Schuler Deschryver. “They have a mission: when they go back to their communities, it’s to spread the message and everything they learned at City of Joy. So now, we even have some women who are the chief of their village. Some of them are partners of V-Day to help recruit more women. Some are now directors of schools, and some of them, because they had communication classes, they’re at a local radio station. And they go and help the other girls … it’s amazing. It’s like we’ve created a whole network of women in solidarity.”

Since its inception in 2011, City of Joy has graduated 1,117 women. “When women arrive … many of them have been exiled because they’ve been raped. They’ve been marginalized and really live on the edges. And many come so bruised and so battered and with diseases and sickness,” said Ensler. “And when you see them six months later you can’t even believe it’s the same people. They’re just these radiant, gorgeous flowers that have blossomed and who are secure and competent.”

It’s difficult to see how and when the violence in the DRC will end, but that doesn’t stop the women from focusing on their goal of raising awareness, and demanding more responsibility and transparency from foreign entities. “For the war to end in Congo, I don’t know how,” said Schuler Deschryver. “I don’t know how this will end, but we will keep fighting, knowing we are fighting against giants and we are just little.”

And there’s hope that the film will inspire more to join the movement. “It’s really hard to get people to care about women in Congo, as you can imagine,” said Ensler. “And I feel so overjoyed that finally their voices and their stories are getting out. So it’s thrilling, and hopefully this will inspire people to wake up to not only what’s happening in the Congo, but also just to think about how we can create literal and metaphoric City of Joys everywhere.”

You can find ways to help City of Joy at their website.

  • City of Joy will be available on Netflix on 7 September