Blog: Dispatches from Bukavu and Beyond

City of Joy: Movie review

Published in Common Sense Media
By Renee Schonfeld


Parents need to know that City of Joy is a powerful documentary about women and girls of Bukavu, Eastern Congo who have survived rape and been victimized by the horrors of war. The women and staff profiled in this film live in The City of Joy, a nonprofit community that works to heal the survivors and provide them with leadership tools so that they, too, can work toward helping others. Celebrated as a remarkable success, the facility “graduates” 180 women per year. A significant element of women’s recovery is truth-telling, and their stories are heartbreakingly cruel and sexually violent. Discussion of the female body and its reproductive organs is frank, and sometimes the evil perpetrated upon the women/girls is harrowing. On the other hand, the film’s focus on the miraculous folks who have committed both their professional and personal lives to saving these women (some barely in their teens) and the progress of the women themselves makes the movie both inspirational, optimistic, and ultimately satisfying. Due to its mature themes and the stories told, this isn’t a movie for kids.


CITY OF JOY takes place in Bukavu, Eastern Congo, where a devastating war has been going on since 1996. The outlying areas, which are the source of abundant and valuable minerals, are under siege. Multinational companies “employ” militias of young men who are tasked with emptying the villages. Raping and pillaging are a primary military tactic. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped; children and infants have been slaughtered. Citizens flee from the violence, leaving the resources to the aggressors. Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist, and Christina Schuyler-Deschryver, a community activist, founded The City of Joy as a safe harbor for survivors. Eve Ensler, playwright and tireless worker on behalf of women, joins them. The residents’ medical and psychological needs are met to the greatest extent possible. In addition, the women are trained as leaders, their terrifying experiences a backdrop for their renewal. City of Joy offers a new life, hope, community, and inspiration. The women tell their stories. They are instructed in the art of self-defense. Most significant are their efforts to regain their selfhood and their joy. They dance; they sing; they sew; they support one another; they take steps to re-enter the world under their own power.


This moving, beautifully-executed documentary is as heartbreaking as it is uplifting; the women of this extraordinary community are the bravest of souls, the most resilient, and the most inspiring. Madeleine Gavin has delivered a film that gives special meaning to the motto of this community. Like the residents there who learn to live again, Gavin has “transformed pain” into a powerful film that deserves to be seen. Winner of Best Documentary Film awards at an array of film festivals, it’s sometimes a challenge to watch. Stories told with such detailed sexual violence and such intimacy cannot help but elicit profound emotions.

At the same time, the messages — about resilience, about the ability of an individual to radically affect change — leaven the horror with hope. It’s rare to encounter a hero such as Dr. Mukwege, a young woman with the courage of Jane Mukunila, or such stalwart activists as Christine Schuyler-Deschryver and Eve Ensler. This film assures that they won’t be forgotten.


  • Families can talk about the intentions of documentary films — to entertain, instruct or inform, inspire, and/or persuade. In which category(ies) does City of Joy belong? Why?
  • The rallying cry for the community known as The City of Joy is “Transform Pain into Power.” What character traits (i.e., perseverancecourage) are integral to making this transformation?
  • How does this film show the impact one individual can make in today’s world? Why do you think people like Dr. Mukwege, Christine-Schuyler-Deschryver, and Eve Ensler continue to be of service? In what ways is their work rewarding to them? Have you ever experienced such personal dividends? Think about your community. Where might you be able to make a difference?