INTERVIEW: Directors of Soldiers Who Rape talk about the film as a first step towards debate and healing (PART I.)

African soldier lookin suspiciously documentary about human rights issues.
Still from
Soldiers Who Rape
Monika Tibenska
March 18, 2021

A man dressed in combatants’ camouflage clothing sits in front of the camera. He covers his face with a mask and dark sunglasses, providing a confession in the middle of the jungle: “I can state that sexual violence was our big weapon. It has led to the government wanting to negotiate with us.” He is a Commander of one of the many rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The UN documented 1409 cases of conflict-related sexual violence in DRC in 2019 alone. Another study showed that 48 women were raped every hour in 2011. 

The WHY STORIES film Soldiers Who Rape shows testimonies of combatants who used rape as a weapon of war in DRC. Opened interviews expose practices of sexual violence in war and deep traumas which perpetrators and survivors of attacks carry.

Ilse van Velzen and Femke van Velzen are the directors of this award-winning film honored by Amnesty International. They talked to THE WHY about the filmmaking process of the documentary and its impact on Congolese. 

Why did you choose the topic of sexual violence?

Ilse: We went to a refugee camp in Angola in 2003 where a lot of Congolese people fled and looked for shelter. That is where we heard the first stories. We talked to women that were in the camps, what they went through and what was happening in DRC. At that time DRC was still very unstable, there was a lot of violence going on, rebel groups and the military fighting each other. We started to learn more and read more about the ongoing rapes. The army and the rebel groups were systematically raping women as a weapon of war. When we were in the Netherlands, hardly anyone knew about it, there was no media attention for this topic at all. That was the reason why we decided to go to DRC and give those women a chance to speak out, to let the world know what is going on.

Femke: Yes, that was the first film we made - Fighting in Silence. We had more and more questions about who are the men that are raping and why are they doing it. Back then there was not so much research done. We thought that if nobody can give us the answers, we will go and ask the perpetrators ourselves. That is how we started making the film Soldiers Who Rape

The conflicts in DRC have been going on for decades. What was the most difficult part of the filmmaking process, what challenges did you face?

Ilse: We always made sure that we and our cameraman would stay safe. We always produce and work independently and solely together with a network of local organizations. For example, at one certain time, rebel groups were moving up to the area where we were located. We would be constantly in contact with people from our network, from the national army, to make sure that we knew how far the rebels are. We had to have a good evacuation plan. We were at the edges of the war, but because it was so unstable and there were many different rebel groups, fights could pop up quite easily. It was really important for us that during the filmmaking we created a strong local network.

There was only one scene in the film where you feel the tension rising when the captain that we are following is going into a rehabilitation camp where rebels are trained to join the National Army. While we were there we came in through contact that we did not know that well but that gave us an entry point in. When we went in we felt already that there was quite a lot of tension and when they started to be aggressive towards the captain who was trying to have a conversation with them, we realized that now is time to move out before it starts escalating. Our fixer (a person who fixed us with the connection to go in) went after us and said things really escalated, they started to plunder the weapon depo so in that sense we trusted our feelings and instincts to not stay too long. So that was, I have to say, the most tricky moment.

Femke: We have been filming for so many years in so many different conflict zones or post-conflict zones. I think you somehow learn how to get a gut feeling, when it is okay and when not, when are you crossing that line and when are you pulling out.

How did you manage to create a network, find sources?

Femke: We had been working in DRC for quite a while already so we built up a big network with a lot of local organizations and we also set up mobile cinemas, so I think that really helped with the whole connection. You just need a few very strong ‘partners in crime’. For example, we were working closely together with the National Army while making Soldiers Who Rape because that is the biggest group that is raping. We met a military man, captain Basima, a character in our film, who fights against sexual violence within the National Army. He was a perfect character and also a really good person. He knew a lot of people, he could path the way for us and also connect us with the military. Through a lot of different lines you find characters and they can connect you again with other characters. It moves slowly, bit by bit. We always work for a long time on a film, we take our time to win trust. 

We can see the testimony of a woman, a survivor of a sexual attack, talking about how her life has changed. The film also brings testimonies of soldiers explaining why did they rape women, some of them searching for redemption. How did you gain the trust of your respondents to share their difficult stories with you?

Ilse: We have a character in the film - a rebel haunted by nightmares. I think he is actually suffering from PTSD, but that is not really addressed within the army. We went a few times to see him, to gain his trust. He also wanted to be helped and I think for him it was also a feeling: “If I tell my story it is going to lift up a burden”. He was so traumatized by what had happened, what he was pulled into and the crimes that he committed, it was important for him to share his story. We also noticed with the other rebels explaining why they rape, if we had a fixer they trusted, it helped us to win their trust. We told ourselves that if we have these conversations, we shouldn’t condemn them, we have to go in with an open mind and really want to hear their side of the story without blaming them. We just really openly wanted to know why, why did they rape. Also, I think because we were women, it helped them to open up, they did not see us as a threat to share their stories and that resulted in open honest conversations we could have. 

Have the people you portrayed in the documentary seen the film? Do you know their thoughts about it? 

Femke: Yes, that is something we always do. Everyone that speaks in the film, not all the rebels I must admit because they are hard to trace when they disappear in the bush, but all the main characters, all the characters we spent a lot of time with, have seen the film afterwards. We do it because we make a film for international audiences to create awareness, to use the film for policymakers, for non-governmental organizations. But it is an important part of the work for us to bring the film back. We set up a mobile cinema that travels to a lot of different villages throughout the eastern part of DRC. We also set up a mobile cinema within the National Army to show the film within the battalions, because most of the men who raped are military. Because of that we showed them the film and asked if they are willing to tell their story in their country. It is completely different to tell your story when only people from far away see it, but to tell it to someone from your neighborhood, from your backyard is completely different. Sharing their stories helped others, inspired and sparked the conversation. I must add we did not show a complete film in DRC, the film Soldiers Who Rape you can see at THE WHY is a different version than the one we brought back to DRC. Instead of one film, we made six short films to start the conversation about sexual violence in the National Army. Soldiers don’t have time to watch a long film at once, they can be called into battle anytime.

Do you know what was the response to these six movies in DRC?

Ilse: We visited several screenings. Observing how they reacted we found out that for those men it is very difficult to talk about what they have done. They conquer a village, get instructions that everything that is on their way is theirs - they can plunder and do what they want with women. They won’t open up to those emotions, they push them back and make sure it doesn’t come out because if it does they have to start dealing with that. 

What is so powerful about the six films for the National Army is that we edited them on different themes. The feedback we got was that because the soldiers were all together watching the film, they didn’t have to talk about themselves and say: “I did this”, but they could refer to a person who was on that film saying: “this person has experienced this and did that”. Those are the first baby steps to open up and talk about what is happening, that is the first step towards discussion and healing. 

Femke: For every person it’s different. Some say: “I have been fighting for this country, I have been in the bush for so many years if I see a woman it is my right to rape her”. But there are always others in a group that will say “but hey, my sister was raped, my mother was raped”. A film is great to break the silence, to open up the discussions. There are people like captain Basima, moderators who are specially trained to start a conversation when they see a film. A film is just a great tool, we all know that.

Do you think the film has brought the conversation among the ordinary people, not just the soldiers and combatants, but also women who have experienced sexual violence and the stigma surrounding it. 

Ilse: Absolutely, but more with the film Fighting in Silence which we did before. That has been seen by at least 2 million people and it is still being used. In those screenings you have 10 000 people attending the screenings and with moderators that were taking questions. People were taking microphones and expressing their feelings. Organizations which help survivors of attacks were present, if people from the crowds wanted to come forward or seek help later, they knew exactly who to go to and in what area they were. It is a heavy topic and the taboos were huge, but this has definitely helped. People involved with the screenings did surveys before the film, after the film and three weeks after the screening they went into the villages to ask about its impact, to know if the conversation changed now, if people were more open about it.

The film shows a survivor of a sexual attack meeting a soldier who committed it. Do you think there is anything to gain from meeting and forgiving the perpetrators?

Femke: I think it was a very powerful scene in the film. This quite young girl is meeting her rapist. An organization focusing on mediations was present and mediated the meeting. They asked the girl if she wanted to meet the perpetrator at his request. I think she found a way to release all her traumas, to confront the guy. She was quite a fighter, she could ask all the questions she had and express herself. She said later: “I was walking around with this hole in my heart and I didn’t know how to heal it. But because I could meet him, talk to him, confront him and ask all the questions, I feel that this hole is slowly healing a little bit. I saw now that he saw me as a human being”. This reconciliation got her a little bit of dignity back. A lot of times women that are raped blame themselves, the community is blaming them and that is a huge burden. Not only in DRC, but in the whole world. 

Ilse: Of course she could also go to court. Many people are against these reconciliations and say that everyone has to go to court. In this case, and many cases in DRC, people are so extremely poor, that they could never afford it. All that process takes so long and in the end, if the guy gets convicted she doesn’t get a chance to actually sit down and have this conversation. So, I think in this case this was the best for her and it helped her in the best way. Of course, you have to look at all the cases individually. If you have for example military leaders or rebel leaders that are pushing these young men to rape on a massive scale, those men have to go to trial and be convicted.

Watch the film Soldiers Who Rape here.

Read PART II of the interview with Ilse and Femke van Velzen.

The film Soldiers Who Rape is part of the WHY STORIES series that brings critically acclaimed documentaries to communities around the world. 

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