City of Joy (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): From devastation to resilience


I like documentary films which enlighten me on unfamiliar subjects, and Netflix documentary film “City of Joy” is one of such cases. While looking into a small center for the female survivors of rape and other gender violences resulted from the ongoing civil war in Democratic Republic of Congo, the documentary tells us how despairing the situation has been for millions of women in the country during more than 20 years, but it also shows us how those female survivors in the center come to gain hope and resilience through their healing process, and their inspiring tale is something you cannot easily forget.

That center in question, named City of Joy, was established in Bukavu in 2011 by three passionate people who are at the center of the documentary: Dr. Denis Mukwege, Christine Schuler-Deschryver, and Eve Ensler. As his country came to be shaken and disrupted by the civil war during the late 1990s, Mukwege became concerned about what was happening in his country, and he tells us a horrifying tragedy at a rural hospital where he once worked. He fortunately got out of the hospital around that time, but many other people in the hospital were killed by soldiers, and there is an eerie moment as the documentary calmly looks around inside the hospital building, which has been empty and abandoned since that incident.

Mukwege considered leaving his country after that incident, but he eventually decided to stay for helping many desperate people in his country as before, and he came to work in a hospital located in Bukavu, where he often encountered female survivors of rape and other gender violences. As a number of militia groups expanded their territories around the rural areas of the country, their soldiers frequently committed atrocities against civilians, and their usual targets were usually women because, as pointed out at one point in the documentary, women are a crucial social/economic part of families and villages.


This terrible circumstance is still being continued even at this point, but it does not draw much attention from the outside world as the civil war is further propelled by many countries and corporations, which have snatched many natural resources via their shady connections with the militia groups operating in Democratic Republic of Congo. Besides gold and tungsten, a metallic ore named coltan has been one of the main natural resources in the country, and the documentary shows us how many different international corporations have gotten this precious metallic ore from Democratic Republic of Congo. Considering that coltan is mainly used in the production of computers and smartphones, many of us may be benefiting from this injustice right now.

Discerning that something had to be done about those many female survivors out there, Mukwege decided to make a special center for them, and he enlisted Schuler-Deschryver and Ansler in his project. As a local human rights activist, Schuler-Deschryver was initially skeptical when Mukwege introduced her to Ansler, but Ansler, who is a famous American activist/playwright mainly known for “The Vagina Monologues”, quickly impressed Schuler-Deschryver with her genuine passion and sincerity, and she eventually becomes another important figure in City of Joy besides Schuler-Deschryver and Mukwege.

The documentary closely observes how many female survivors staying in City of Joy are helped via education and counseling. As they attend several different classes including the one where they learn self-defense, they slowly come to rebuild themselves through knowledge and confidence, and we later get a rather amusing moment when Ansler casually talks about sex and female body in front of her amused students, who have not been that familiar with their certain body part but now are going to get to know quite more about it.

cityofjoy03Some of these women in the center talk about their painful past in front of the camera, and that is the most harrowing part of the documentary, In case of a young woman named Jane, what happened to her was unspeakable to say the least, but she is quite frank about that while also hoping for a better future for her, and the same thing can be said about other female survivors in the center. When they are about to finish their education at City of Joy, they all look spirited and hopeful, and it is touching to see how willing they are to step forward for the next stage of their life.

In the meantime, the documentary also shows us how things continue to be daunting for Mukwege and his two close colleagues. In 2012, Mukwege almost got himself killed shortly after delivering an urgent public message at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City, so he came to leave his country for a while after recuperating from the injury he sustained during that incident. When he eventually came back in the next year, many people welcomed his return, but he still gets death threats at times, and we notice that he is constantly protected by several bodyguards whenever he is outside his hospital or City of Joy.

Although it could be longer as showing more of how the center helps female survivors, “City of Joy” is still a fairly informative documentary film, and director Madeleine Gavin handles well her human subjects with enough respect and admiration. The documentary may be modest on the whole, but it delivers its message well through its engaging storytelling, and you may reflect on its message for a while when it is over.


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