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Michele Mitchell talks about her new film "The Uncondemned," about a landmark case that successfully prosecuted rape as a crime against humanity

Weapon of war

Filmmaker documents historic trial that made rape a war crime

By Neesha Arter on June 16, 2015

“Mankind better stand back up on that issue if we are going to survive as a species,” a rape psychologist in the Democratic Republic of the Congo told filmmaker Michele Mitchell in an interview about her new documentary, The Uncondemned, which explores the successful prosecution by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) of rape as a war crime for the first time in history.

The defendant in question was Jean-Paul Akayesu, a former teacher who served as the mayor of Taba, Rwanda during the 1994 genocide in that country. On his watch, and with his direct involvement, Tutsi men, women and children there were systematically hounded and murdered by the Interahamwe Hutu militias. Akayesu was arrested in Zambia in 1995 and extradited to stand trial before the ICTR for crimes ranging from genocide to violations of the Geneva Convention. And, on June 17, 1997, the indictment against him was amended to include the unprecedented charge of rape as a crime of genocide and as a crime against humanity. In celebration of that historic moment, filmmakers Michele Mitchell and Nick Louvel will be holding a filmmakers’ screening exactly 16 years later in Rwanda.

The tenacious team of prosecutors, activists and scholars who joined forces to win the case—Akayesuwas sentenced to life imprisonment in 1998—had help from pivotal witnesses who took the stand to recount their rapes during the genocide. After being identified with codenames during the trial, these women reveal their names in the film for the first time. The screening will be held for everyone who was a part of the ICTR: Rwandan government officials, the U.S. ambassador, and many others from the diplomatic community. Women In the World spoke with co-director Michele Mitchell about The Uncondemned, rape as a war crime, and the use of terror by Boko Haram and ISIS.

WITW: What made you want to focus on rape as a weapon of war?

Michele Mitchell: There is no ambiguity about rape as a weapon of war. It is an act of deadly intent. The victims are women and men, children and elderly. So it’s not about “sex.” It’s about power, humiliation and torture. We wanted to tell a story of what to do about it.

WITW: Can you talk about Boko Haram and ISIS using rape as a weapon of war today?

MM: Both groups have openly bragged that they are using it as a weapon of terror. And those are the two examples that we know of. We need to take rape as seriously as we do other war crimes, and we — as a society, our government — aren’t doing that.

WITW: How did you decide to make this documentary?

MM: I’d wanted to tackle the topic of rape in conflict for a long time — probably since I read Antony Beevor’s Berlin: The Downfall 1945. I had no idea that mass rape had been implemented against German women by the Soviet army. I had heard of mass rapes during the Balkans, but the idea that it happened over and over, as a specific tactic of war, made me wonder: “Well, what are we doing about it?” And then my focus slowly came to zero in on the first time rape was prosecuted as a crime of war. We were fortunate that we stumbled on a story that few people, aside [from] legal scholars, really knew much about.

WITW: How did you and Nick get together to make this film?

MM: We had previously worked together on our documentary called Haiti: Where Did the Money Go? We both thought that would be it — he’d go on to do narratives, and I’d go on to do another investigative story. But it’s so unusual to find someone that you match up so well with creatively. We have complementary skills — I write, he edits, for example — and we are both driven to tell stories that have impact. Now, we finish each other’s sentences. I remember reading the notes from my first phone discussion with Pierre [Richard Prosper, one of the prosecutors for the tribunal,] to Nick, and Nick said, “It’s an important topic — I know it’s important to me.” And that was it. We knew we were all in.

WITW: What was it like arriving in the Congo for the first time?

MM: I arrived without Nick in August 2013, and I was only in Goma, in North Kivu. I couldn’t really get out of Goma, because the U.N. had stepped up operations against a militia called M23. I met a lot of great people who would be key in helping us set up contact for an interview with another militia, but it was quite harrowing because I was also meeting a lot of victims of terrible sexual violence. I will never forget those women. I will never forget the mutilations, the shame, the tears — because it made me furious. I came back to New York from that trip, and I became completely obsessed [with making] this film.

WITW: What was the process like for getting all the interviews with the witnesses?

MM: I had met with Binaifer Norowjee, who is in the film, and she was still in touch with Witness JJ, via Godelieve Mukasarasi, who runs a support group in Rwanda. Binaifer vouched for me to Godelieve, and when I met Godelieve in August 2013 and explained what I wanted to do, she organized the initial meeting. I invited the women to have lunch at the Mille Collines (aka the “Hotel Rwanda”). It was the most nervous I have ever been to meet anyone.

WITW: Can you tell us about your prior reporting internationally as a journalist?

MM: I started on television covering domestic politics for CNN Headline News. From there, I moved to investigative long-form stories for “NOW with Bill Moyers” on PBS. I did my first international story for “NOW,” about young girls sold into indentured servitude in Nepal and the NGO that tried to save them. After that, I started my own company and spent time in Afghanistan, the Middle East, North Africa, and then Haiti, where I investigated what happened to aid money donated to major US charities after the 2010 earthquake. That reporting became the basis of my 2012 documentary for PBS, Haiti: Where Did The Money Go?

WITW: What were the biggest challenges in making this film?

MM: Emotionally, it was very difficult. Physically, it was exhausting.

WITW: What was it like interviewing the FDLR, (the Rwandan Hutu rebel group based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo)?

MM: It was like interviewing every politician, ever: They stuck with their story, even when it became apparent that we didn’t believe a word they were saying. I did ask them, “What is the biggest preconceived notion about you?” And the spokesman smiled slowly and said, “Well. You probably think we are going to kill you.” And then, for a long 30 seconds, there was just silence. And then I said, “I don’t, but Nick does.” And that made them laugh.

WITW: How long did the whole process of making the film take?

MM: If you start from my initial scouting trip to Goma to make sure we could get certain sources on record in August 2013, and since we expect to lock picture in August 2015, two years.

WITW: What were some of the best stories from behind the scenes?

MM: Well, there was the time, when I was without Nick in Goma, when the guy in uniform sauntered into the bar, sat next to me, ordered a Heinekin, took out the biggest knife I’d ever seen, flicked off the lid, put the knife back in his pocket, took a swig and then said to me, “I hear you’re ‘Michelin’ (Mitchell mispronounced her own name the way the man in the bar did) and you’re looking for me.” That was pretty good. That was a first for me.