The Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo has endured 20 years of devastating violence. It is estimated that up to 8 million people have been murdered and hundreds of thousands of women have been raped and tortured. Rape has been used as a weapon of war in the conscious destruction of community to get at the precious resources in the area. Congo is often referred to as the worst place in the world to be a woman for all these reasons and more. City of Joy tells another story of that region. What drew me to this project was hearing stories from Congolese women a couple of years before we ever started shooting this film. At the time, my mind was blown open by the horror of what I was hearing. These were women who had suffered horrific rape and gender abuse, had experienced devastation to their communities, their families, their homes, their bodies. They had in many cases lost everything that was meaningful to them. It was crushing to imagine both what they had been through and how they could go on.
But equally arresting was the palpable resilience of these women. My daughter was young at the time, and I was sure that if I had seen her endure what these women had or if my daughter had witnessed such things, I would collapse and my life would be over, period. The fact that these women could find ways to create meaning in their lives after such experiences was aweinspiring. This is what initially drew me to this story.
One of the things I felt strongly about in the making of City of Joy is that I wanted this film to have its own language, both tonally and structurally. I understood that I could make a film that was explicit about some of DRC’s history and that told the story of what was going on with women in Congo. But I wasn’t really interested in making a film that was too straight ahead because I had seen films where I felt like I got a lot of information but didn’t really experience anything. I wanted to make a film that allowed audiences to feel what I felt when I first went to Congo — the tremendous strength, vitality and commitment that these individuals had to each other and to imagining a future for themselves and their country.
It was important to me that the audience not go numb in the watching of this film, or to be so torn up that they shut down and stopped listening. So the balancing between the devastation of what these women had suffered and the incredible force of hope and joy that they embodied was something I grappled with a lot. The shifting tones between pathos, humor, irreverence and joy were something I strived for, trying to keep the film visceral and surprising in its emotion and arc.
To this end, I used all sorts of methods and found myself inventing things along the way. I tried to create the feeling of nostalgia, shooting visual elements that represented a world past and the subsequent loss of that world. I worked a lot with sound and music and the interaction of these elements. I saw the war as a sort of character of its own that we revisit throughout the film, learning bits and pieces each time. I tried to give enough history but not too much, and I questioned myself constantly in this regard. This was a real challenge and I hope an audience finds it satisfying but this lacing of elements and tonal shifts was very important to me.
Photo Credit: Paula J. Allen