In 1998 the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda found Jean-Paul Akayesu guilty of nine counts of genocide and crimes against humanity. Akayesu, the mayor of Taba, a town outside of Kigali, Rwanda, had ordered the rape and murder of thousands of Tutsi men and women in 1994. His conviction was due to the hard work of a prosecutorial coalition and the courage of witnesses who risked everything to testify against him. The witnesses were so vulnerable that many were given code names and testified behind a curtain for fear of being identified.
Michele Mitchell's new film The Uncondemned traces the events of the trial and introduces the world to JJ, OO, and NN, three female survivors who appeared in court to tell horrific stories of rape, torture, and murder. It's a strong rebuttal to the dominant narrative of rape as a crime of passion, something the perpetrators cannot control, when it is actually a crime committed as an act of control. The Uncondemned is also a legal thriller of sorts, following the lawyers and investigators as they build the case against Akayesu.
While making the film, Mitchell went through her own form of PTSD, then lost her co-director, Nick Louvel, in a car accident, but she remained committed to getting the story out. The film is a testament to change, the courage that it takes to fight for it, and the enduring spirit of the women who embody that strength.
Padmini Parthasarathy: How would you describe the film to someone who hasn't seen it?
Michele Mitchell: It's about a group of lawyers and activists from around the world who came together in 1997 to prosecute rape as a crime of war for the first time in history. We were fortunate enough to not only speak with the prosecutorial team, but we also spoke with some of the previously anonymous witnesses, who came forward for the first time in the film.
PP: Can you explain why this case is so important?
MM: It was the first genocide conviction in history. It was also the first time that rape was prosecuted not only as a crime against humanity, but also as a crime of genocide. The definition of genocide is to destroy, in whole or in part. The decision in this case argues that you do not have to die to be destroyed, that rape is a form of destruction that can be used as a tool for genocide. This set a precedent for all the trials that came after this one.
Also, the ruling doesn't specify gender, and that's really important. It's not just about what's been done to women, which is another precedent. Rape isn't something that only happens to women in war. We know it happens to children, we know it happens to babies as young as two months old. It happens to everybody, including men. The fact is we don't have very accurate numbers for how many victims are men. If there's a reluctance for woman to come forward and talk about it, a fear of shame and humiliation … I don't want to say one is greater than the other, but it is extremely difficult for men to come forward. So the gender-neutral decision means that prosecutions can go forward with this understanding, a truthful representation of what really happens.
PP: The women who testified against Jean-Paul Akayesu were faceless before this movie. They literally testified behind a curtain. What was it like to meet them? How did it happen?
MM: No one had seen them until now. The journalists at the trial never saw them. They had code names. For some people, when they see them in the film, it is almost like they are seeing a celebrity for the first time.
I met them through Godeliève Mukasarasi, the director of Sevota, an organization that works with widows and orphans in the communities impacted by the Rwandan genocide. I invited them to have lunch with me at the Hôtel des Milles Collines, which was the basis for the film Hotel Rwanda. It was the most nervous I've ever been to meet somebody, because they changed history. How many people do you meet who have done that? What they did was so brave. To play that role in history, it's daunting. It's very intimidating. But they could not have been nicer and more fun.
PP: Has there been any blowback or negative attention for them from coming out in the movie?
MM: The fact that this is a case that happened so long ago is helpful. There was blowback when they initially testified, but there was blowback against anybody who testified. It was a very unstable security situation in Rwanda at that time.
PP: What led you to make the film?
MM: In 2012 the GOP candidate for the US Senate in Missouri, Todd Akin, said that women can't get pregnant from "legitimate rape" because we have a way to shut down our bodies and prevent it. I was furious, and shouted a few expletives in my car, because I was driving at the time. I decided: "That's it. I'm going to do a story that puts rape so firmly in the realm of where it belongs — an act of power, torture, humiliation — that it will be impossible to ever say anything like that again."
This meant, then, doing a story about rape in conflict, where there is absolutely no ambiguity about it: it is an act of deadly intent. But I also wanted to tell a story about what can be done to stop this crime, which is what led me to the Akayesu case.
PP: I actually wanted to pivot the conversation a little bit and ask you about how you've coped with dealing with this sort of reporting, I would imagine it's very traumatic.
MM: When you cover trauma, what you're not told is that you will end up absorbing some of that trauma. In June of 2014, I absolutely just had a breakdown. It was pretty clear. I remember thinking something I wanted to say, but what came out of my mouth was totally different. I had already been having panic attacks, but I didn't know what they were. Luckily, there are programs set up for journalists here in New York. I went to one, and they said, "You have post-traumatic stress disorder." I'm like, "I don't have post-traumatic stress disorder, I wasn't in an active war zone." Of course, it took about a year to unwind all that, and then as I unwound, I will never forget it, it was September of 2015, I told my therapist, "I think I'm pretty good now." He said, "Yeah, I think you're pretty good, too." Then, about two weeks later, Nick died. I went from working with a collaborator to trying to figure out, Well, how am I going to finish this? I'd been working so hard, and I was already so tired. I felt like Sisyphus, you know, you get the rock up a little bit, and then it rolls back down.
PP: How did you keep going?
MM: The stakes were high. We were always going to push forward, like "Go big or go home," but it became a mission because now it wasn't just carrying the souls of the women. This was Nick Louvel's last film; it was the last thing with his name on it. We wanted it to go as far as possible, be seen by as many people as possible, and I thought, Hey, if I thought failure was an option before, it's really not an option. You're going to have to be under a rock come this fall not to know about this movie.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Padmini Parthasarathy is based in New Orleans, where she writes about feminism and social justice. Her writing has appeared in The Times of India, the Huffington Post, and Vitamin W.