Filmmaker Madeleine Gavin Talks "City of Joy," Violence Against Women, and More

Written on the walls of a little oasis in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo, are the words, "If Congo is the worst place in the world to be a woman, then City of Joy is the best place to be one."

And, driving through the gates at the end of Essence Road, filmmaker Madeleine Gavin entered the grounds of the best place to be a woman in Congo with a mission.

Opened in June 2011, the City of Joy is a "transformational leadership community for women survivors of violence" where females ranging from 18 to 30-years-old are encouraged to turn their pain and trauma into power. Through therapy, classes, and other groups to help heal, the women inspire one another to graduate from the six-month program and return to their communities or to other communities in order to teach fellow Congolese women what they have learned about their rights, making a living for themselves, and changing the culture.

For nine months, Gavin followed the first class of women to graduate from the City of Joy. She developed relationships, watched the healing process, became inspired, and experienced joy at an unfathomable level. Along the way, she learned that the center is expected to have graduated nearly 1,000 women by 2017.

With the help of MAKER Eve Ensler, Dr. Denis Mukwege, and Christine Schuler Deschryver, Gavin was able to document an unspeakable journey for many women, creating the film "City of Joy."

Check out her exclusive Q&A with MAKERS below and learn more about her experience filming, the challenges she faced while doing so, and what she hopes the audience takes away from her documentary, "City of Joy."

Q. What was it about the City of Joy that inspired you to create this documentary?
A. I knew that City of Joy was starting to be built and it was going to be open, and I thought this was an opportunity to tell an important story in a way that people can not just connect to, but respond to. And because I had seen that strength, resilience, and impulse to work for others in stories before City of Joy, I just felt instinctively that there was going to be a way to tell a story that wasn’t going to have people shut down and that was going to offer some window into hope and the possibility for change. I wanted to make a film that people were going to be moved by and that would inspire them to be motivated to help fight for change. The agony and the pain that these women have been through is just unspeakable, so as we were filming, I was constantly trying to figure out how to tell the story.

Q. What was the most striking thing you learned from the women there?
A. I was completely in awe of the women. What was so amazing about these women was their incredibly strong will to live and to work for others, to work for their country… I had seen some stories and they were talking about their desire for change and this belief that their country could change, there could be hope, and they could help other women. And even if their lives had been destroyed, there was a reason to live. It taught me such a lesson... [In the film] Dr. Mukwege talks about one of the girls and how, for him, she is the quintessential Congolese woman, which to him is a woman who has lost everything and still has the will to live for others. Everything that has been meaningful to them is gone and yet their will to help others and survive for others is so strong, it's palpable.

Q. How has the topic opened your eyes as both a woman and a filmmaker?
A. One thing that I felt in Congo was I realized that I had actually never maybe experienced joy. Like the word 'joy.' In the United States, we're happy, we're sad, we're in a bad mood, in a good mood, whatever, we have fun, we laugh. And I thought that I had seen people experiencing joy and I had experienced joy, but when I saw the women… what I saw from the women there was something beyond anything I had experienced. I think it really taught me that we protect ourselves from pain and we have the luxury of doing that… We have all sorts of devices to remove or distance ourselves from the most primal pains, but in Congo, these women don’t have all of that… What I saw that first time at City of Joy was this openness to feeling emotion, both the despair and the joy that was beyond what we experience here. There’s no awareness of the little tiny things we have. In Congo, if I give a woman a paper bag, she will appreciate it and she’ll use it for something. She sees the value in everything.

Q. What do you hope audience members take away from the film?
A. The film has a nonlinear structure and I really wanted it to be almost impressionistic and experiential. I wanted people to get enough context about what was going on in Congo, but only enough… I wanted people to experience some of what I felt when I went to Congo. So to that end, I sort of did a lot of playing with tones in the film, there are moments that go from despair to humor in a moment… Thematically in the film I wanted people to have a palpable sense of the devotion these individuals have for each other, but also their country. They have an intense love for their country. I didn’t want people to be able to stop thinking about it.

Q. Why is violence against women such an important topic to discuss?
A. I think women really sort of are the foundation of community and that’s true in the United States, too. But, certainly in Congo the women often are the workers, they also take care of the children, they raise the children, so they are responsible for the next generation of boys and girls. So without the women, you lose the entire sense of community. And I think that’s another important aspect to what’s going on in Congo. In Congo rape was very and is very consciously being used as a weapon of war and what I mean is that the raping of these women is not just rape, it’s often done in front of their children, in front of their husbands.

Q. What do you think the effect of violence against women is on young boys?
A. In the film I talk about the cyclical nature of this. When a young boy has seen his mother raped and has seen his father killed, how can that boy grow up valuing women? How can that young boy grow up valuing life? How can that boy be the man you would want him to be? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. And in Congo, unfortunately, there's just been generations of hopelessness. You have boys growing up whose families have been murdered in front of them, whose mothers have been humiliated and raped in front of them and have no hope. So that’s why I think violence against women is at the core of everything. 

Don't miss the "City of Joy" documentary, premiering Friday, November 11.

NEXT: Get to Know Eve Ensler »

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Photo Credit: Paula Allen for V-Day