Monday, 8 February 2016


By Dimitri Keramitas

The title of Thierry Michel’s documentary, L’Homme Qui Répare Les Femmes, about Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege, is something of an understatement: The surgeon is a monumental figure on the African continent, up there with Nelson Mandela, Wole Soyinka, Kofi Annan.

Dr. Denis Mukwege, with some of his patients.
He does much more than treat broken women. But humility is part of his greatness, so he probably wouldn’t be put off by the film’s title. It is an accurate description of his job, though people may mistakenly think it refers to genital cutting. In fact, the women in question are victims of an even grimmer fate, if that’s possible.

The people depicted in the documentary live in the Eastern Congo, which has been wracked by non-stop war for decades. Aside from internecine struggles, the region has been impacted by the nations on its borders, Rwanda and Burundi. In a grotesque irony, when refugees flooded Eastern Congo in the aftermath of the genocidal civil war in Rwanda, they were welcomed by the Congolese who were then victimized when many of these same refugees regrouped as militias.

While women have always suffered as “collateral damage” in wars, in this conflict the combatants perfected the technique of specifically targeting women, not as spoils of war, but as a way to destroy the fabric of their communities. They have been raped, impregnated, forced to have sex with family members, and mutilated. Many have been killed outright. The endurance of these women is as astonishing as the superhuman efforts of the good doctor.

The doctor at his clinic.
In fact, the film adopts a parallel structure. First, we follow Dr. Mukwege to the clinics where he operates, as well as to Brussels, New York and Washington where he collects awards (such as the Sakharov Prize) or speaks out about the ordeal of the Congolese population.

We also hear him speak about his origins, how he became a doctor and especially this particular kind of doctor. Then we get the testimony of the victims, and see how they recover on a personal level, and also organize themselves within community organizations. Dr. Mukwege is also involved in these groups and workshops.

The doctor doesn’t exactly have it easy. Because of threats, and an armed attack that took the life of a staffer and friend, he lives under armed guard. When he goes to his clinic in Panzi it’s in a convoy of Blue Helmets’ jeeps. Aside from the obvious privation and courage is the fact that Dr. Mukwege willingly chose this path. At one point in his life he’d immigrated to Europe, where he had a good career and comfortable life, and safety for his family. But he decided that for a Congolese doctor to practice in Europe while his people were suffering would be to contribute to the injustice, and so he returned to the Eastern Congo.

Filmmaker Thierry Michel (photo: A. McKenzie)
When Belgian director Michel films the doctor and the women as they go about their lives, the documentary works powerfully and movingly. But certain filmmaking choices mar the film. The most distasteful is the use of over-the-top classical music to accompany several scenes of carnage. Perhaps Michel thought these sequences were too horrible, or that the audience couldn’t bear them. For many viewers, the music might come across as moralistic varnish or worse, a sort of cultural imperialism, as if human suffering has to be dignified by European high culture to qualify as authentically tragic.

Michel told SWAN in a post-screening interview, however, that this music was a “personal” choice, and that the Congolese are themselves fond of liturgical music, as it’s often played in religious gatherings.

But he also over-indulges in spectacular shots of Congolese scenery. It’s not difficult: as the director Boris Lojkine once remarked that the Congo is the most cinematographic place on Earth. These shots do serve a purpose, as the locals have a special bond with the land, and the natural resources are the stakes of the various conflicts there. But Michel sometimes veers towards excess, so that at times the film resembles a National Geographic travelogue. [He told SWAN that the setting acts as another character in the film.]

Dr. Denis Mukwege, at an international meeting.
Throughout the documentary, we see footage of the doctor being honored in Western countries. He certainly deserves the accolades, and we’re content that he seems content. At the same time, when the privileged audiences applaud the doctor we sense a degree of their own self-congratulation. Does anyone really think that a medical professional who has saved countless lives needs to be dignified by ceremonial retainers in medieval costumes? This takes place in Brussels, and we can suppose that the pomp derives from the Belgian royal tradition. Yet there’s no irony evoked about the roots of the DRC’s problems in King Leopold’s Congo Free State.

Likewise, the director makes references to past dictators Mobutu Sese Seko and his short-lived successor Laurent Kabila, but doesn’t mention their sponsors, particularly the United States. The film seems to portray the current DRC government as legitimate (if a tad inefficient and corrupt); no mention is even made of Joseph Kabila. But when the audience sees militia members on the dock, finally getting a taste of justice, we have the uneasy feeling their military judges aren’t all that different.

The film opens in France in February.
The film is much better off when the subjects speak for themselves. At one point Dr. Mukwege addresses a church parish about their struggles, and his own ascent from “the dust” of Panzi to international meetings with presidents. The son of a pastor, Mukwege powerfully expresses his faith in ringing terms, and he and the congregation revel in their spiritual bond. The scene shows us the source of the people’s strength under dire conditions, though secular-minded viewers in some countries may well be disconcerted.

Paradoxically, the film’s most searing scene is on the opposite end of the moral spectrum. It isn’t a scene of violence. Rather it shows the rebels coming out of the bush and giving up their arms after a decisive push by Congolese soldiers and international peace-keepers. Thuggish militia leaders give speeches, pretending to be conciliatory political leaders. A suspiciously paltry quantity of weapons is arranged in piles.

Then we see the guerrillas marching in formation and falling into ranks. They seem convincingly disciplined. As the camera focuses on these men we study their faces: they are stone-hard, unrepentant, filled with fury, unbowed in their humiliation. It makes us think about where these men have been, what they have done, what had been done to them and theirs. It reminds us that human evil is a mystery, not just a component in a Manichean equation.

Whatever the film’s flaws, Thierry Michel is to be commended for bringing to world attention a tragedy that has shamefully been off the media radar. (Consider that more people have died in the conflicts in East Congo than in Syria, Libya, Ukraine, and Iraq combined.) That he succeeds in evoking the resilience of the victims and the determination of those who’ve come to their aid is an achievement.  - © SWAN

Co-production: Les Films de la Passerelle / Riva Production / RTBF Sector Documentaries / Public Senat / Lichtpunt / Wallonie Image Production. Distribution: JHR Films. The documentary is supported by Amnesty International. Photos are courtesy of the filmmaker, except when noted otherwise.

Dimitri Keramitas is a Paris-based writer and legal expert.