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The Van Velzen Sisters
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The stated goal of the Dutch sister team of Femke and Ilse van Velzen and their production company, IFproductions, is to expose injustice in developing countries and to give a voice to oppressed people. While seeking worldwide audiences, they "reach out to local communities by bringing back their films as educational tools to lift people out of inequality and violence" (http://www.ifproductions.nl/eng/about.html).

Fighting the Silence is the first of three IFproductions documentaries based in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was released the same year as Lisa Jackson's The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, also distributed by Women Make Movies. Whereas Jackson, herself a victim of rape, shares her experiences with the women she interviews and therefore includes herself prominently in her film, the van Velzen sisters' presence is effaced: there is no introductory segment to situate the action or provide context, no voice-over narrative, no interviewer in sight. Furthermore, none of the interviewees is named (except for a list of first names in the credits at the end of the film), nor is the organization for which the female activist works identified.

The film opens with a sequence establishing the context. A woman is speaking about the problem of rape on a radio show; the sign outside the door situates us in Baraka, a town in South Kivu. We then see a man who has been listening to the broadcast on his small portable radio quickly changing stations to listen to music. It is clear that activists trying to tackle sexual violence against women have a difficult task ahead of them.

Three victims/survivors then tell their stories facing a camera: two married women who had been gang-raped by soldiers were rejected by their husbands; a teenage girl, raped by a civilian, was emotionally abandoned by her father. The interviews capture a sense of intimacy between the women and those behind the camera. Other interviewees include a community educator (Chantal), the two husbands, soldiers, and policemen.

All are in agreement that the war is responsible for the violent rapes that have become all too common. But clear statements of fact blur disconcertingly with excuses for the rape as well as justification for inaction. While Chantal decries a society that treats women like second-class citizens, the other women still insist that rape "is not normal here" or "does not exist here." Soldiers and policemen blame young women who stay out at night and "flirt" with men and women who wear only one "pagne" (cloth). The definition of rape in the new Constitution is ridiculed (e.g., even beating one's wife is now considered rape!), and some claim that it is in fact the women who are "raping" the men. The filmmakers leave it to the viewers to make sense of the juxtaposed segments and to tease out the relationship between conflict in the region and the roles assigned to women. But all of the comments suggest the problematic nexus between societal attitudes toward women and the use of rape as a weapon of war (in a supposedly postconflict region)—a topic that is especially fraught for those who are wary of reinforcing negative stereotypical notions of Africans.

The film does leave us with some hope, at least for two of the three victims. Thanks presumably to the intervention of the group that Chantal works for, both husbands take their wives back after having shunned them initially. One of the husbands has begun sharing his story, explaining the pressures he felt after the attack on his wife. People gave him the cold shoulder or taunted him for "sharing" his wife with others. Now he is an understanding and supportive husband, setting an example for others. The second woman has joined a group of community educators that puts on plays to raise awareness about sexual violence against women. The young girl's fate seems less certain. Does her father truly believe that her only option is to become a prostitute? Although her unrepentant assailant is in custody, it is not clear that he will serve a proper sentence, and we are left with her father's...

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