In 1994, Jean Peal Akayesu was the mayor of a small town in Rwanda when ethnic Hutu soldiers incited a genocide, killing as many as 1 million people—mostly ethnic minority Tutsis—and raping up to 250,000 women throughout the country. Four years later, Akayesu, who commanded some of the aggressors, became the first person to ever be convicted of genocide in an international court, and the first to be convicted of rape as a crime against humanity.
The story of Akeyesu’s unlikely conviction is chronicled in The Uncondemned, a feature documentary by journalist Michele Mitchell and co-director Nick Louvel, who died in a car crash while working on the film last year. At the heart of the film are three women survivors whose testimony secured Akayesu’s conviction. One was sick with malaria at the time of his trial. Another had given birth three days prior. The third was 17 years old when she spoke before the court. (She was 14 during the genocide.) “The first thing you need to know is that rape is a killing weapon,” the third witness said. “Even if you are lucky enough to survive, you are damaged.”
When I caught up with Mitchell before the film’s red-carpet premiere at the United Nations last week, the three survivors were in New York for their big-screen debut, sitting inside Brooklyn’s Olympia Wine Bar and drinking cocktails the bartender had named in their honor. “They’re just ecstatic,” Mitchell said. Since Akayesu’s trial, their lives have changed, she added. Before, “they hadn’t even talked to their own families about [rape],” she said. “They do now, because now they’re national heroines.”
Mother Jones: How did this project begin?
Michele Mitchell: It was 2012 when I decided I wanted to do something about rape in conflict. I was stuck in traffic on the 405 freeway, and at the time there was a man running for US Senate from Missouri. And I heard him say on the radio that a woman could not get pregnant from “legitimate rape” because she had a way to shut down her body. I was just furious. My immediate reaction was, “That’s it, I’ve had it. I am going to to tell a story that takes the sex out of sex crimes.” I thought, “Well, what if I tell the story about the first time it was prosecuted?”
MJ: You told the New York Times that you wanted to work on the issue of rape as a weapon of war because there was no “ambiguity” around it. Why was that important?
MM: We’ve watched this happen all year—Brock Turner, or even Nate Parker. There’s a lot of confusion around sexual violence in general in this country: what it is, what the intent is, what all this stuff means. You hear a lot of excuses. “Oh, he drank.” “Oh, well she wore a short skirt.” You don’t get that in conflict. It’s just so clear. You don’t have to spend a lot of time on this issue of consent—because you know somebody did not consent to this. If people sign on to [the idea that rape in conflict] is an act of deadly intent—an act of power, torture, humiliation—then they have to start thinking differently about sexual violence here domestically. Because they do go hand in hand.
MJ: Do you think people are genuinely making that connection—that rape in a war zone like Rwanda is the same as rape in the US military or on US campuses, or date rape or any other domestic sexual violence?
MM: That’s the motivation for making the film. I wanted to start facilitating a cultural shift in terms of how we regard [rape]. I wanted to make it so we never heard anything as stupid as what Todd Akin said in 2012. When I hear Donald Trump talk, I’m like, “Oh my god, he’s giving a master class in what this is.” I always describe it as the ultimate act of bullying. It’s not about sex, no. This is about harming someone. It’s proving that you have power. If I take a 10,000-foot view of this [election cycle], I am hearing discussions, hearing words used that I thought were a little further out. What I’m hearing now is the beginning of that really raw but necessary conversation. I think we’re on our way.
MJ: So you’re optimistic.
MM: I have spent three years dealing with the worst humankind can do to each other, and seeing it up close, firsthand. But I absolutely have my faith in humanity completely intact. For every horrible thing I saw, I would meet somebody making a difference, or I would see an act of incredible generosity.
MJ: That optimism is in the film, too. Even from the first scene when we meet the women, they’re dancing.
MM: They are a lot of fun. If those women can smile and laugh and want to help people after everything they’ve been through, then it’s like, “All right, I better pull on my big-girl pants and get my act together.” I remember just being devastated when Nick died, and wondering how was I going to make this film without him. All I could think of were the examples I had around me, starting with these women.
MJ: What were the big unanswered questions for you, going into a story about a court case that ended more than a decade ago?
MM: There’s always the question of why. Why did they decide to testify? I was really curious about what makes somebody take a stand like this. When you’re making history, are you conscious of [how] you’re making history? Every single person that you see onscreen had, of course, no idea—they just had their heads down and they were working. It’s not until years later that they had a crazy filmmaker call them: “Hey, want to make a movie?”
MJ: The movie ends with you asking members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR)—Hutu rebels responsible for the genocide, now occupying territory in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—whether they have used rape as a tool of war. And they can’t respond. They’re just silent. What’s the story behind that interview?
MM: I really wanted to get those guys on camera because they or their followers are the ones who committed genocide, regardless of the denial that they always put forward. When you hear about Congo being a ground zero for rape and conflict, it’s these guys who came in and started the whole thing. Facebook was how I made contact. Believe it or not, Congolese militias are apparently on Facebook. Apparently there are 28 different militias in the region where they operate, and for whatever reason, we caught a cease-fire period and were able to go. I had seen some of the results of what these guys had done. I had met this one woman, and she was trying to talk to me, and she had a scarf around her head and over her mouth. Her voice was muffled. I think what she said was, “Can I remove my scarf?” She took it off her mouth and her mouth had been cut out. She had been gang-raped. I remember asking her who did it, and she said the FDLR. I was like, “I’ve got to get these guys.”
MJ: How have you dealt with the trauma that comes up in this research?
MM: As a woman covering these things, you can’t help but think, “That could be me.” At the time, I didn’t realize I had post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. It really messed me up. But I remember thinking, “I am going to get this story.” You feel like you’re carrying people’s souls with you—because you are there for the story to get out, and for it to have an impact. I remember one of the women in the hospital wards in Congo saying to me, “Do people really want to hear our story?” I said, “No, they don’t. But I’m going to find a way to tell this story that makes them want to hear it.”
MJ: One of the lingering questions I left the film with was why you never asked the women what their stories were.
MM: As reporters, we always have to be conscientious of what we’re asking the person on the other side of the desk to bear when they respond to our questions. If you start the interview from the question, “Why did you decide to testify?” it puts them automatically in a position of power. They know we’re going to be talking about—not about how you were a victim, but about how you were a survivor and how you were victorious. I also knew that someday I was going to be sitting in a movie theater with them. And how was I going to feel, watching them relive the worst moment of their lives? I couldn’t do it as a human being. Then, as a storyteller, I thought it was enough to focus on the aftermath and how they pulled themselves together. That’s a complicated enough journey.
This interview has been edited and condensed.