LOUIS ABELMAN

Archive for March, 2005

Some Rare Good News

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I am relieved to be able to report some progress towards quelling the violence of the Ituri/Kivu region of east Congo.

The Hutu exiles are, in their official capacity, negotiating, and have made a shocking concession to representatives of Congo’s government: they will lay down their arms (BBC).

The ex-Interhamwe FDLR, the group in question here, is unfortunately just one faction of many. But this is a crucial breakthrough. If Rwanda accepts that this is a good-faith agreement, Kagame has essentially lost his cover for intervening over the border in Congo. It remains to be seen whether the lure of resources and profit will spur him to make up some new excuse; this is the moment that will prove who is right about Rwanda’s motives in Congo.

As the deadline for disarmament approaches in Ituri, the UN seems to be making some progress: Child Soldiers Give Up Arms (BBC).

This story of the Congo has its spikes of hope and despair, but as always you can only hope for the best. I’m somewhat amused, though, to see that it’s still a place my government says I should never have gone. Just a point of personal pride, is all.

Written by louis

March 31st, 2005 at 8:13 pm

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Woah

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Party people, I give you

Konono / Congotronics

and the video, here.

[thanks to Eileeen, my roommate.]

Written by louis

March 21st, 2005 at 5:49 pm

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Let’s keep the fires burning

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As things don’t get better in Congo, it starts to seem futile to cover every dark turn to the story. I could be accused of a morbid fascination with suffering, and I know the media often is, but sometimes something jumps out at you that you can’t ignore for being too sensational. In east Congo, the sensational is real, is common. Take a look at this, if you have the heart, from the MONUC news agency (it got picked up here and there in newspapers).

Cannibalism in DR Congo: Zainabo’s agony

Also, there was a great piece in the Times (sorry to plug the Times, but it’s my favorite paper, and also I work for them as a news assistant, a.k.a. a clerk or “copy boy”) that gives a general perspective of what’s at stake in Congo, and why it deserves more attention from the world.

Beyond the Bullets and Blades, by Marc Lacey

Check out the well executed sidebar graphics.

You know, the militias in east Congo don’t have tanks or artillery. Just small arms, machetes, and the occasional grenade or RPG. 50,000 troops (maybe from countries with a bit more resources to spare than Nepal or Bangladesh, who are there now) could secure the place. I doubt it would cost a billion a week like a certain ongoing counterinsurgency. [[Actually, it seems from the reports of the recent UN skirmishes in Ituri that some militias indeed have artillery, and a fine command/deployment structure; so they are not to be taken lightly. All the more reason to beef up the MONUC beyond its current overstreched capacity.–ed]]

Back to Terry Schiavo’s feeding tube…

Written by louis

March 21st, 2005 at 5:28 pm

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Filmmaking Update/ Proposal

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About the film: BJ, Nelson and I have been digitizing our footage and have rented a small office in Hell’s Kitchen (sub-let from a former cast member of MTV’s The State). We hope to cut a trailer in time for grant season. If you’re REALLY interested, here’s the grant proposal. I wish I knew how to tuck it into a jump page… please skip and read other, shorter posts if you like.

THE GOMA FILM PROJECT PROPOSAL

Background

The Goma Film Project came about when Doctors on Call for Service (DOCS), a teaching hospital and nonprofit organization located in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), enlisted filmmakers Louis Abelman, Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, and Nelson Walker III to produce assorted informational videos. The first of our assignments was to create a small series of surgical training videos documenting vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF) repair, the most common procedure performed at DOCS on any given day.
A vesico-vaginal fistula is a tear in the uterus that opens into the urethra. In the first world, fistulas are rare; in most parts of the third world, they are caused by complications during childbirth. In the eastern Congo, they are primarily caused by an epidemic of violent rape and torture taking place in the war-ravaged countryside. Marauding armies and militias, some responsible for the Rwandan genocide of 1994, continue to stalk the forests and villages of the region. Women and girls of multiple tribal and ethnic backgrounds have increasingly become victims of plunder, rape, and slavery by the many armed groups involved in the ongoing conflict. At least 40,000 rape cases have been documented in the past several years, with some estimates of up to a million additional undocumented cases. DOCS is the only hospital in the region that offers a comprehensive rehabilitation program for women who have acquired fistulae from rape.
We learned that in the Congolese context, a fistula is a severely debilitating condition, which adds tremendously to the suffering of women already living with the mental and social consequences of rape and insecurity. The incontinence, infertility, and hygiene problems caused by fistulae lead to social ostracism, depression, and potentially deadly infection.
The magnitude of the problem is such that VVF patients have overwhelmed the normal operation of DOCS and live on the hospital grounds in every available space. We became personally acquainted with these patients while filming a segment on their rehabilitation program, Guéris Mon Peuple (“Heal My People”), for a DOCS video.
After the women receive their operations, their healing process takes upwards of six months, the first two of which are spent in a hospital bed shared with another woman. The women who are further along in the process care for those who are bedridden, as well as for their children, who also live in the ward. The trauma each woman has faced does little to dampen the collective spirit of the room; and ethnic and national rivalries, the cause of so much discord outside the hospital walls, make way for an overwhelming sense of community.
Most VVF patients enter DOCS as rape victims who have been rejected by their husbands, families, and communities. Many have acquired HIV and/or have been impregnated by their rapists, and almost all are incontinent and unable to have sex. Because of this and other factors such as crowded living quarters Because their lives have become extremely difficult, and laws against rape are vague and ineffective (in Goma, for instance, only two perpetrators have ever been prosecuted for rape), many women arrive in a state of poor health compounded by hopelessness. At DOCS, they quickly learn that they are not to blame for their suffering, and can easily see that they are not alone in having undergone traumatic experiences.
With the guidance of counselors (many of whom were former VVF patients themselves), the women go through an intensive rehabilitation program through which they receive physical therapy, counseling, and training in micro-finance projects that aim to help them become self-sufficient after their treatment. As a result, many of these women leave DOCS not only physically healed, but with a new sense of dignity and awareness that they will be able to resume their normal lives. Sadly, this isn’t the case for all of them; many fistulae are irreparable, and some are so severe as to be fatal.

The Project

Six different languages were spoken in the ward, none of which we understood upon our arrival. The camera became our primary means of communication with the patients, most of whom had little exposure to such technology in their villages of origin. At first we would entertain them by flipping the camera’s view-screen around so they could see their own image. After a short time, many of the women expressed a curiosity for the camera itself. We placed the camera into their hands, and showed them how to operate the zoom. As the women became more comfortable with the camera, they began to experiment more and produced some beautifully poetic, even humorous moments. Upon learning to manipulate the zoom, one woman zoomed in on the rear-end of her friend across the room, setting off peals of laughter from those watching over her shoulder. With a stroke of good luck, we discovered that DOCS owned a projector, and took the opportunity to screen their footage and ours on the wall of the ward. The entire hospital would attend the screenings, the crowd spilling many heads deep out the door. From this light-hearted footage, one gets a sense of tremendous resilience that many patients possess in the face of incomprehensible personal violation.
Recent popular exposés of rape in the eastern Congo have drawn heavily on the testimonies of violated women, who describe at length their rape and how it has adversely affected their lives. Documenting the truth, no matter how clumsy or painful, is a vital first step in the battling the climate of impunity that allows for the rapes to occur. However, we feel that to simply dwell on the horrific nature of these crimes serves more to satisfy morbid curiosity than to foster empathy. Given only the graphic details of the rape and the prolonged suffering and humiliation it has caused, the women become little more than victims in the eyes of the viewer. To us, this exhibits a lack of faith in reality and leaves out an important dimension— the women’s joy as well as their suffering.
Our approach to filmmaking is in keeping with our beliefs about reality and truth. We avoid when possible news magazine style interviews and voice-over narration in favor of capturing direct experience as it unfolds. Our goal is to create a film that takes viewers through the process of healing as guided by the women themselves, who will collaborate in the process of its construction. The final product will consist of our footage and theirs.
Together we will document the women’s experiences, beginning in their war-torn villages, through their stay at DOCS, and to their eventual return home. We will project the raw footage as well as small edited segments in the wards regularly. We hope this will enable the women to inform the editing process by means of their reactions to the material. Our faith in reality will steer us clear from the pitfalls of this sort of project, which all too often become complicit in neo-colonialist logic by aggrandizing the actions of the filmmaker in an exotic context.
Due to our personal friendship with the hospital administrators and the staff of “Guéris mon Peuple,” our team was granted total access to its workings around the clock. The doctors, counselors, and administrators were the gateway into the lives of the patients and familiarized them with our objectives in producing the film. These personnel are often the most trusted figures for women shunned by their families and communities, and are also perceived with great goodwill and gratitude by these patients. Sharing in that trust is the most difficult and sacred responsibility for us to take on while making the film.
Establishing a personal and active relationship between the patients, the camera, and ourselves is the central goal of our filmmaking process. We rely on our French and Swahili in order to communicate with the women, and always have a translator at hand to communicate with the women who don’t speak either language.

Distribution

Our intended audience is two-fold. Through various means of exhibition throughout the DRC, we want our film to reach a wide Congolese audience and serve as an engaging documentary that exposes the problem of rape in the DRC and how VVF patients at DOCS manage to deal with it. In the DRC, having organized forums and debates after movie screenings is a common practice. We hope that our film will foster such discussions and enable the people of the DRC to speak openly about one of the greatest problems and taboos affecting their society today.
We also hope to broaden our scope to a worldwide audience in order to raise awareness about the issue of rape in the eastern DRC. As was mentioned to an audience of millions on the Oprah show several weeks ago, gender-based violence in the eastern DRC is currently one of the world’s largest and least documented human rights catastrophes. We hope to reveal the situation to the world in a way that captures the truth and reality of these women’s experiences, by allowing them to become active participants in the film.
We seek funding to help us realize this film in its development, production, and post-production. Most immediately, we will use a portion of the funds to defray the cost of completing a trailer from the footage we collected during our first visit. We will also use a portion of the funds to take an intensive Swahili course in order to communicate with the VVF patients directly. Another portion of the money will be used to cover the expenses of creating promotional materials and a press packet for use in securing the necessary funding to complete the project. We will be submitting applications to a number of foundations for the spring grant cycle, including Ford Foundation, ITVS, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Jerome Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and the Henry J Kaiser Family Foundation.
Once we have secured enough funding for the development of the project, we will use funds to return to the Congo for a period of six to eight months in order to complete principal photography. Our biggest production expenses will be airfare, equipment, and room and board. We will then use the remainder of our funds to edit the film and begin the process of distributing it. We hope to travel to Goma in the early fall of 2005, and then have a finished product by the following summer.
Although the problem of gender-based violence in the eastern-DRC has recently received a lot of attention from organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United Nations, it still remains an issue unknown to most of the world. Our goal is to reveal the severity of this issue to an international audience while preserving the integrity of our subjects.

Written by louis

March 10th, 2005 at 2:48 am

Posted in Blog

A question of scale

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Is it a worthwhile endeavor to draw up a taxonomy of disaster? A baedeker of pain?

Here’s an arresting quote. The source is a humanitarian news service, which has a vested interest in maximizing the press of disasters to attract donors. But here it is:

“[The Congo]’s the worst humanitarian tragedy since the Holocaust,” John O’Shea, chief executive of Irish relief agency GOAL, told AlertNet. “The greatest example on the planet of man’s inhumanity to man.”

Congo war tops AlertNet poll of ‘forgotten’ crises.

In the center of Africa, the centerpiece of the world’s suffering. A rich land laid to waste while the world waits.

Written by louis

March 10th, 2005 at 12:58 am

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Running

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In case you missed it, a well-done take on the Ituri violence by a Timesman, Marc Lacey. It’s about a grandmother living on the run…

Written by louis

March 6th, 2005 at 12:02 am

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Go out and keep the peace

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In the wake of nine casualties last week, the MONUC has killed 60 militiamen in Ituri, in their largest firefight since the mission was deployed. It’s within their mandate to respond to attacks and protect civilians with deadly force… this operation used helicopter gunships, though, so it appears that it may be a punitive/revenge raid (though no one is going to admit that).

Most people are pretty gung-ho on U.N. peacekeepers, since the debacles of Bosnia and Rwanda, using force more freely to prevent civilian death. The problem is that if you are going to start fighting a real war, you need real army numbers, not a madly overstreched peacekeeping force. It must also be reasoned whether more fighting makes things worse, even if it’s otherwise warranted, especially in a situation of ethnic war.

Since the battalion has gotten blood, perhaps things will quiet down again…

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is trying to get to the bottom of the peacekeeper sex scandal. I wonder if they can keep two things in their minds, at the same time: peacekeepers committed crimes, and peacekeepers save lives. Baby, meet bathwater; bathwater, baby.

Written by louis

March 2nd, 2005 at 2:10 pm

Posted in Blog