African business, politics and lifestyle
Must we see rape in Britain to understand rape in Congo?
I was left somewhat traumatised after going to see a screening of a controversial new Hollywood-backed short released this week, aimed at highlighting the link between minerals mined for British mobile phones and the use of rape and murder as weapons of war in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The highly graphic campaign video – appropriately called Unwatchable – starts with a little English girl picking flowers in the garden of her family’s multi-million pound mansion in a picturesque Cotswolds village.
This tranquil scene is shattered in an instant when armed men descend on the house, gang-rape her sister on the kitchen table and then murder her parents. It ends five minutes later with the girl running for her life.
“It’s a foreign story and that’s how people think. We wanted to target 16 to 30-year-olds who know nothing about what is happening,” said Hawker, who wrote and directed the film.
The film is based on the story of a woman from eastern Congo, Masika, and her family’s suffering at the hands of militia, re-enacted in rural England. According to Hawker, Masika was made to eat her husband’s flesh before the rebels mutilated and killed him, and then raped her and her daughters.
“We wanted people to imagine what is going on in the Congo,” said Vava Tampa, director of Save the Congo, a human rights group made up of London-based Congolese students and professionals which is backing the campaign. “If they can imagine what is happening on the ground then perhaps we will be compelled to take more action.”
‘BLOOD MINERALS’ BANKROLL CONFLICT
Insurgents in the mineral-rich Central African state generate an estimated $180 million each year by selling four so-called “blood minerals” – tin, tantalum (coltan), tungsten and gold – that are essential for manufacturing electronic devices like mobile phones, MP3 players and laptops.
Problem is the film does not make a comprehensible link between blood minerals and mobile phones. And without that, is it anything more than a film about rape and murder?
“I am not sure it was a good approach, but if this sort of shock-value film will get people aware of the issues, then I certainly won’t condemn it,” Congolese film director and activist Shana Mongwanga told AlertNet after the screening.
Global demand for these minerals makes them a valuable commodity for armed groups who wipe out villages in order to control mines, and use rape as a weapon because, as Amnesty says, “it is cheaper than bullets”.
The aim of the campaign is to get the public to hold mobile phone companies accountable by signing a petition. “You have the power to demand your mobile phone manufacturer stops using blood minerals,” says a line at the end of the film.
The London-based campaign team intends to lobby the EU to introduce legislation that will force companies to disclose where they source their raw materials, to make it harder to trade blood minerals.
Many people in the audience – including me – weren’t able to stomach the violent content, with some of us covering our eyes to escape the images on the screen.
Shock value? Yes. Unwatchable? Yes. At least for some of us.
WORSE IN REAL LIFE?
Mongwanga thought it was actually rather mild.
“Compared to the testimonies I have heard and pictures I have seen, this is very watchable because it is not even close to what is actually happening there – we are talking about cannibalism, we are taking about all sorts of things beyond humanity,” she said.
Cinematically speaking, the film is Hollywood-worthy, and indeed you’d expect it to be with its all-star crew donating time worth £400,000 ($626,000). They include David Arnold and Mark Wolf, who have worked on films such as Casino Royale, Independence Day and the Harry Potter series.
But will this glamour have a tangible impact on blood minerals and systematic rape in a country where most of those who produced the film have never set foot?
Other burning questions about this kind of campaigning come to mind too.
Do the directors really believe the European public will empathise with women in DRC only if they watch their own people being raped?
Did anyone wonder whether the Congolese women whose lives it’s about would feel exploited or dehumanised, as one man asked after the screening?
And does this type of shock tactic elicit greater public action, or would simply watching Masika tell her story have more effect?
To get the campaign to go viral, the film has its own site with a player the makers hope will be tweeted, embedded in blogs and posted on Facebook.
But it can’t go up on YouTube because it breaks all the rules. And they’ve tried to make sure it isn’t searchable on Google as they don’t want kids or people who don’t understand what it’s about to see it.
As Bains points out, if “you watch the film without the context, then it’s just a film of someone being raped and murdered.”
“If you don’t know what you’re going to see then you probably shouldn’t watch it,” he said.