Vanessa Block hadn’t planned on becoming a filmmaker, but fate had other plans. During her undergrad years at Yale, the chemistry major befriended a Congolese woman who worked at the school’s cafeteria, their conversations ultimately turning to the atrocities in her homeland as a result of the country’s ongoing civil war that led her to America.
“That troubled me deeply,” recalls Block. “And my getting a liberal arts education, I assumed that I would be exposed to what many have called ‘the third World War in Africa,’ but it was something that was not being reported on. I felt compelled to make a film about it.”
What Block couldn’t have possibly anticipated in making “The Testimony,” which was recently shortlisted for an Oscar in the Best Documentary Short category, was that once she traveled abroad, she’d stumble into covering the Minova trial where 14 officers and 25 soldiers in the Congolese Army were being tried for the war crimes of rape and pillage, the largest such tribunal ever held in the country. For Block, the trial came to crystallize the reason she had come to Congo in the first place, frustrated by the subjugation of those displaced by the war, particularly women. As one tells the filmmaker about her children in “The Testimony,” “The life of a hoe is the most they’ll ever know,” alluding to the way the conflict has condemned generations to a life of poverty in the villages while soldiers feel entitled to take what little these communities do have.
Over two months, Block went to the furthest reaches of Eastern Congo, one of the country’s most dangerous regions, to interview villagers, visit their clinics and ultimately sit in the gallery of the Minova trial to watch as women shrouded in headscarves bravely testify against the soldiers, who besides the judge seemed to be the only others present in the courtroom. Although Block didn’t speak the language, she’s able to vividly capture and convey the vicious cycle of behavior that’s been allowed to perpetuate as the war has rendered the law irrelevant, though it’s a situation that the filmmaker is careful to point out that’s not without hope, evident in the inner strength that radiates from each of the women she interviews or the promise of education that she observes happening as her camera rolls. Recently, Block spoke about her unexpected path to filmmaking, how her background informed how she made “The Testimony” and how she was able to win the trust of her subjects.
When you were in college, you studied chemistry and ultimately international medicine. Did that give you an interesting perspective on how to tell this story or what to shoot?
It gave me a more informed perspective just in that I was educated on non-government organizations and what they’ve done in the region [as well as] sexual violence. I took a class called maternal health that informed a number of the questions that I asked, so a more informed and responsible perspective helped me greatly. You also find yourself just being a human being working with other human beings, and your instincts and your natural intuitive sensibilities really kick in. It’s much less about education and more about being a woman who’s sitting down with another woman who’s gone through something that many American women, in a different way, have also experienced here in this country. The humanity was there, and that was probably the most important driving force behind all the questions, and all of the relationships that I formed in Congo.
Did you go to the Congo and find the story once you were there or did you actually know of the trial?
I entered Congo with a general [sense] of the subject matter, and what I knew I needed to get in order to make an informed film. It rapidly evolved into something pretty different from what I had imagined once I was on the ground, meeting these women and hearing their stories. The trial was a completely fortuitous event, but once I got into the space and saw what was unfolding, I knew that was going to serve as the backbone of the film, so I quickly did what I needed to do to gain access to it.
It’s a very striking image that you see of the court gallery where one side — the accusers’ side is completely empty, but the other side is full of soldiers. Was the trial actually difficult to access for either you or the families?
My understanding was that families were allowed, and the reason that you didn’t see any was because they didn’t want to be there. There really is virtually no support for these women in the face of sexual violence. As the film explores, the rape of women in Congo carries such a stigma, and oftentimes husbands leave their wives as a result of the event. Families are fractured and communities are destroyed.
There are many women that you speak to in the film, but it seems there are three you really focus on. How did you gravitate towards them?
The process for each was different. It was imperative I didn’t just find women living in the more urban setting, so all of them were women living way out in very rural parts of Eastern Congo because life for the urban woman versus the rural woman is so different. The rural women who [live] deeper into the jungle are most vulnerable to attacks of sexual violence, so I ventured out into the villages with my translator and my driver. We had our little team, and once we were there, we had to go through a series of things in order to gain access, beginning with winning the trust of the village leaders. Once we sat down and spoke with them, and they understood our purpose in being there, they allowed us to go through the village and speak to various women. Upon sitting down with them, based on how open they were willing to be with me and how comfortable they were, I made my choices on which subjects to interview further.
This doesn’t only bring up the issues that exist for these women in the Congo, but also offers hope in how some of this could possibly be resolved. Was that was part of your instinct from the start or did you discover that as time went on?
Naturally, the observation informed the solution. It was never my agenda to make a piece of propaganda that tries pin down exactly what needs to be done, but rather shed light on it and allow the subjects to speak for themselves and tell their stories when they would never otherwise have a platform to be able to do that. These women are live so far out in the bush, and in Congo, reporting is really lacking, so just getting them an opportunity to speak their truth was really the agenda. At the end of the day, change is going to happen through women in Congo, not from a Western perspective trying to force change onto the region.
Did you ever run into any dangerous scenarios while you were there that you had to overcome?
Every day presented its own challenges. There was the lingering danger of filming in a war zone where there are obvious threats of nature, disease, and rebel activity and unrest that were constantly a presence. More in the acute sense, every day something would happen. I had an experience where I was tracking down female rebels and I had to cross enemy lines from a town called Masisi, which is an active military zone, and go out way into the jungle. The day that I ventured out I heard that the warlord that I was tracking down had amputated the hands of a German journalist just the day before. The threats were very real and immediate. There was always the challenge of maintaining focus and calm, and leadership of the team in the face of real, constant danger.
What’s it been like to finally finish the film and get reaction to it?
I think that people are stunned by what they see because no one has really [ever] gained access to a trial like that and filmed it, so it’s been shocking for people to observe that process unfolding through the film. We hope that the film will continue to advance through the Academy, because it wasn’t until the film was shortlisted that we were given an opportunity to speak about it in the media, which speaks to the problem that issues like this just are not properly covered. There’s really a strange silence and lack of visibility [about this issue] for some reason, so to be given an opportunity through this process to get these stories out there, it’s a critical part of really beginning to tackle and combat this global crisis.