When civil war came to Rose Mapendo’s Congolese village, she was separated from her five-year-old daughter, Nangabire.
Rose managed to escape with nine of her 10 children and was eventually resettled in Phoenix, Arizona.
A decade later after experiencing genocide, pain, suffering, separation and witnessing horrific violence, Rose and Nangabire are reunited in the U.S. where they must come to terms with the past and build a new future.
Two determined film makers, Beth Davenport and Elizabeth Mandel, documented Rose and Nagabire's emotional reunion, their readjustment to each other, life in the United States, and one woman’s determination to promote peace and forgiveness.
Beth is currently a producer at Arts Engine, Inc./Big Mouth Films and is producing Asexuality: The Making of a Movement, directed by Angela Tucker and directed Pushing The Elephant.
Elizabeth Mandel directs and produces educational videos for non-profit organizations. She recently created a series of videos to heighten awareness around the issue of gender-based violence in the Jewish community.
Beth and Elizabeth spoke openly to Safe World about their film making process and the journey of telling Rose and Nangabira’s story.
Beth, I’ve read that your background was in commercials and music videos, and Elizabeth, yours in international affairs. You’ve both been quoted as wanting to report on human interest and women’s empowerment, but how did you meet and begin working together?
I joined in 2003 and I came from a commercial video back ground. My undergraduate was in sociology and peace accomplished resolutions. so after working in commercials for several years, I thought I’d better get the hell out of here – and then we met at Arts Engine, Big Mouth films.
We worked together at the company for four or five years before we came across the story.
I loved my field and loved the work I was doing, but I wanted to see if I could finish working on women’s advocacy in a more creative way.
That lead me to documentary film making and I joined Arts Engine in 2001. Then Beth joined and I’ll let her take it from there…
There has been so much conflict, genocide, and war that has taken place that often we see reports in the media that cover general stories. What made you decide to focus upon DR Congo? How did you meet Rose and Nangabira?
We were researching stories for producers when we met with a man named Sasha Tanner. Sasha was inspired to found Congo International after meeting Rose and her newborn twins in a refugee camp.
Sasha told us about Rose’s story, how she gave birth to twins in prison and how she named them after the commander who killed her husband in an act of forgiveness and to save her family’s life!
Sasha said she was resettled her with nine of her children in the USA but that one of her children was left behind and now they are being reunited after 13 years!
We said, “That’s the documentary, that’s the story!”
We asked when the reunion was and he said in about a week and a half. We were lucky to get some startup money from Chicken and Egg (who are the funders here) and we met Rose and Nangabira on the day of their reunion, when they first met each other again.
What drew us to the story is as filmmakers, we’re always looking for the stories that have an obvious human interest appeal, that will also enable us to talk about bigger issues. So it was really a perfect film for us.
I don’t think we can stress enough how important we feel it is to tell stories about issues that seem so huge, so mind-bogglingly remote and to give a window to that so the audience in the United States and Europe can relate to something that’s otherwise so overwhelming.
In one way we weren’t looking for a story about women but in one way we would always be looking for the story about Rose and her family. It’s an intimate family drama that brings all these larger issues to life.
Was it a powerful experience to meet them on the day of the reunion?
I remember standing there as Rose and Nangabira were hugging, and I think half the crew all went through this transformative experience with them – and we were all kind of crying and awestruck.
Afterwards I remember the sound guy turning to me and saying, “You guys have an amazing film ahead of you”.
Because, who gets to see that, you know?
What was it like working with Nangabira, a young person who had been through so much? What was is like working with her?
Basically because of a limited budget and to be as non-invasive as possible, I hopped on a plane with a sound kit and a camera and [with] Rose and Nangabira, and went back to Phoenix with them.
So our first communications with Nangabira were really difficult; she didn’t know English, I didn’t know Kinyarwanda, so there was a lot of smiling nodding and speaking through Rose.
It was such an important moment for the family and I think because I am five feet tall, whereas they are all really tall.
I was completely forgotten about for the first week I was there. Throughout that time I was able to put the camera down and do things like have a meal with the family and try to become a family member and not this crazy person who was shooting them from afar.
Yes, it was obviously a lot of change for Nagabira coming to this country, reuniting with a family not only that she hadn’t seen for thirteen years, but had been through such hell, quite literally.
The rest of the family had come here together – and for the youngest kid in this family, English was their first language.
She was meeting a brother and sister she had never met before and was transferred to an entirely new culture.
It’s always important to cultivate trust with subject, but I think with Nangabira, it was particularly important. And it really was very sensitive at times.
Beth: I think that one other example that illustrates this was when Nangabira was at school for the first time and she was in the lunch line and didn’t know how to pay - the scene ends not because we cut it there, but because I turned the camera off and gave Nangabira money to buy lunch!
There are people that say you need a complete wall between you and your subject while you are filming, but this just isn’t how this film played out.
It’s a very important issue to talk about ethics and I think about it at every stage of the process.
Some of the smaller things – how do you insert yourself into the family and how do you follow someone to school on their very first day without making things worse for them?
And we don’t have the answers to all of these questions, but it’s important that we are struggling with them and we are very fortunate.
For the most sensitive issues Rose was really on board with including us, which is not always the case.
Making the film was both really hard at times but also really transformational. You know, you came out of it and just cried for two hours with Rose or maybe you just came out laughing and smiling and really putting your own life in perspective.
I hope people will have the same experience with viewing the film as we had making it.
Really transformational, and a blessing.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film? How has it been received by other women?
Awareness about war in Congo, I think a lot of people don’t even know about it.
I don’t think they know Congo has been given the dubious distinction of being the rape capital of the world.
To raise awareness that the victim of this war and other wars might be your next door neighbor, even though it seems so far away.
One of the beautiful things about this country is there are people from all walks of life. If you look who’s sitting in the car next to you, we hope to inspire people to take action at a legislative level and reaching out to your neighbors.
Help someone figure out how to get their kids enrolled in school or register for a driver’s license. That this is a family that could be living next door to you.
We also hope to really raise awareness of how war affects women disproportionately and how women can be responsible for keeping the family alive and together through the most difficult circumstances.
That often so many people killed are men that often leaves women responsible for the family as they are the only ones left.
Then, in the case of Congo, how rape is being used as a weapon of war. We hope by raising awareness that people will take action against that. That it be deemed unacceptable.
We are planning something with the USAID and strategizing about making the United States hold the governments accountable for the countries they do business with.
I think that the key is that women need to be integrating into leadership roles.
Gender-based violence prohibits that and the world could be a better place if women were leaders.
What we are really empathizing is it’s not a touchy-feely issue; it’s a national security issue.
As long as women aren’t secure the world can’t be secure.
We hope that people see it as something relateable to as a mother-daughter story.
In terms of including women, I just want to tell you about a screening we had last week.
We were fortunate enough to have a UN women, Unite, Hungarian permanent mission and UN co-sponsored screening. Present at the screening were Rose and a large
contingent of Congolese women who had come to the screening, not understanding that they were going to see a film about a Banyamulenge Tutsi.
After the screening Rose started to speak in English and there was uproar from the audience:
“Why isn’t she speaking a Congolese’s language?”
The implication was that she’s not truly Congolese and can’t even speak a Congolese language.
The women started to get up and leave and Rose stood up and stopped them and called them sisters.
She said, “I can speak your language and I am Congolese.” The conversation started very angrily and at the end they were hugging, laughing, taking pictures and exchanging numbers.
These women had understood themselves to be accused by the film and I think it was first time they had actually had a conversation with a Congolese Tutsi – and it was transformative.
These women who had probably, possibly, had family members killed by one another were put in a room together with a leader, in the shape of Rose, who’s only willing to say if you don’t believe in me we have to talk about it.
None of this was planned and Rose called it one of the most important days of her life.
I took away from it the absolute critical importance of getting women from opposing sides of conflict to sit down together in a room to work it out.
The only way that countries like Rose’s have a future is if women sit down with a leader who will only accept an outcome of kissing and hugging and taking photos.
What’s next for you both and for the film?
Now we are really hoping to take the film around the world.
We want to take it to Congo, to use the film to start women’s circles and start something with the women all around Congo.
This is a story about one woman and her family. If we could take it to Congo with audiences being prepared that this is not a story that meant to be specific about identity.
If it’s bringing six women together that’s a success!
In 2008, Rose became the first refugee to address the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva.
In 2008, the White House invited Rose Mapendo to speak in commemoration of World Refugee Day.
Rose was invited to represent her tribe in the Goma Peace Talks in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008. She was one of only a handful of women invited to the talks.
In 2009, Rose’s brother Fredrick and his wife and baby were granted visas to join Rose and her family in the United States.
Pushing The Elephant was one of only three films from the United States invited to participate in the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam Pitch Forum in November 2008.
Pushing the Elephant screened at the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women, hosted by the Hungarian Mission to the UN and UN Women.
The film was selected for the Miami International Women’s Film Festival.
Pushing the Elephant premiered at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in 2010. Rose, Nangabire, and Rose’s eldest son John were present.
Rose was honored with the Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2009 by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.
Rose’s eldest daughter, Aimee, gave birth to a baby boy in 2009 and another baby boy in 2010.
In February, Beth and Elizabeth were invited to present the film and speak at Yale University’s 17th Annual Rebellious Lawyering Conference.
Human Rights Watch Film Festival London invited Beth, Elizabeth and Rose to present the film and host a Q&A
Rose Mapendo and filmmakers Beth Davenport and Elizabeth Mandel took Pushing the Elephant to lawmakers on Capitol Hill to advocate for International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA).
Pushing the Elephant screened at the World Bank, and Rose, Beth and Elizabeth spoke on a panel to World Bank decision-makers about the importance of grassroots women’s leadership in fragile states.