'The Testimony' Director Talks About the Pressures of Documenting Congo's Largest Rape Trial (Q&A)

Courtesy of Atria Film
'The Testimony'

"I think people will feel very compelled to act after seeing this film," says director Vanessa Block.

An aspiring physician turned documentary filmmaker, Vanessa Block traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo where she began documenting the largest rape trial in the country's history. The Testimony, one of ten shortlisted docs up for an Oscar nomination, examines the mass military rape that occurred during the M23 rebellion in the war-torn nation.

The first-time director talks to The Hollywood Reporter about the difficulties of filming in the Congo and the time she was accused of being a government spy.

How did you find out about the largest rape trial in Congolese history? 

It was serendipity, really. I met a woman as an undergrad at Yale who was a woman from Congo and she introduced me to the third-world war that was happening there. I was struck instantly by how strange it was that so many deaths had happened and so many rapes were occurring and we were not being fed this information. I went out to get my feet wet and see what the logistics in the Congo were and it came to my attention that this historic trial was happening at the time that I was there, so I immediately jumped on it. I went through all of the loops and hurdles to get access to film at the trial and from that point realized that I had landed upon something truly historic and unprecedented. 

What were the major difficulties of filming the trial in the Congo?

There were immense difficulties.The Congo is a war zone so physically there are the demands of being in a place where there is no infrastructure and no roads. To get an interview you don’t drive to the local village and shoot someone, you are going on motor bikes and all sorts of other obscure ways to get to this woman. It was very challenging logistically and very challenging culturally. As a foreigner and as a white woman, I am going into a place where that carries such a negative history because of what the white man has done to the Congo. So it was difficult to gain the trust of people. There is also the obvious danger of being in a place that is dangerous for a woman in particular. I also shot in eastern Congo, where all of the violence and fighting is concentrated.

How was the filming of the actual trial?

I don't speak the language so I had to rely on energy and non-verbal communication, but I knew it was very disturbing when I saw it. There is the perpetrator sitting without any sort of handcuffs in a room, feet away from the victims who have to recount the most traumatic moment of their lives. Then you have these judges who are elevated on a stage, barking questions at them. Everything about the trial was so energetically disturbing to me, and even though I had no idea what was being said, I felt that there was something worthy of telling.  

Do you have any memorable moments from the filming process?

In my process of tracking down female rebels, I went deep into the bush and we tracked down a group of Mai-Mai Shetanis — they are a rebel group in Congo — and on getting to their camp they pointed their guns at us and took our cameras and they accused us being spies of the government. And the only way that they would let us leave with our cameras, is if I shot them in a Rambo-style film. They wanted to shoot an action movie. That is the power of Hollywood films. As soon as we did it, they gave us our cameras back and we left.

What do you hope audiences take away from watching The Testimony

I think people will feel very compelled to act after seeing this film, which is so important in sparking any change. But I have not aligned with any sort of charity or organization, because gender-based violence has become such a hot button issue that many organizations have exploited that issue for their own financial benefit. I think it is very important as a filmmaker that I don’t direct people towards any specific action other than speaking about the issues in the film. It is important, for an issue that is not a domestic issue, to be very responsible and very careful in how we approach a very human response which is to act, immediately. We need to take a moment and step back and process.