The Uncondemned: the fight for the first rape conviction in Rwanda


“We’ve made a lot of very tough people cry,” Michele Mitchell told a group of YPFP NY Members as part of the Women in Foreign Policy Series on Wednesday, May 27, 2015. Her new documentary, The Uncondemned, co-directed with Nick Louvel, chronicles the first conviction of rape as a war crime, as perpetrated by Jean-Paul Akayesu in Rwanda during the genocide of 1994.

The film pays special attention the three women who testified against Akayesu, sharing their stories of violence and sexual assault. Known only by their aliases, Witnesses JJ, OO, and NN helped win the case for the prosecutors, setting an important precedent.

But all three women have, to this point, been all but anonymous, even to the prosecutors who worked with them. During the trial, the women spoke from behind a curtain so as to protect their identities, and all subsequent footage of these women blurred their faces and distorted their voices.

Mitchell felt it was important to show, not tell: “It’s really hard, when you’re talking about a crime that’s so devastating because it’s so personal, to deal with when you’re seeing a pixelated face.”

The Uncondemned is the first time the three witnesses are shown on film, uncensored, and YPFP Members were able to get a preview of these interviews. Mitchell said the filmmakers were careful to be sensitive, never asking the women to describe the actual crimes. “We started our interviews from ‘Why did you decide to testify?’ which is a much more interesting answer.”

“What they said later,” Mitchell added, “was that [they] were so happy we had showed up because they thought the world had forgotten them.”

Although all three of the witnesses were women, Mitchell and Louver clearly explained that sexual assault is not “just” woman’s issue. One of the most surprising documents Mitchell cameacross during the process were “records of people who came in to be treated” for injuries related to sexual violence. “You see how many of them are men, and then you see the age range,” from children to the elderly.

The goal of this film is to get the public to think about these complex issues of sexual assault and war, and to serve as a call for progress. “There’s a real need for discussion if we’re actually going to change anything. We have to talk and feel safe talking,” said Mitchell, stressing the present-day relevance of these issues as the scale and scope of atrocities perpetrated by ISIS and Boko Haram are starting to come to light. 

Mitchell added, “We’re not activists,” but the filmmakers are ready to engage in conversations about the issues raised in the film. because it’s the activists “who can run with it and run and run and run.”

To learn more about The Uncondemned, and to support the film as it goes into post-production, visit their Kickstarter.


Maxine Builder (maxine.builder@ypfp.org@maxine_builder) is Associate Director of Communications for YPFP New York.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

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