Rape Documentary – Shifting the Power With Film Maker Michele Mitchell – PS023

Rape Documentary – Shifting the Power, Episode Overview

Michele Mitchell, executive director, co-founder and editor at Film at 11 shares her insights and stories on the topic of rape as a crime of war with Positivity Strategist host, Robyn Stratton-Berkessel. This episode is a conversation between two advocates of positive change.  Michele provides an amazing backdrop for her her latest film, “The Uncondemned,” which documents the first time that lawyers and activists prosecuted rape as a crime against humanity.  How and why this topic was on Michele’s radar is fascinating.  Her discovery and resultant goal in researching and telling these stories is to empower not only the victims of rape to speak up, but also empowers all of us to open up more conversations in broader contexts so we can bring the uncondemned to justice.


Michele MitchelleMichele Mitchell aims to build a better world with her documentary films.  Her first film, “”Haiti: Where Did the Money Go?” won the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best TV Documentary among many others. Michele is the author of three books, including two regional bestselling novels. She is a former political anchor on CNN Headline News, where she began her career. She is also a former correspondent for “NOW with Bill Moyers” on PBS.

Michele Mitchell  and I first became acquainted while working together on TEDxNavesink. She is a speaker this year for the “Accelerators” themed 2015 event. Michele and her work are accelerators, as they both demonstrate being a catalyst, change maker, inflection flection, pivotal moment.

Uncovering a Story and Finding a Voice

Michele talks about her start in making documentaries, how and why she chooses the stories she tells. She was first shocked when reading about the rape of 3 million women in Germany during World War II and how they were used as a tactic of war. It wasn’t until a trip to Israel in 1983 as a teenager, when she witnessed people being chased and running away from others with guns, that she began asking herself questions; thus began her inquiry into humanity's atrocious behavior throughout history: What makes people bad?; Why are people bad?; Why are people so mean to each other?

The encounter left an indelible mark on Michele. She wanted to make things better, but she didn’t want to be an advocate; instead, Michele wanted to make a difference through art. She was driven to find and tell the stories of those who cannot speak for themselves, often women and children living in the impoverished world.   She started as a journalist, a novelist and now Michele's art is documentary filmmaking.

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Influencing and Empowering Everyone

“When you publish it in your life, you never know where it will show up.” – Dewitt Jones

Michele describes her work as “not glamorous.”  It's grueling, potentially dangerous and emotionally draining. She finds herself fully engrossed in the stories she uncovers and her empathy with the characters exposes her own vulnerabilities.  The entire production: from the research, the filming and the editing are mentally and emotionally taxing, yet she loves her work and its purpose.

It’s her passion for asking the “why” and “how” questions pertaining to these inhumane, unjust, and oftentimes atrocious issues that keeps her fueled. Her reward is the positive impact her work makes on the world and the empowering response it generates across all the players and the observers.  Her art is a tool of  empowerment.

Synchronicity and Serendipity

When Michele’s documentary “Haiti: Where Did the Money Go?” was released and aired on PBS, she was worried about the impact of bad publicity when the American Red Cross criticized it and discouraged other networks from running it. However, interest in her film grew and she was contacted by other organizations who wished to screen it.

When the film was being screened in Washington, Michele was sitting with a human rights lawyer. The lawyer asked about her next project, and Michele replied that she was interested in making a film on rape as a crime of war. The lawyer mentioned a Rwandan case in 1997 that was the first time rape was prosecuted and the prosecuting attorney who won the case, was a Haitian named Pierre Prosper.

Thereby started an extraordinary string on serendipitous and synchronous relationships and events that will give you goosebumps.  Listen in to Michele as she reveals the extraordinary story of how “The Uncondemned” was meant to be.

Respecting Stories

Michele traveled to Rwanda and Congo to interview the women who were raped and the perpetrators. She knew that the women had already re-lived their painful stories when they had testified for the case 17 years earlier, setting the judicial precedent for trying rape as a war crime. Respectfully, Michele did not want them to re-tell the story of their rape. Her sensitivity and awareness when interviewing trauma victims is always heightened.  She sets the tone by asking why they want to talk about it now.  What she learns is uplifting.

Listen into this episode to hear Michele expand beyond rape as a war crime and reveal other contexts and statistics.  She points out that those statistics are, of course, only based on reported cases.  The age of rape victims ranges from 2 to 78 years-old.

Building Community Through Crowdfunding

Michele and her team decided to finance “The Uncondemned” with crowdfunding, opting out of applying for grants because of the length of time grant writing takes.

The impetus for crowdfunding came after a wealthy financier asked Michele, “What’s rape’s brand?” That provocation enable her to show, through the Kickstarter funding that the answer to that question is rape’s brand is everybody.

Involving people early and generating awareness across a broad base, crowdfunding a film — particularly, documentaries that tackle humanitarian and human rights issues — builds community. Just as significantly, a call to action in the form of a cultural shift takes place. This community building process is expanding awareness and interest reaching college campuses and schools.  Listen into some of the projects that are already taking place even though the film will not be released until after its first screenings in Rwanda in June.

Language Governs Our Actions

Michele states that rape in war zones and conflict areas often occur in public, with a chief intent to terrorize. She stresses that the idea that rape as “something that just happens” needs to change. A recommended start is to start changing the language around rape – bringing it out into the open and engaging in larger conversations.  If we can see rape for what it is, we will begin to describe rape the way it is.

Tragedies happen and atrocities happen, we may not choose them, and they change us.  It’s how we describe the events that happen in our lives that determines how we see them and, therefore, how we chose to describe them and consequently how we chose to respond.

Hope and Empowerment

When I asked Michele what emotions she wants the audience to feel when they watch the documentary, she replies she wants the audience to feel empowered to do something.  She wants the audience to also feel hope that there can be change because change has already happened:  rape has been successfully prosecuted as a crime of war and it’s time to spread the idea that all perpetrators have no impunity and it’s time to create fear for prosecution.

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