POV: Describe this film for someone who hasn’t seen it.
Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt: Lumo is about the recovery process of a 22-year-old Congolese woman, Lumo Sinai, who was violently raped at the age of 20 by a group of soldiers. As a result of the rape, Lumo suffered from a condition known as a fistula. Because of the rape and also because of the fistula, which made her incontinent and unable to bear children, she was rejected by her fiancé and kicked out of the house by her family. She found a hospital that was treating about 200 other women who had been raped and needed specific operations to repair fistula. They all have to stay at the hospital at least three or four months, during which time they’re healing physically, but also getting support from counselors, taking literacy and sewing classes, and forming a community of caring women who are all looking out for one another. They learn that it wasn’t their fault that they were raped and that their husbands left them, and that they have every right to live a normal life like any other person. Lumo was at the hospital for a year and a half, for five operations, each requiring several months of recovery, before she was fully healed and could return to her village.
POV: How did you come to make this film?
Listen to an interview with Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Nelson Walker III in an MP3 audio podcast. (14 minutes)
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Perlmutt: After I graduated from college, I thought I’d go to medical school, and I wanted experience working in Africa. I went to the HEAL Africa Hospital in Goma to be a doctor’s assistant, and I spent five months there and really fell in love with the place. But I was also interested in film and had applied to film schools, and when I was in the Congo, I found out that I had gotten into Columbia and NYU for film school. I thought film school would be a nice break before medical school, but then once I was in film school, I fell in love with it and decided to pursue film as a career.
I’d always wanted to go back to the Congo, so I returned to do an informational video for the hospital. I brought Louie [Abelman] and Nelson [Walker] with me, at first thinking we would just do these informational videos. But then a doctor there had us film fistula operations for medical training purposes, and for three or four days we filmed operation after operation on these women who had just been raped. I’d heard of fistulas, but in the context of childbirth, not violent rape. It was shocking and horrifying to both Nelson and me to see these women who had been raped coming in by the busload. Rather than focusing on the problem of rape and fistulas, we thought we would make a film about their healing process. On the first trip, we worked with the counselors I already knew from my previous trip. Then when we came back, we started editing the footage and realized that the real story was not with the counselors but with the patients who were going through this healing transformation. So we went back for another three months.
POV: Can you tell us more about meeting Lumo and why you focused on her?
Perlmutt: The counselors were very vibrant and social, and when they took us around to meet all the patients, the women were very quiet, except Lumo, who came and said, “Film me and teach me how to film. We’re going to work together.” Right from the start, she was really excited about working with us, and we got to know her very well, very quickly. We ended up spending the next two months filming with her every day. We had two cameras there the whole time, and Nelson filmed with Lumo and I filmed with some of the other patients whom we decided not to include in the piece because Lumo was such a strong and engaging character.
Nelson Walker III: Lumo is a bit sassy and has a great sense of humor. She was a leader in the community and always had a group of women around her, but she also had quiet, internal moments when you could tell that she was processing things and wasn’t necessarily sharing everything with us, but in a good in a way. There are a number of moments in the film where she is lost in thought, and even though she’s the center of attention and everything is going on around her, she withdraws into herself.
POV: Lumo does seem very comfortable in front of the camera. As male directors, how did you gain her trust?
Walker: When we were first introduced to Lumo, she came up and started looking at and grabbing the camera. A lot of the women who we were thinking of filming tended to treat us with a lot of deference. Even when we would ask them if it was okay to film and I was under the impression that maybe they weren’t so comfortable, often they would say, “Yes.” But Lumo was clear about when she felt comfortable having us around and when she didn’t.
A lot of establishing the trust was in creating a transparent process. We did our best to dissolve the traditional power dynamic between the person with the camera and the subject. When I first started spending a lot of time with Lumo, I gave her the camera and taught her how to film, press record and make minor adjustments. She filmed her friends in the ward and they would film as well. We made the camera something that everyone in the group had access to at any time. Sometimes when I was filming, women came up and took the camera, or I would see something happening and I’d have to run and get the camera from them while they were filming. We also projected all of the footage for them. A lot of the women had never seen television before and certainly not a camera, so projecting footage demystified the process. Then the sheer amount of time that I spent with Lumo was just as important, if not more important. I got to the ward at eight or nine in the morning and stayed with her until six or seven at night, every day, just hanging out. Of course I’d give her space when she wanted it. We did not speak Swahili going in, but were eager to communicate with the women, and they were just as eager to communicate with us. Sometimes it meant picking through a dictionary and taking time to get across what we wanted in that moment.
Perlmutt: The camera wasn’t an obstacle between us and the women as much as a connection. They also learned that they could say, “I don’t feel like filming today. I’m not in a good mood, please don’t film me.” We respected that, and if you watch the film, you don’t feel like we’re invading their life, but rather are a part of it.
POV: Given the nature of the crimes against these women, did the fact that you and Nelson are both men ever come up as an obstacle?
Perlmutt: One of the main characters I focused on, Tusange, had been raped by 12 men and she never wanted to talk to a man ever again. But for some reason, she started to talk to me. At first I could tell how she never wanted to be interviewed, and she was hard to communicate with, but then as she healed, she wrote me a long letter that said, “You are the first man that I have respected since I was raped, and thank you for being here and I hope that you come back one day soon.” That was a nice moment for me. A lot of these women had never seen a white person before, and they have stereotypes of white people, particularly Americans, because all pop culture there is American pop culture. They were excited about having American men working with them, and the only other experiences they’d had with working with white people was through organizations working on a social or medical level. Generally we were accepted with enthusiasm. They also saw how close I was with all the hospital staff and the counselors, and they saw that if they respected me, then the patients themselves could.
POV: During the film, Lumo prepares for her fifth in a series of operations to repair the fistula, and it’s clear that even the fifth one might not be successful. What can you tell us about the surgery?
Walker: The operation that the women undergo is actually a relatively simple procedure in terms of what the doctor does, but it’s a very delicate one and often fails. Many women will have three, four or five operations, as in Lumo’s case, before they’re fully healed. The healing and repair process takes place in stages — up to a month after each surgery to see if it’s successful — so it’s really a matter of waiting. There are 130 to 150 women at the hospital, two or three to a bed, all waiting for this operation, and still very much affected by the condition. Ultimately the doctors want to restore the women’s ability to have children and to make sure they’re no longer incontinent. They also have to refrain from hard labor. In the Congo, the women are responsible for the brunt of household work, whether it’s farming, cutting firewood or carrying water — all very physically intensive tasks that pose a real threat to healing.
POV: What about the emotional aftermath of the surgery and recovery?
Walker: Much of the film takes place after the operation, as Lumo starts to heal. There were times when one could see that Lumo was very hopeful about healing, that she didn’t want to wait at the hospital anymore and wanted to get back to her mother and her life. But there’s another point where she says, “Be healed for what?” Resuming her normal life meant going back to a place that’s being torn apart by the war and where there is no security on a day-to-day basis. It’s like a roller coaster for these women: One day they are really excited to go home, and another they’re realizing how much more supportive and secure the hospital is than home. There were stories at the hospital of some women who would even wet their beds after the surgery to give the impression that the surgery hadn’t taken so that they could stay at the hospital longer.
Perlmutt: Lumo’s like every other young woman: She doesn’t want to be in a hospital for two years. It’s a supportive community, but she wants to resume a normal life and get married, like she was supposed to before [the rape]. She wants to become a woman, and she’s at that age where she’s at that threshold of starting her own family. You can see in the film that she was going a little stir-crazy. She loved her friends there, and she was taken care of well and embraced the hospital, but her first priority was to heal. Secondly, she was ready to move on from what was robbed from her when she was raped. I think she was very upset upon leaving the hospital because of the bonds she had formed, as well as [feeling] ambivalent about what she was returning to because it wasn’t that much better than the way it was when she had left it.
POV: At the end of the film, there’s a scene when Lumo returns by van to her village. She glances out the window and sees a truck full of soldiers. What was your intention with that scene?
Walker: Visually, it’s just one woman and a truck that is overflowing with soldiers, but to me that’s emblematic of the problem: The odds are insurmountable. I don’t want to paint a hopeless picture, but this is a problem that will take a long time to effectively resolve. We were just trying to be faithful to the reality of the situation and didn’t want to end the film with her being healed and going home to a normal, happy existence. She is going back to a situation where there is the potential that it could happen to her again. You can’t sugarcoat that.
POV: In the film, the perpetrators of the crime are called Interahamwe. Can you explain who they are?
Walker: It’s important to understand that Goma is where all of the Hutus fled after the Rwandan genocide, and “Interahamwe” is a word that originates in the Rwandan genocide. They were the Hutu army who perpetrated the genocide against the Tutsis. In the Congo, it’s more of a general term for “bad guys.” The men who raped Lumo were members of Interahamwe. The war has been going on for so long that the armies, who are pretty disorganized, used the term to take advantage of the climate of insecurity to amass resources and take advantage of women.
POV: Tell us a little bit about the Mamas and the role that they play.
Walker: The Mamas are basically counselors, and they play a role very much like their name implies: They are mother figures to these women. Not only are they counselors who listen to the women, but the Mamas also transport them to and from the hospital. Plus a lot of the women have been cast aside by their families, and the Mamas work to get the women to communicate again with their families. They also organize a lot of events and teach sewing and literacy as part of the program.
Perlmutt: The Mamas are sort of like my mother. Every time I go there, they inspect me to make sure that I haven’t lost too much weight and that I’m smiling enough. They’re natural caretakers. The Mamas have been locally trained, and a lot of them have been raped themselves. Anyone in the Congo will tell you that the Mamas are the most powerful women. Some of them are running for office, others are leaders of churches and leaders of NGOs. They’re such a great role models for the younger women and for us as well. I’ve known Mama Jeanne for five years now. The first time I met her, she said, “B.J., I need a car because I have an orphanage of 60 children and I need a big car to fit them all in.” I said, “Well, I can’t afford a car.” She said, “How about a plane?” I’ve never met a woman like her who is able to always get what she wants in such a charming, honest and genuine way and share that gift with other people. We were always just awestruck by how wise, compassionate and loving these women were, not only with the patients themselves, but with us and with each other.
POV: In Goma, there was a march protesting violence against women. How has it been received?
Perlmutt: UNICEF spearheaded the first march ever against sexual violence ever in Goma, working with local organizations. Forty thousand women marched in the street. That was going to be a huge part of the film because many women who hadn’t left the hospital in over a year decided that they wanted to participate. We thought about how being in a march, in public, would affect them when they had been in a secure environment with no men for over a year. But the march ended up being more chaotic than we imagined because every one of the bystanders, male or female, heckled the women marching. Their position was, “Why are you doing this? This is stupid. What is sexual violence?” On an official level, there aren’t any adequate laws against rape, and no one has been convicted of rape in 40 years, other than three or four people who were not soldiers. Until the general population understands that rape is wrong, then it’s going to be a perpetual problem. Fortunately, they’ve just passed two new amendments that were proposed to congress by the man who ran the hospital: One defines sexual violence in very specific terms, and the other says that sexual violence in any form is a crime against humanity and can be punishable, even by death. The death penalty is legal there. I think this march was the embodiment of these new rules. Women are getting tired of being treated this way. Even though it was a chaotic and scary experience for a lot of these women, I think it really helped them show that they can fight back.
POV: How would you describe the style of the film and some of the aesthetic choices that you made?
Perlmutt: Nelson and I both have an observational cinema background, and we were both trained in fiction filmmaking. We wanted to make a documentary in which the characters would speak for themselves and you really got to know the characters as who they were in real life, rather than us or someone else describing them to you. We hoped to make a purely observational piece about Lumo and her recovery process at the hospital. Rather than having a voiceover, which would have taken us out of the narrative, we put sound under the text cards so you were still in the world of the hospital, but getting additional information.
POV: What can you tell us about the hospital as a setting within the Congo and how that affected the filmmaking process?
Walker: At the time that we were filming in the Congo, roughly 19 different fighting forces were engaged in combat in the surrounding area. There are countless different ethnic groups as well. So at the hospital, there was a community of women hailing from different ethnicities that outside the hospital walls were in conflict with each other — seven different languages are spoken there — but at the hospital, they’re a community and generally supportive of each other. That’s not to say that these things don’t get played out in their interactions and that different cliques don’t form, but they share a common experience of rape and/or traumatic fistula that binds them together.
Perlmutt: As is very apparent in the film, the hospital is a safe space for these women, but it was also a safe place for us. We tried to frame the film with these women coming out of danger into a safe haven and then having to go back into the danger, and for us it was like that too. Every day we came there, everyone was eager to help us, and they were kind and generous and gave us free rein to just work with these women the whole time. The doctors had a lot of other patients, so we had a lot of one-on-one time with the women. They have very few resources, so they compensate by learning to read and write, sewing, making baskets, playing jacks. And they talk a lot, gossiping about the other women. We became a part of that world. They would braid our hair, and they would film us doing things that they wanted us to do. They would even share their lunch with us.
POV: What was the biggest challenge in making “Lumo”?
Perlmutt: Goma is such a captivating place and the Congo is so visually exotic — anything you film there is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before and anything you project is unlike anything projected here. It was hard for us to focus on what was important to our story rather than showing all the beautiful images of the Congo and spectacular images of the United Nations and the soldiers. The most difficult challenge was having the restraint to stay in one area in the Congo and focus on Lumo when we knew that we could have opened it up. If it wasn’t related to Lumo, we cut it out. As you saw in earlier cuts, it took us a long time to just focus on her and her healing process rather than trying to do all these other parallel stories, either with other characters or with the country as a whole. Focusing on Lumo’s recovery was really challenging because we had other footage that could have been more engaging on different levels.
Walker: I think the biggest challenge was being in the Congo. It’s a very difficult place to film. We had a great relationship with the hospital and could film whatever we wanted there within reason, but filming outside of the hospital is a very difficult process. There are a lot of armed men from militia groups and you don’t necessarily know who they are or what their purpose is. They see someone with a camera and immediately want to know what you’re doing and stop you. Even if you have a shooting permit, if you show it to someone, it’s not necessarily going to mean anything.
POV: What’s your greatest satisfaction in making the film?
Walker: I had great time spending time with Lumo and the women. Every day was a joy just to go in there, joke with them, film them and let them film. One of my greatest experiences was projecting the footage for the women. We would set up a projector on the wall of the hospital and within five minutes the entire hospital, nurses, doctors would all crowd around the door of the ward to watch. It became a regular thing while we were filming. The overall sense of community there was great, one that I felt a part of. For me that experience is much more than actually making a film even — being initiated into a community.
Perlmutt: Getting to know Lumo was so satisfying. It was more like we were hanging out with a friend than filming a subject. She came to life in front of the camera. We spoke basic Swahili, but a lot of the time we didn’t know what we were filming and we would get a translator to translate what was going on. It was always so much fun getting the raw footage back, translated, because we’d always have a different movie in our heads. Then there was the satisfaction of seeing what we were filming shape up into a real story with a compelling character and with a nice dramatic arc.
Also, each year I fall more and more in love with the Congo. I’m going back next month for my fifth trip there. We’ve started our own company there, and I hope to keep going back there with any excuse to shoot. I have so many friends there and I love the people whom I live with there and whom I work with. We’re trying to get one of our friends from the Congo into Columbia Film School next year.
POV: How did making this film change you?
Walker: Just going to the Congo changed me immensely: I was confronted with such a degree of human suffering on a daily basis. After the first trip, I came back to New York just a couple of days before Christmas, and seeing the lights and the tinsel, having just come from a place where people are scraping to get by, really affected me. Also, my relationship with Lumo was like none I’d ever had and none I ever will have. It was great to get to know her in the way that I did, and there’s still a language barrier. To have a certain degree of intimacy with someone that is just understood is very precious and one that I will always carry with me.
Perlmutt: Because I was going to be a doctor, I always liked the idea of being able to stitch up a patient’s wound and feeling like I was healing them in some way. But with the camera, I always felt I was being a little more obtrusive, and annoying a doctor if I was filming rather than helping him in any way. But this film made me aware of the value of portraying these characters and the sexual violence in the Congo on a much greater level. In terms of filming patients, I got more engaged with them with the camera rather than the camera blocking me, so it changed my way of filmmaking.
POV: What’s the film about thematically?
Walker: The film is about healing, and not just in the physical sense, but spiritually as well. For Lumo, that spiritual healing is about wanting to be a mother and reentering society. The overall situation in the Congo, where such horrendous things are going on, makes it difficult for Lumo to believe in God and determine if she wants to return to home and start a family when the situation is so bad. Her faith is tested by the external circumstances in which she lives.
Perlmutt: An interesting theme in our film is the idea that it’s okay to believe in God but it’s also okay to question Him and His motives. It also has to do with coming to terms with your perpetrator and what it means to forgive, particularly if you’ve been raped so brutally, as Lumo was.
POV: Whom do you want to see this film?
Walker: One of the audiences that we made the film for is the Western audience that is unaware of what is happening in the Congo. The conflict there has taken over 4 million lives — it’s the most deadly conflict since World War II — and yet so few people know about it. It’s the equivalent of a tsunami happening every month there, and there’s so little press coverage. The film is also for Lumo and the other women at the hospital — they took such joy in seeing representations of themselves on screen. Also, the film is for the Congolese audience. We also hope that it will be screened in the U.S. Senate and that it could be an advocacy piece for policy change.