Beth Davenport (left) and Elizabeth Mandel are the filmmakers behind Pushing the Elephant, a film about faith, family, and forgiveness in the most extreme circumstances imaginable. The film premieres on Independent Lens on Tuesday, March 29 at 10 PM (check your local listings). We sat down with the directors to talk about telling such an intimate and, at times, terrifying story and what drove them to do it.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
Pushing the Elephant brings to life the horrors that continue to be endured in Congo, the importance of international involvement, and the ways in which individual acts can make enormous contributions. By approaching this complex issue through the humanity of the story of one woman and her family, we hope that the film will enable viewers to find commonality of experience, and therefore a sense of responsibility toward, Rose Mapendo and the millions of refugees like her.
We are focusing our audience engagement campaign in three main areas: women’s empowerment, refugee rights and policy, and peacebuilding. We are partnering with organizations and advocates to explore ways in which the film can be used to advance our common goals. Our first advocacy initiative is working with a consortium of women’s rights organizations to use the film to help get both the Senate and the Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA), an unprecedented effort by the United States to address violence against women (looks strange capitalized) globally.
We have a deep desire to bring the film to Congo, the Great Lakes region, and areas with large refugee populations. We would like to screen it both to a grassroots audience and to the power players deciding the fate of Rose’s homeland. In cooperation with our partner FilmAid International, we have already shown the film at Dadaab and Kakuma, two of the world’s largest refugee camps, both in Kenya. We have received footage with testimonies from some of the people who screened the film, which we hope to build on as we develop our campaign.
What led you to make Pushing the Elephant?
Arts Engine, Inc. is a female-founded company. Big Mouth Films, a project of Arts Engine, is committed to telling multifaceted and universal stories through an intimate lens about the complexities of life as a woman in this new millennium. This story is a perfect example of this commitment. For all the unique circumstances of the story, it contains universal truths about the mother-daughter bond and the importance of family, connection and forgiveness, themes to which women everywhere can relate. Furthermore, as a strong African woman and a refugee who is a leader and an activist, Rose represents a model of woman we rarely get to see on film or other media sources. At the heart of the film is a powerful story of how families persevere through extreme circumstances.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making your documentary?
The greatest was doing justice to Rose’s message. We feel very committed to getting her message out there in a way reflective of its import, which is a huge challenge. We also had many storylines that we tried to integrate effectively and truthfully, which was tricky.
How did you gain the trust of the people in the film, since much of the subject matter is difficult and personal?
At Arts Engine, we always feel very committed to having subjects tell their stories in their own voices in the way they want their stories to be told. I think that just approaching any human being with that kind of approach — saying, “This is your story. You tell it how it needs to be told. We don’t have an agenda, other than to listen.” Also, Rose talks. That’s what she does for a living. She wanted her story to be heard. In addition, the first time we filmed with them, it was just Beth, a one-person crew. She was able to just fade into the background and let life unfold before her. Some of it is also time — as with any relationship, it’s a matter of taking time, building trust, and letting people feel comfortable.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the final cut?
One of the hardest for us to let go was the storyline of Rose’s parents, who are briefly included in the film when Nangabire says goodbye to them in Nairobi. They had been waiting for a very long time for their visas, but everyone had all but given up. Then the visas came through. We have this incredible footage of them packing to come to the United States, and talking about their dreams, and their expectations about what would happen when they arrived. We had wonderful footage of their arrival as well — of going to Costco for the first time, of grandma playing basketball, of the whole family meeting them at the airport and praying together. However, we hope to include some of the footage in our online and DVD extras. We want to include it somewhere, because it is such a great story of loss and separation, reunification, acclimation, and hope.
Any other storylines you had to sacrifice?
Rose was in a death camp for about a year and a half, she and Nangabire were separated for 12 years, members of Rose’s family remain scattered around the world. There were only so many stories that we were able to capture; there were so many more that we wanted to learn about. Of course, there was no way to hear all of them. Each story was so rich and full of detail, there would always be questions left that we wanted to ask.
It’s probably tough to choose just one, but tell about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with each of you.
Elizabeth Mandel: One of the scenes that resonated with me most is a scene that is no longer in the film. The scene shows the family preparing to go to church the morning after Nangabire arrives in the U.S., which is the first time she has seen her mother in 12 years. Nangabire comes downstairs and Rose starts fixing her hair. Nangabire says, “Mom, stop breaking my hair!” and Rose says, “I’m not breaking your hair, I’m making it look better.” To me, this is emblematic of the relationships between mothers and daughters everywhere, an exchange that is shorthand for such complexity. When discussing the film, we often talk about how even though the story of genocide in Congo seems so remote to most Americans, it is a very intimate, accessible, universal story. Even though this scene got cut, the sentiment it captures pervades the film.
Beth Davenport: One of the scenes that resonated with me was when Rose tells us the story of the difficult decision she, John, and Aimee had to make to keep their family alive. Filming and getting to know Rose over the course of two and a half years, we learned so many intricacies of her story. As trust between us strengthened Rose mentioned that there was a part of the story that she hadn’t yet shared with us. On our last shoot and interview with Rose, I asked her if she was ready to talk about this part of her past that she hadn’t spoken to many people about. Rose was ready. It was a very difficult interview for her. However, by the end of it, in her work, and through the process of making the film, she understands the importance of talking about the past in order to heal, and the effect that this will have on other women around the world who feel shame about what has happened to them.
What has the audience response been so far? What do Rose and her family think?
We feel privileged to have received such a positive response, and for our subjects to be so happy with the film. One of the most gratifying things is the way in which Rose’s message of forgiveness has affected people. We heard a story from a colleague about a friend and relative who hadn’t spoken to one another in years. They both came to see the film, and it led to a thawing of the ice between them. In addition, a number of organizations that are involved in Rose’s line of work (peacebuilding, women’s rights, refugee policy) have indicated that the film could be very important for their efforts. We were quite nervous to show the film to Rose’s family, including Nangabire, John, and Rose’s brother, Kigabo. There are many intimate family details, and a lot of pain is exposed. Although we were always upfront with the family that anything recorded we were likely to use, we were still anxious to see their reactions. Fortunately, they think it’s a wonderful film, and think that it is something that can help promote their belief in peace and reconciliation, and universal rights.
What has happened to Rose and the other people in your film since shooting wrapped?
Since the completion of filming, Rose has been working with her brother Kigabo to establish Africa Health New Horizons, an organization dedicated to providing free health care, with a particular focus on maternal and child health, in the Great Lakes region of eastern Congo. She continues to advocate for peace and reconciliation and women’s and refugee rights on the world stage.
Nangabire has recently moved to Tucson to complete her high school training. She hopes to go to nursing school.
Aimee got married while we were filming and had a baby near the end of production. We just found out that she is expecting another child.
The independent film business is not for the faint of heart. What keeps you motivated?
It is finding subjects like Rose. As difficult as our business is, her life, her history, and her work are so much more difficult. We feel motivated by an opportunity to bring underrepresented but critical voices like hers to the foreground.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Public television has set the bar for broadcasting engaging documentaries that inspire introspection, action, and sociopolitical involvement. It has also become the portal for those whose voices and experiences are not reflected on mainstream television. With this in mind, we felt that Pushing the Elephant was an excellent fit for public television.
How did you originally learn about Rose and her story?
People ask us that all the time! Here is a blog entry we recently wrote on the subject.
What are your three favorite films?
Elizabeth: Tampopo, Rebecca, Waiting for Guffman.
Beth: Grey Gardens, Amores Perros, The Ice Storm.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Making documentary films takes a lot of energy, time, commitment, sweat, and tears. Pick a subject that you care deeply about. Work with people you respect and like. Be prepared for enormous challenges, and remember to maintain your sense of humor, your perspective, and your relationships with people outside your industry. And be prepared to cut your favorite scenes; sometimes it makes your film stronger.
There’s no craft services on a documentary film project. What fuels you?
Ellizabeth: Apricots and salt and vinegar potato chips. Not necessarily together.
Beth: Really, really dark chocolate – at least 85% Cacao.