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Belgium : Thierry Michel • Director of Empire of Silence

Action alertsBelgium : Thierry Michel • Director of Empire of Silence

“We can’t just stand back and watch forever, without saying or doing anything”

by Aurore Engelen

19/01/2022 – The director uses his documentary to look back on 25 years of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the blind eye and deaf ear turned by the international community

By way of Empire of Silence [+], his twelfth and final film to revolve around the Congo, Thierry Michel looks back on 25 years of a war that dare not speak its name in the DRC, where repeated massacres, egregious abuses and crimes committed with complete impunity are ignored by the bankrupt Congolese state, while the international community turns a blind eye and deaf ear.

Cineuropa: What drove you to make this film?
Thierry Michel: Doctor Mukwege, the Nobel Prize-winner to whom I dedicated my film The Man Who Mends Women [+] got back in touch with me to stress that we hadn’t yet reached our goal with this film. Generals and politicians are still in power despite the fact they’ve got blood on their hands. It creates an utterly disastrous situation. He said to me: “I’ve treated women who are victims of rape, their daughters and now their grand-daughters. This cycle of impunity is unbelievable. And unacceptable”.

In this sense, my dual objective was to travel the world and speak to major institutions to find out why this situation was enduring, to film on these premises and ask what the United Nations, the European Parliament, the US Congress and the Human Rights Council had done; and to return to the Congo, to the very heart of the forests where the survivors of these massacres can be found, to harvest the words of these victims. To take a look at the foreign powers, Uganda, Rwanda, who have been waging war in the Congo in order to get their hands on the country’s diamond-based riches, especially in Kisangani. The idea was then to redraw the timeline of Congolese history over the past 25 years, in order to better understand how this conflict unfolded.

This never-ending conflict is a real tragedy in the very heart of Africa, a tragedy now being written in blood.
Yes, it’s a tragedy in the theatrical sense of the term, too. In my mind, it’s a Shakespearian tragedy where countries, powers and men – senseless characters – face off. There’s Mobutu, the old, fallen dictator who will die in exile; Kabila, who’s Uganda and Rwanda’s puppet and self-proclaimed President who will turn on his masters before eventually being killed by his bodyguard; and then there’s the son who takes his father’s place as if it were a monarchy, a son who seizes power like a brand-new despot, and who holds onto it despite the country’s Constitution.

The film plays on the aesthetic shock-factor, veering between beautiful scenery and horrific, unbearably violent archive images. The more beautiful and richer the country is, the more it seems destined to suffer. There’s an irony, of sorts, which is also very tragic.
Even in The Man Who Mends Women, I decided that if I was going to explore horror, I needed to examine beauty, too. The beauty of the scenery, the beauty of the women in their resilience, the beauty of the doctor. We had lots of testimonies, all very challenging. In my previous films, we mostly played with suggestion; you didn’t see any images. But in this instance, I decided we had to see things through to their logical conclusion. I needed the film to produce incriminating evidence, so that justice could subsequently be done. We had to show how far the horror went and foster a sense of absolute rebellion within the viewer.

Over and above the silence, which was striking until not so long ago, it’s the blindness which shocks, as if those observing the unfolding drama couldn’t actually see.
It verges on complicity, a hypocritical game. Saying that we’re looking after the Congo when, in actual fact, we’re not doing anything, we just let them get on with it! We close our eyes to the fact that the General-in-Chief is a recognised war criminal who should have been dragged before the International Criminal Court a long time ago. We don’t even name convicted criminals. We don’t name the neighbouring country’s Chief of Staff who sowed terror in the Congo. The High Commissioner for Human Rights admits this in the film: “I’ve failed”. As Doctor Mukwege insists, we need to change our MO. We can’t just stand back and watch forever without saying or doing anything, apart from counting the dead.

But the United Nations do seem to be making a few adjustments. They’ve just adopted a resolution calling upon the Congo to implement “a national strategy of transitional justice in order to promote the truth and to ensure the admissibility of past crimes, as well as reparations for victims and guarantees of non-repetition”, as Doctor Mukwege recently explained.

(Translated from French)

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