In commemoration of the global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign, we are highlighting activists and organizations who are using the power of video in their campaigns to address gender-based violence through a series of guest posts. Read previous posts in this series.
By Mwelwa Kamanda Mwelwa is a founding member of the Samfya Women Filmmakers (SWFM), a collective which empowers rural Zambian women to use film as a tool for social change, with whom she has produced three films. She also works as a coordinator for Camfed‘s Community Health Program, a program that educates schoolchildren and rural communities about family planning, reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and other health issues. Mwelwa is also alumna of WITNESS’ 2008 Video Advocacy Institute.
When my fellow filmmakers in the Samfya Women Filmmakers collective and I decided to produce our third film, we were determined to focus on an issue that is present in so many communities in rural Zambia, and that yet remains buried in the hearts and minds of so many women: domestic violence. We had seen bruises on women we know personally, and had heard stories of their emotional turmoil, and as filmmakers, we knew it was time for us to take action and expose the issue.
Watch the trailer of “Hidden Truth”:
Risks While Making the Video
The path to breaking the silence about domestic violence is a risky one, and yet one that we were compelled to take – for the victims of gender-based violence are often not given an opportunity to speak about the terrifying conditions they endure. People used to say we had no respect because we were sharing this concealed story. So we had to be very careful when we were filming and also had to make sure to pay attention to those around us in public places so they did not damage our equipment. Someone once told us, “making a documentary about a human rights issue is not easy.” In fact it was very hard and at times very scary.
One day after an interview with the magistrate, I was called by the judge. Every crew member was afraid of what might happen. At the court I was asked where we planned to take the footage and how it would be used. I explained to the judge that our films are used for advocacy. The judge decided to collect the mini DV tape from us and threatened to burn it. I pleaded with him not to, as the tape contained interviews with other subjects as well – women survivors of violence – but he took the tape anyway.
We informed our partners from the Ministry of Education about what happened and they pleaded on our behalf, requesting that the court delete only the interview which was conducted in the court. The judge agreed and they deleted the interview shots of the building, the signpost – any material relating to the court. That day I remember we could not shoot at all, as we were with the officer from the judiciary, waiting for him to check to make sure we had deleted everything related to the court. We were not sure if we would continue shooting.
Challenging Cultural Beliefs
Shooting in our own communities also had its challenges. When we approached some women in our community of Samfya about speaking on camera about their experiences, they were reluctant to talk to us. Some aspects of Zambian culture impose restrictions on women by telling them to be submissive and not speak their minds even if they find themselves in abusive relationships.
Sharing stories about their abuse at home is considered disrespectful. Even if a woman is being abused, her family, friends and community members generally encourage her not to tell anyone. They’ll say, “Just be strong, your husband will change in the future,” or even, “If your husband beats you, it just means he loves you.” Women are taught to expect to be beaten when they get married and to keep it to themselves when they go through hard times.
In this context, it was very hard to interview women who had experienced domestic violence. They were afraid to share their stories, and they were also intimidated by all of our large equipment. We explained that talking openly about the abuse they face is one way for other people to become aware of the hardships they are going through, and to take the initiative to put an end to the horrific acts of violence against women. One woman agreed to be filmed only if we concealed her identity, which we did by showing her shadow and not showing her face. Months later, she left her husband and she decided to do an interview with us with her face revealed. It was very moving to see her find the courage to change her life.
We also wanted to include the voices of children in our film, because they too witness and are victims of domestic violence, but are often silenced.
Using Our Video To Influence Legislation
We wanted to show this film not only to men, women, and children in our communities, but also to policymakers, to pressure them to pass a law that specifically outlaws domestic violence. Until this past spring, there was no law outlawing domestic violence in Zambia – just a law outlawing assault, with a very insignificant sentence. But I am happy to report that the president signed such a bill into law in May 2011. However, as advocates, we filmmakers still have a lot of work to do to make sure that the law is enforced, and that women have the protection they need to be able to report incidence of domestic violence.
We are also advocating for community members and decision makers to take steps to make our communities safer for women. Right now, there are no shelters for women who have experienced domestic violence in Samfya; there is not even a single place where a woman and her children can go to for refuge. We want to change that.
I know that it is very difficult to change attitudes and behavior, but I am hopeful. “Hidden Truth” has been shown in many local communities near Samfya, and people are responding strongly to the film. Women have come to us after viewing the film to talk about their own experiences of domestic violence for the first time. And men and women alike are recognizing what a harmful impact violence is having on their families, and sharing their opinions about that at community screenings.
Even though I have read about gender-based violence in newspapers, and watched shows on television about this issue, making this film made me understand just how strongly domestic violence impacts a woman – how powerless and vulnerable she feels after being abused. Sometimes the other filmmakers and I would console a woman we interviewed after the shoot and encourage her to be strong. Filmmaking about issues like this can be quite painful – but if you are committed to change, then it is an incredibly powerful means of telling untold stories.
You can read more about screenings of “Hidden Truth” on CAMFED’s blog and learn more about the film here. In addition to being used to campaign for passing domestic violence legislation in Zambia, the film was also awarded Best Documentary at the Zanzibar International Film Festival in June 2011. To learn more about the Samfya Women Filmmakers, watch the documentary “Where the Water Meets the Sky.”