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Finding My Role
Rwanda has become my second home over the last few years. As a filmmaker I’ve been documenting the atrocities that have taken place in this part of the world – including the Democratic Republic of Congo – but it wasn’t until a few months ago that I realized the profound effect that my gender was having on my experiences here in Africa.
Researchers and filmmakers passing through Rwanda often approach me for advice or my services as a video journalist. Recently, after advising on a piece about women in Rwanda, I offered to film for the team, but received a surprising reply. They thanked me for my offer, but insisted that a woman would only "fully open up" to another woman, and that a female camera operator who could identify with the subject was needed to draw out the kind of stories they were seeking. The producer asked me if I could really imagine a woman who had been violated ever wanting to speak about sexual assault with a man?
To be honest, although I understood their point, I found myself becoming a bit defensive. I persisted. I had filmed survivors of sexual violence in the DRC for VDay, and I’ve been filming testimonies of genocide survivors in Rwanda for several years, many of whom had shared their rape experiences with me. I had found that what matters most is not gender, but how one listens. Surely, a woman can be as insensitive as a man can be, I reasoned. But their decision was final – I was disqualified as a man – and for the first time, I experienced what women have always had to endure in the workplace. I had hit a gender ceiling.
Months later, Eve Ensler – who had allowed me to accompany her on earlier work in the DRC – invited me to film a special "Break The Silence" day in Bukavu (a city in Eastern DRC) where women publicly disclosed their stories of rape for the first time. Due to my recent rejection, I was feeling especially self-conscious as a male and gingerly placed my microphone before each woman testified. As awkward as I felt, however, these Congolese women didn’t seem to be phased by my gender as they shared the most intimate, horrifying stories.
Never before had I heard stories of rape and violence as atrocious and disturbing as I heard that day. Cannibalism, disfigurement, mental abuse, unimaginably demented sexual violence. Listening to these female survivors, I felt ashamed to be a man – ashamed, especially, to think that I, too, might be capable of such actions. I tried to hide behind my camera, hoping others would forget I was there. I tried to hold back my tears, but could not.
Any distance was impossible. The horrors coming through my headphones were inescapable. One woman described being gang raped as a newlywed, and was told by the rapists that she belonged to all men, not merely her husband. They beat her so violently during the months of sexual slavery that now, she could hardly focus her eyes without excruciating pain. Another woman was trapped in shame and loneliness, unable to share with her own husband that she was raped a third time, for fear that he would leave her. Another woman living with HIV is reminded of her history every day when she takes her medicine. And still another showed us the prosthesis she now wears after a rapist dislocated her leg.
The woman with the prosthesis walked with difficulty and could not climb the stairs as she was leaving. I went to her and extended my hand. She took my arm and we proceeded together. And finally, in her gesture of trust, I felt that it was OK for me to be there, that I was forgiven for being a man. Afterward, in the car with Eve, the floodgates opened within me, bringing yelps and sobs from deep within. My body shuddered, I could not control myself – Eve and the others comforted me, familiar with this helplessness I was feeling, the overwhelming sense of defeat and falling apart.
I woke up the next morning barely able to move, sweating, achey, as if poisoned by the stories I had heard. That day, unable to stand up, I needed to film from a chair. I was finally beginning to understand – to experience with my own body – what breaking the silence was doing in Congo.
These women needed to share. Each expressed the hope that her stories would help to affect change, but also her gratitude for the time we spent together. I understand the importance of the very act of listening to those who choose to speak out, while so many still cannot. Where others pushed me away, Eve has brought me closer. She affirmed there is a place for men to participate.
People ask me about my work in Rwanda, if women ever talk to me about rape while presenting their testimonies. Perhaps it's because I'm a man, and not in spite of it, that I can answer yes. For every woman who breaks the silence, there needs to be someone to listen, and there are many of us ready to listen. I know as a man, that I too have a role in this.
I will not take part in the silence.
Taylor Krauss, born in Phoenix, Arizona, is an independent documentary
filmmaker who has worked for various media networks including the Associated
Press, BBC, Discovery, PBS, and HBO. He trained under Ken Burns while
working as an associate producer on the seven-part series *The War*, about
the American experience of the Second World War. [Krauss has worked on
various human rights films on subjects ranging from Rwandan media, refugees,
healthcare, illegal immigration, sexual violence, global human smuggling and
trafficking, and the genocide in Darfur.] He graduated from Yale University
in 2002, with a degree in Film Studies. As a founder of *Voices of Rwanda*,
a not-for-profit dedicated to recording and preserving testimonies of
eyewitnesses to the 1994 Rwanda genocide, Taylor splits his time between
Kigali, Rwanda, and Brooklyn, NY. For more information about *Voices of
Rwanda* please visit www.VoicesOfRwanda.org