Rape was deemed a war crime in 1919, but for most of the twentieth century the international tribunals that punish war criminals never pursued charges of sexual assault. Global authorities prioritized death and torture, bypassing rape despite the toll it long has taken on its victims.
In their documentary The Uncondemned, Michele Mitchell and Nick Louvel focus on the 1997 case before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda that changed this. The attorneys prosecuting Hutu officials — who perpetrated mass killings and rape against minority Tutsis during the Rwandan Civil War — were young and underfunded. Their work was pivotal, as this was the first ever international genocide trial.
Activists were pushing to include rape in their indictment of Hutu mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu, but, while they knew rape happened in his town, they couldn’t tie it to him. Had they tried and failed, they could have compromised future genocide cases. At the last minute, thanks to stubborn work by activists and researchers, they did add the charge, and they won their case.
The film is a riveting feat of editing considering the material, the legalistic conundrums, and the profusion of detail. Footage from that time is mixed with current interviews with lawyers, activists, and witnesses, who recall the case with clarity and feeling. The Uncondemned unfolds like a courtroom drama, but it’s also a master class in demonstrating how people can change the world.
Directed by Michele Mitchell and Nick Louvel
Opens October 21, Landmark Sunshine