- Interview by
- Lina Rhrissi
L’Empire du silence (Empire of Silence) is Belgian filmmaker Thierry Michel’s newest film about the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). For more than thirty years, Michel traveled across the country, camera in hand, witnessing not only fighting and suffering, but also the hope of the Congolese people. In this latest film, Michel responds to a plea from Nobel Peace Prize winner and medical doctor Denis Mukwege, the subject of his last film, L’homme qui qui répare les femmes (The Man Who Mends Women). In doing so, he retraces the succession of ruthless violence that has been ravaging and ruining Congo for a quarter of a century—concerned not with the victims this time, but with their executioners.
The victims number in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, and the perpetrators of these crimes are countless: a multitude of rebel movements, but also regular armies, including those from Congo-Kinshasa and neighboring countries Uganda and Rwanda. They commit their heinous crimes with impunity and general indifference—while multinationals continue to profit from the riches of Congolese soil and subsoil, in particular copper, cobalt, and uranium.
This feature film is also an aesthetic object that aims to move the viewer. The massacre scenes are interspersed with sublime landscapes and accompanied by a powerful original score, profound songs that speak of a people’s pain.
The Man Who Mends Women, a documentary released in 2016 dedicated to the fight led by Dr. Denis Mukwege, who saved the lives of thousands of women raped by military forces, was meant to be your last film about Congo. What convinced you to make Empire of Silence?
The Man Who Mends Women had an extraordinary international impact. It was translated into 28 languages, and we went to present it to major international bodies: the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the United Nations in New York, the European Parliament in Brussels, the US Congress in Washington … I understood that it was necessary to go beyond the denunciation of crimes, beyond giving voice to the victims and paying tribute to the doctor.
For 25 years, Congo has been in a vicious cycle of unpunished crimes. It was time to denounce the executioners and to go back in history to understand the reasons that led to this tragedy. Until then, our denunciation had been calling for empathy and indignation, but it did not change anything. Then, in 2018, when he received his Nobel Prize, in his speech in Oslo, Denis Mukwege pointed to international impotence and brought up the names of criminals that no one dares mention. I took him up on it. The doctor also put all his weight behind me to make this last film.
In his speech, Dr. Mukwege talked about a report “growing mold in the drawer of a New York office.” That is the report of the [United Nations] Mapping Project, which describes 617 war crimes and crimes against humanity, and perhaps even crimes of genocide. You talk about it in the documentary. Why was that report kept under wraps by the United Nations?
That report came out in 2010 because of a leak in Le Monde which was picked up by The New York Times. It might have remained a secret if United Nations officials, thinking their work was going to be denied, hadn’t said to themselves that it absolutely had to come out. Today, we have the numbers, the modus vivendi, the place, the time—but we do not know who is presumed responsible for those crimes, those who executed or gave the orders. [Without the leak,] the database would not be public and would be in a safe in Geneva. It is unbelievable. That’s why in the film, we chose to target war criminals. And not the little guys: we went to the top levels of military and political power.
Why did the international community play this hypocritical game, which is a form of denialism? For several reasons. First, there are geopolitical interests. One cannot break alliances with countries like Rwanda, which is the one that has protested the most against the report. Rwanda plays on the genocidal guilt of the Tutsis because the West did not play the role it should have to prevent it. But there is nothing to say that yesterday’s victims are today’s perpetrators. It’s more complex than that. Those who committed massacres of Hutus in Congo are not necessarily those who suffered the genocide.
There is also the fig leaf argument, which is to say that it is about preserving the peace. But bringing criminals down does not guarantee peace. We still see it today: Last February 1st, 52 people were massacred with machetes in less than 24 hours at a camp for displaced people in Ituri, in the northeast of the country. Mass killings continue because there are no penalties for criminals. So this idea of peace is an illusion. It is not attacking the root of evil.
Finally, it is a region with important resources. As Dr. Mukwege says, Congo is an open-air jewelry shop where everyone can come and help themselves. Diggers risk their lives for $2 a day so that multinationals like Apple or Samsung can reap billions of dollars in profits. That is the order of the world that people do not want to upset. Our attitude toward Russia is completely different today. It’s a double standard.
Your films have been regularly banned from being shown in Congo, and you were even expelled from the territory by Joseph Kabila after L’affaire Chebeya: Un crime d’Etat? (The Chebeya Affair: A State Crime?) was released in 2012. However, that film is a true investigation. How did you manage to obtain that new footage? And how did you convince the witnesses to talk?
It is a 30-year-old investigation; I’ve made 13 films about Congo. I already understood what was going on. But I wanted to go further, and I returned to the depths of the forests. I always managed to get back in through the window when I was kicked out the door. When you make political documentaries, you need to have a sense of strategy. A saying by Mao Zedong always inspires me: “One must make noise in the East to attack in the West.” We do not say everything, and we do not have the same attitude toward those in power as we do toward those for whom we want to be the spokesperson—the voiceless.
The additional element is that before, there was a formidable form of self-censorship. Survivors did not dare to give the names of those who had come to massacre them. In this film, they do. Since the regime change, with Félix Tshisekedi’s election, people have sensed an opening. The new president has no blood on his hands. The level of exasperation makes people want to talk. More than that, they mobilize. There are demonstrations in different cities, women’s, lawyers’ and young citizens’ associations marching, pointing to the existence of the Mapping Project report.
Impunity is the central theme of the film. In what ways does it allow violence to continue?
The moment there are no more rules, anything is possible. The absence of the rule of law allows criminals to act with impunity and causes a kind of moral decay in the human soul. We start to commit vile acts. That leads to a deep reflection on the need for law that structures societies, by preserving everyone’s freedom and preventing unbridled violence from breaking out.
This film shows a lot: it shows the dead, the massacres, the cruelty. Even if it means using in some cases the images of the executioners themselves, who film their crimes with their smartphones. Why this choice? And where do these powerful images come from, like those of the “death trains” from 2000? We seem to be seeing for the first time those thousands of Hutu refugees piled up, dead or alive, by Rwandan troops in railway cars on the road to Kisangani to force their return to Rwanda.
Until now, I had always privileged testimony over raw images. But this film is an indictment which must lead to an international criminal court and hybrid courts in Congo. We needed proof. But these wars are so rarely in the media; journalists do not go to the depths of the Congolese forests. When you are in Kiev, for instance, there is a hotel where journalists meet up in the evening to exchange information and protect themselves. When you are in the middle of Congo, you are alone, abandoned to yourself. It’s no surprise that few venture there.
It is also new that executioners are filming their crimes to show that they have done the job and to be congratulated by their superiors. They did not know that those images were going to fall into my hands. I was the first to broadcast them in Europe, which got me banned from YouTube. The Congolese Ministry of Information denied it, claimed it was fake. But that did not hold up. They were shared on social networks and reached the United Nations. People could no longer say they did not know.
Other images from the film, like those of the train, remind us of the darkest times of the Second World War. They are masterful at denouncing what happened, and they are not difficult to find. They are images from agencies that you just have to look for. However, no one knows them. When I showed the film in Kinshasa in front of 800 Congolese people, no one had seen them. I feel like I dug them up. They are iconic, though, and need to be etched into memory.
The idea of the film is also to explain the country’s recent history. Is it important to get out of the “anecdotal” stories of the massacres and include them in a global perspective?
The film is organized like a great Shakespearean tragedy over 25 years. There are the main characters—Mobutu Sese Seko, Laurent Désiré Kabila, Joseph Kabila, Yoweri Museveni, Paul Kagame—and the people suffering in the background. The aim is to explain the chain of political events that led to a first war, a second war, then to the multiplication of armed groups and localized massacres. It begins with the question of mineral wealth and sharing the spoils, then, with the absence of the rule of law, it gets out of control, and we arrive in Kasaï where there is no longer even any question of ethnicity, geopolitics, or minerals. It’s a peasant revolt. Under the authority of customary chiefs, the village populations, which can no longer bear the misery, exploitation, and oblivion, revolt. And the repression is formidable, without any rules. Civilians are killed in an unspeakable barbarism. So I tried to provide a little history to understand how we got there.
The final chapter opens with the two experts from the UN—two Westerners, Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalán—who were assassinated in Kasaï in 2017. We know that, in the media, at least in Europe, white deaths are “worth” more that black deaths. But you show that even their assassination doesn’t move the lines.
The representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the DRC, Zeid Ra’ad Al-Husseun, says it himself without stonewalling. He was expecting a different attitude toward the assassination of two experts mandated by the UN Security Council who are murdered like animals, then beheaded. They were going to complete one essential task: identify mass graves. But once you go searching for proof, you are risking your life.
As for the lack of interest in African deaths, I noticed it when I was looking for funding. After the success with The Man Who Mends Women, when I produced this film, I hoped that several television networks would partner with me. We started with a budget that took that into account. But unfortunately, not a single French television station was interested. We received support from TV5Monde and from two Belgian networks. It became a Belgo-Belgian film. The French program executives told me, “By programming films about Africans we’re already losing half our audience. And if it’s also not about a soccer champion, but about massacres…” This is not racism coming from decision-makers, it’s a latent racism in public opinion.
You have made 13 documentary films about Congo. How did this country become your obsession over time?
I came across Congo’s story in 1990, at the end of the Cold War. I wanted to film the end of President Mobutu Sese Seko’s term; he had accepted the principle of democracy, party pluralism, and elections. I wanted to witness the crumbling of one regime and the birth of a new society. In the end, the dictator opted for repression, violence, and terror. I made a different film from the one I had planned—Zaïre, le cycle du serpent (Zaire, The Serpent’s Cycle, 1992)—which shows how Mobutu cordoned off the entire society to stay in power. He stayed for seven years. I then discovered that Mobutu was a prodigious character, due to his charisma, his Machiavellianism, and his sense of theatricality. That’s the film Mobutu roi du Zaïre (Mobutu, King of Zaire, 1999). I go from neighborhood to neighborhood up the river to Katanga Business (2009), in the province of Katanga, which is the vault of humanity. There is an economic war for mineral wealth going on there between Westerners and Asians, as well as a social war between owners and workers.
And then there is the death of Floribert Chebeya, the Congolese Martin Luther King, the one who had founded the human rights groups under Mobutu, and a friend who helped me with my first films. I attended his funeral and I realized that it was a state crime that had been covered up. I made The Chebeya Affair: A State Crime? Then, I discovered the businessman Moïse Katumbi, an anti-Mobutu figure who is leading a very different political campaign controlling sports, games, media… He is a sort of African Berlusconi who I portray in L’irrésistible ascension de Moïse Katumbi (The Irresistible Rise of Moïse Katumbi, 2013). Finally, I met Dr. Mukwege when he was in exile in Europe after escaping an assassination attempt.
This great country which has a diversity of cultures and landscapes as important as Europe is not very well known. I have addressed history, geography, economy, injustice and human rights. I think I have taken stock of the situation, if you ask me.
You managed to present your film at the Palace of the People in Kinshasa. What were the reactions of the Congolese authorities?
After 30 years of films, I acquired a certain status in Congo. The presidents of the National Assembly and the Senate and the minister of information congratulated me. But there are dark forces around the president’s regime—former members of the rebel movements who tried to prevent me from obtaining a visa to go to Congo and who now are taking me to court. They used a Congolese filmmaker, Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda, who wants to ban the film for “plagiarism” and “violating the Congolese imaginary.” If I end up in prison, I’ll start a film club with the prisoners.
What is your aim with this film?
To understand and fight amnesia. So that the victims do not die a second time and so Congo is not forgotten by history. More concretely, I hope to see the birth of a dynamic that will finally get us out of immobility and denial. We need an international criminal court. Mass graves need to be protected. We need forensic police. We need forensic experts… It’s no small task, but that’s not about cinema anymore.