A few months ago I covered the Kickstarter fundraising campaign for the documentary Persephone Speaks: The Forgotten Women of Bosnia, directed by filmmaker Ivana Ivkovic Kelley. Kelley and her team followed one woman, Bakira, through Bosnia to expose the systematic rape of countless thousands of women during the war and try to bring the men who authorised, organised and perpetrated these rapes to justice. A survivor of the mass rapes herself, Bakira has become a campaigner for other victims, despite receiving death threats and being subject to harassment and intimidation by those who wish to silence her and sabotage her work.
The first campaign for Persephone Speaks: The Forgotten Women of Bosnia was successful. Filming has been completed. Kelley has now launched a second campaign, to finish post production on the film, and there are only four days left to support this. Update, on 10th Feb 2014: you did it! The campaign is succeeding, meeting and exceeding its target.
At the heart of Bakira’s work and Ivana Ivkovic Kelley’s film is a challenge to the international community to open its eyes, acknowledge and address the use of rape as a concerted strategy in war; the particular sickness, destructiveness and cruelty of rape as a type of violence; the support of rapists’ actions by a wider macho, misogynist rape culture which operates in all societies globally even in peacetime; the devastating years-long psychological, physical, cultural and social effects of rape on survivors; and the stigmatisation, punishing, abuse, denial and silencing of survivors, often by their own societies and even their own families.
As Kelley stated in the original fundraising campaign,
Females are nonstop targets during wartime, as demonstrated by the mass rapes implemented as a policy of genocide during the Bosnian war. Because this atrocity is grossly ignored by the international community and international tribunals, this film revisits one survivor who continues to fight for justice on behalf of others all over the world. ... The continued treatment of women around the world, especially during times of conflict, needs to be heard through as many channels as possible. Unfortunately, war rape survivors are often seen as a problem, a by-product of war that needs to be swept under the rug.
However, the fight for justice is a hard won, waged by those who carry not just psychological and physical trauma but who have the least in terms of power, money, mobility and status. Both individually and at a mass scale, within families and within governments, within cultures and within whole societies, the trend is to punish victims and protect perpetrators, to silence victims and give perpetrators a platform, to abuse the abused and assist the abusers, to expose the victims and cover for perpetrators, to expose and question the behaviour and words of victims and condone and gloss those of the perpetrators. It is the victims who must do all the hard work, in addition to recovering personally, to gain justice – or even to be heard – while the perpetrators sit back, enjoying the victims’ torment and their own impunity. This is the case in all instances of male sexual violence, in wartime and peacetime alike.
The perpetrators and those who authorised them are fully entrenched in and enfranchised by established networks of patriarchal force. They are well-connected, well-resourced and mutually supportive. They are interested in power, not justice, and cannot be shamed morally because they are proud of what they did. If rapists did not love raping, they wouldn’t do it. If their apologists did not love rape, they would not assist and cover for rapists. Perpetrators and their apologists alike are enraged which victims of male violence speak up. However, despite their sadism and lack of shame – indeed, the shame and guilt which perpetrators should feel is transferred onto the victims – they can and must be brought publicly to justice through established international legal channels.
Persephone Speaks follows Bakira as she collects other survivors’ testimonies are seeks to have them heard in the courts in Sarajevo or the Hague. She also tracks down where some of the perpetrators live and presents this information to the courts. Commenting on the rewarding of perpetrators, Kelley wrote in the original fundraising campaign:
In many cases, the perpetrators are either awaiting trial or have been rewarded by the Serbian government for successfully running a "camp", often in the form of a promotion within the local police force. We have witnessed incidents of this same "reward" behavior in similar conflicts around the world. In situations such as these, many survivors have expressed anger, fear, and shock, especially when they see their attacker, years later, in high level positions or vacationing beside them on the Adriatic coast, which numerous victims have witnessed.
The first campaign for Persephone Speaks:The Forgotten Women of Bosnia was successful. Filming has been completed. Ivana Kelly has now launched a second campaign, to finish post production on the film.
The context has obviously not changed. It beggars belief that the world community and people in general live not just in denial of this but are actively antagonistic and punitive towards survivors. One of many shocking moments during Kelley’s research has been the conversion of a rape camp into a luxury spa and hotel, whose manager dismisses survivors’ testimonies as “lies, lies, all lies.”
This is a film which must be completed and shown to the world. In the new campaign for post production funding, Kelley states,
We saw the same thing occur in Rwanda, the Congo, Liberia, Uganda, Bangladesh, Haiti, Cambodia, Cyprus, Darfur, and now in Syria... all in devastating numbers. How survivors are treated post-conflict in one region of the world, regardless of whether it is in the heart of Europe, or the heart of Africa, and whether perpetrators continue to be brought to justice, has a huge impact on how survivors will be treated going forward, regardless of geographical location. The sexual violation of women erodes the fabric of a community in a way that few weapons can. Rape's damage can be devastating because of the strong communal reaction to the violation and the pain stamped on entire families.
The campaign for post-production seeks to raise $16,000, but ideally $22,000 and is partway there. Every time I and my colleagues cover the issue of rape in war the kickback is so interesting: in amongst the perpetrator excusal, hate mail (“You wouldn’t write about rape so much if it didn’t make your cunt tingle” is one choice line from the messages I receive) and victim-blaming there is a strong seam of positive passion and support, of other victims and survivors worldwide who are determined that this story be made loud instead of being silenced. Each film or article is a door opening onto millions of untold testimonies. Whenever I write about male violence against women and girls I uncover the immense trauma and pain of survivors, and their rage. These are a form of energy in themselves, which far outshout the bleating of apologists. We do not have the hatred, violating malice and anger of perpetrators and their friends but pain, determination, truthfulness and the desire for justice are far worthier substitutes.
To support this second and final phase of the Persephone Speaks: The Forgotten Women of Bosnia campaign, I contacted Ivana Ivkovic Kelley. She very kindly gave her time to answer my questions.
Why is it so important to make Persephone Speaks: The Forgotten Women of Bosnia?
I have been haunted by the reality women and girls seem to be increasingly facing during wartime. Women and girls have transitioned from being “the spoils” of war, to part of an operational military doctrine to ruin a community, a culture, a country: they have gone from being spoils to being used as actual weapons with which to conduct genocide in some cases. This is how we know we continue to live in an extremely unjust, unfair global society in which women have gone from being considered inferior to men and viewed as property, to being considered inferior and viewed as objects.
We really should not be measuring how much things have changed for women by the number of successful women that exist in our world today, but rather by how little has changed when there are parts of our world where it is legal to commit femicide if a woman simply looks at another man, rides a bicycle, leaves an abusive husband, gives birth to a girl child; or in wartime is used as the cheapest, most destructive weapon around. It is the most destructive because raping a woman or girl is not just an attempt to kill her spirit, it is the attempt to kill the spirit of her loved ones. In turn, multiplied, this has the ability to destroy entire communities at their core. The woman, after all, is the heart of a community.
What is your particular reason for wanting to make Persephone Speaks?
I have been haunted by the stories and testimonies I translated during the last years of the war in Bosnia. I was in college in the US at the time but knew I had to be “in it” to help in some way, so I wrote my thesis on systematic rape used as a tool of genocide, that it was the first time in history that it’s been documented as part of a plan to wipe out a people. I travelled there while the war was still going on and connected with a group in Zagreb that was assisting the [mostly] Bosnian Muslim survivors of the rape camps, travelling to refugee camps often across enemy lines, providing them with food, clothes and medical aid as well collecting testimonies for eventual use in the Hague and local criminal courts. I knew that one day I would return to document where these women are now, and what has changed, both judicially and whether those who were vocal before have given up their fight for justice.
Has it been risky to make Persephone Speaks?
Yes. From the onset we have been receiving hateful, oftentimes degrading, comments on our Facebook page as well as individual emails through our project page on Kickstarter…sometimes an individual will send me a tweet saying they would like to interview me for a story they’re doing, only to end up shouting on the other end of the phone that I better watch myself because I don’t know what I’m talking about, that it was only Serbian women who were in the camps and that they were raped by Bosnian Muslim soldiers wearing Serb uniforms…or if I knew better, I’d keep my mouth shut or the same thing will happen to me.
It hasn’t happened as often as I would expect, but I feel that it’s pretty horrible for even one person to come forward and completely deny the reality of that war, the reality of photographs by such courageous photojournalists as Andree Kaiser and Ron Haviv, the reality of testimonies and the reality of what you feel when you look into a survivor’s eyes. There’s absolutely no denying the blanket atrocities that were done by a distinct, very clear perpetrator, especially when there is documentation and there are testimonies by individual perpetrators who have been brought to justice at the Hague that yes, this is what happened.
It is so important, I feel, for a particular government to confront its past, acknowledge and apologise to the victims, survivors, their families and communities, in order for healing to work. This is what human rights champions and survivors such as Bakira will publicly state when she holds forth, risking her life, in front of a memorial at a mass grave, as the local Serb officials in what is now an ethnically cleansed town attempt to erase the word “genocide” from said memorial.
This is a pretty big problem. As certain countries attempt to enter the EU, there needs to be outside pressure from Belgium to first recognise genocide happened and for the said government to formally acknowledge and apologise. Instead, those Serb politicians in the minority who have spoken out and have acknowledged genocide and mass rape are not only the least favourite but they are, oftentimes, placed on a death list. When we were shooting footage in the ethnically cleansed town of Visegrad (now part of Republika Srpska), we were met with our own share of passive hostility: asked to shut our camera off and leave the premises as soon as we entered the lobby of Vilina Vlas (a former rape camp now spa hotel); confronted on a tour bus led by a Serbian Orthodox priest denying the genocide; even in talking to local Serbs saying that they’ve always lived here and no, there was never any massacre of hundreds on the bridge and no, there was never any rape camp here. It all ended with me having my picture taken by a local Serbian man sitting on a bench with his friends, holding up his cell phone and menacingly telling me “now we have your picture too.”
Back in the States, I’ve received hate mail from Serbian Americans, some who are successful, running such things as a publishing company. I keep stressing that this film is about what happens to women throughout the world, during times of conflict, yet it is very hard to ignore the geopolitical reality of what happened in Bosnia. When discussing what happened to the women and girls there, there is simply no escaping the military doctrine put in place by one country to ethnically cleanse the other. There are risks that simply come with the territory and I'm certainly not the first documentary filmmaker to encounter it, nor will I be the last.
What exact work remains to be done on Persephone Speaks?
We completed production in October 2013 and are now in post-production. We are having the material transcribed, then any dialogue in Bosnian translated, then we get to the heavy duty editing. We have about 40-50 hours of footage from time spent in Bosnia in 2010 and 2011 and our first meeting with Bakira, to our time there this past summer and autumn.
We are in dire need of assistance to help us cover our costly post production costs. During the editing process, we will cover archived footage, music composition, sound and eventually the transition from a rough cut to a polished cut that we will be submitting to film festivals. Our hope is for this film to have its premiere at the Sarajevo International Film Festival this coming August, 2014, as we couldn't think of a more appropriate venue.
Is there anything like else like Persephone Speaks: Forgotten Women of Bosnia?
There are similar documentary films that have come out, such as Calling the Ghosts (1996) by Mandy Jacobson and Karmen Jelincic Ross and the brilliant documentary series Women, War & Peace (2013) produced by Abigail Disney. Part One of that, I Came To Testify, is about war rape in Bosnia.
What sets mine apart is seeing the day to day struggles that a survivor and activist encounters both on a professional and personal front. Showing a woman like Bakira not just fighting the good fight but reminding an audience that these are women who love to play with their grandchildren and find a meditative, healing solace getting their hands dirty in a garden. That regardless of ethnicity, culture, language, these women are our sisters, mothers, grandmothers, and friends. When an atrocity on such a grand scale happens to women anywhere in the world, we need to help spread their call for justice. Hopefully one day, women will not be viewed as property to be killed legally or sexually trafficked en masse, we won’t be viewed as weapons of war. Until that happens, in some ways, the work will never be done.
Contribute to the final campaign, to fund post-production on Persephone Speaks: Forgotten Women of Bosnia, here.
- Syrian Exodus: health, help, hypocrisy (Huffington Post)
- Women, war and peace: what we can all learn from the Zimbabwean women fighting violence as elections approach (Huffington Post)
- Busting a rape myth for Mumsnet's We Believe You campaign (Mumsnet)
- Women's rights: have things really improved for women in the last 50 years? (Daily Mail)
Disclosure: I was one of the many funders in the first campaign, donating $1000 to support it. Ivana Ivkovic Kelley is a stranger to me. She is not a friend of mine. I had never heard of her before I became aware of the campaign and I have never met or spoken with her, except to ask her via email for some comments for this feature. I have no role in the making of the film and am not invested in any way in its outcome, except as a human rights journalist who cares about the issues.