Thursday April 17th
Staying in Brussels with Shannon Meehan from The IRC who welcomed me to her bright lovely apartment with a tin of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. She has been a dynamo helping organize these screenings and using the film to galvanize action around the issue of “gender based violence” (like Heidi, she also hates the terminology) in the DRC.
The first screening was in a room in the Belgian Parliament. Shannon had told me that the room would be full for the noon screening, but at 12:15 it was half empty and folks were still streaming in. The delay worked to our advantage as when we arrived there was no sound system – the tech guys had assumed it was some sort of power-point presentation and were a bit surly about being asked to provide speakers. Juliette Boulet, the Green Party MP who was sponsoring the event, handled their disrespect with considerable aplomb, especially when they balked at helping find cardboard or table clothes to cover the windows, whingeing that “this is not our job.” Shannon surmised later that if Juliette had been a man – or perhaps an MP with more seniority – they would not have been so crude and unhelpful. In the end a chivalrous waiter helped us bock out the uncharacteristic Belgian sunlight.
I had spent part of the day before wandering Brussels a bit agog at all the triumphal arches and palaces, wide boulevards and manicured parks and considering that they were all made possible compliments of King Leopold’s depraved plunder of the Congo over a hundred years ago. There was something repellant about the plane trees in the King’s garden, all pruned and plucked and wired into tortured, trellised, non-tree-like postures, the nature drained and dragged out of them, sad joke trees. Somehow they seemed a perfect metaphor for the evils of colonialism. And towards the end of my visit I was shocked to find out that this hideous chapter in Belgium’s history is barely alluded to in its history books. Natalie, Shannon’s boss, Belgian born, said that she knew nothing about these hellish exploitations until well into adulthood.
I sat out the screening in an adjacent conference room and people were still streaming in an hour after the film had started (Shannon would later comment “fuck me sideways – this country has some of the most arrogant self-involved people I’ve ever met…”). Right after the screening a woman (who had only been identified as “Madame C.”) made a statement. She identified herself as a Congolese woman (from Massisi?) who had been raped (by FDLR?) and wanted to attest that from her own experience everything in the film was true. The post-screening discussion was predictably monopolized by a clatch of Congolese who, again, felt the need to vent and anguish over ground that the film had already covered, but several lawmakers and NGO officials asked about concrete policy suggestions and mention was made of the potential role of the EU in forcing attention on the war and demanding enforceable peace accords to diminish violence in the east.
That night’s screening was held at the European Commission (and organized in part by One World) and every seat was full. The lights came up as the film ended and Shannon and I came to the front of the room and nobody moved, nobody clapped, everyone just stayed frozen in their seats. I broke the spell by initiating a Q&A and was impressed by the high level of the inquiries about policy, impunity, a discussion of issues around the resource exploitation etc. After the discussion I walked out with Igor Blacevic from One World who provided me such a lovely metaphor for these doings. He mentioned a scene in one of Tarcovsky’s last films where a man puts a dry stick into the ground and tells his son to water if every day without fail – it may look like a dead stick, but you never know.