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Refugees Are Normal People

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"Refugees are normal people, like you and me," says Rose Mapendo, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, often described as the worst war zone on earth. In Pushing the Elephant, an extraordinary documentary just released from Arts Engine, we learn that Rose, her husband, and their ten children lived normal lives--until a horrifying, senseless civil war changed everything.

In 1998, the Rwandan Tutsi army invaded the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a campaign against ethnic Tutsis began. Rose and her family were rounded up by the military in Minembwe, their Banyamulenge village in eastern Congo, and taken to a death camp. Soldiers killed Rose's husband. Every day they chose new villagers to murder. No one knew who would be next. Her captors were ready to kill her oldest son. But Rose made a deal: violate her oldest daughter and let the family live. It was a gamble that no human being, no parent, should ever have to make. It turns out that Rose made the "right" decision: her son's life was spared and her daughter--though raped, impregnated, and shamed in a culture where sexual shame can feel like death--was also allowed to live. Soon after the head commander, now the president, Joseph Kabila, sent them to a protection center run by the Red Cross. In 2000 they fled Africa, almost missing escape on a U.S.-funded rescue flight, and settled in Phoenix, Arizona. Rose was a single mother with nine of her children, didn't know English, and knew no one.

Pushing the Elephant follows Rose, now an activist and until very recently a spokesperson for Mapendo International, a nonprofit organization named in her honor that helps refugees who have not received humanitarian aid. In focusing their camera lens on Rose, directors Elizabeth Mandel and Beth Davenport made a shrewd decision. They filter the war in the Congo, incomprehensible even to those who follow African politics, through a personal narrative. "Everyone understands family relationships," Mandel (an acquaintance of mine) explains. "By distilling genocide, rape as a tool of warfare, and displacement into a personal narrative, we were able to tell an otherwise unfathomable story." It helps that Rose is extremely likeable and warm. She never misses a chance to show affection for her children (who adorably clown around when they're not cooking up their favorite dishes from home) even while she is on her cell phone planning her next speech that will raise awareness and funds to help other refugees.

During the filming of this movie, Rose was reunited with a daughter, Nangabire, whom she had been forced to leave behind in Africa. We watch as Nangabire arrives in Phoenix and struggles to assimilate in a new culture with a family she barely knows. She is thrown into the public school system, where on the first day a teacher tells her that her name is now Nelly and the cafeteria cashier rolls her eyes because Nangabire doesn't know if she has cash to pay for lunch. Meanwhile, Rose wins the United Nations Humanitarian of the Year Award (where she quips about being in competition with Angelina Jolie over who has more children), hosts even small-potato fundraising events such as a local hoedown, and attends the Congo peace talks.

Since 1998, over five million Congolese have been murdered and three million chased from their homes. "We are all aware of genocide and the mantra 'never again,'" says co-director Davenport. "In the opening of the film, Rose asks us to imagine growing up with someone since childhood, and then they come and kill you. The idea of neighbor killing neighbor, and the numbers of dead we hear about in the Congo--five million, six million--raise parallels to the Holocaust, with the hollowness of 'never again' impossible to ignore."

Many issue-oriented documentaries present a narrative that seems distant, making you wonder why you should care. Others are so raw that you cry your eyes out but you become paralyzed with hopelessness. This film is different. The horror is undeniable; toward the end of the film, Rose visits the site of a 2004 massacre of Banyamulenge refugees in Gatumba, Burundi, in which soldiers brutally murdered 166 people, including children, by gun, machete, and gasoline-ignited fire. She says, "These are the lucky ones; at least they built a cemetery for them." But Rose is an optimist. She has every right to be angry and vengeful yet is quite the opposite--loving and peace-seeking. And although she may seem, at times, superhuman, we see that she is not; Rose is a normal person making deliberate choices to help others who have been traumatized. The challenge to all of us is to be as "normal" as Rose--to do the right thing. And if the opportunity does not present itself to us, we must create it ourselves.

Pushing the Elephant will screen in LA for one week, starting this Friday, August 13th, as part of the Independent Documentary Association's DocuWeeks Theatrical Showcase. More information is available online at ArcLight Cinemas.