FIlm Review: City of Joy

by Madeleine GavinNetflix Original
reviewed by Bilge Ebiri
Courtesy Netflix

The “city of joy” referred to in the title of Madeleine Gavin’s documentary is not a city at all, but a complex that serves as a shelter, rehabilitation center, and education organization for female survivors of the brutal conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in which rape was regularly used as a weapon of war. The stories these women tell—the hardships they’ve had to endure—are beyond harrowing. And consider this: They might be the lucky ones, because they’re the ones who actually survived. At the city, these brave, wounded women learn to love their bodies again; in one charming and moving scene, they’re encouraged to hold up mirrors to their private parts, and to describe what they see. They also learn self-defense, ways to assert themselves, and leadership strategies. They trade stories, and build friendships, and try to have fun and laugh again.

At the city, these brave, wounded women learn to love their bodies again.

It’s a powerful subject, to be sure, but it’s also a big subject—one that encompasses not just issues of women’s rights and individual survivor tales but also disturbing geopolitical realities. Director Gavin is smart enough not to attempt a thorough analysis or history of the war in Congo: She offers some context, but her main concern is telling the stories of these women attempting to rebuild their lives, as well as of the activists who founded the center, one of whom was The Vagina Monologues playwright Eve Ensler. Whenever it focuses on the humans at the center of this fascinating little world, City of Joy is a tremendously powerful film. —BE

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