Pushing the Elephant (review)

Rose Mapendo was on the wrong side of ethic warfare in her homeland of the Democratic Republic of Congo. She witnessed her husband’s brutal murder, saw her daughter raped and impregnated by a soldier, and gave birth herself to twin boys in a death camp… and after so much horror, she was moved to name those babies after the military commanders of the camp, as a sign of forgiveness, to try to break the cycle of violence and vengeance. Mapendo’s attempts at reconciliation is a work in progress, and continues now, years after her release from that camp and her resettlement with her children in Phoenix, Arizona, in a much more organized way: she works with humanitarian projects around the world to aid refugees and survivors of systematic violence, including through her own recently founded Mapendo New Horizons. But this simple, stunning portrait of her strength and commitment, from documentarians Beth Davenport and Elizabeth Mandel, is no dry discourse on the tough, demanding work of humanitarianism — it is a deeply moving look at the real toll such work has had on one woman’s life: she is, for instance, constantly reliving her own nightmarish past every time she speaks publicly about it; she also has to cope with the very familiar challenges of being a single working mother. Mapendo may be one of the most extraordinary people you will ever meet on film — and if you’re lucky enough to catch a local screening, you may have the opportunity to meet the woman herself. For all the pain she has experienced, which she softens not at all when she explains the awful things she has endured, she is an overtly generous soul, and a powerful example of the dictum about dedicated individuals being the only ones who can change the world for the better. Davenport (disclaimer: Davenport is an acquaintance, my cousin’s girlfriend) and Mandel take a hands-off approach — there are no expert talking heads here, no informational charts and graphs — and stand aside to let Mapendo simply be the amazing inspiration she is.

I saw Pushing the Elephant as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival currently ongoing in London. It also debuts on U.S. television tonight, as part of PBS’s series Independent Lens. Check the film’s official site for details on upcoming local screenings.

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