Though it is a serious documentary about a devastating subject, "The Uncondemned" has a title that makes it sounds a bit like a 1940s film noir. And that is likely not an accident.
For co-directors Michele Mitchell and Nick Louvel have astutely decided to tell the story of the first time rape was prosecuted as an international war crime with a feeling for plot and narrative drive that underlines the thriller-type twists and turns the complicated case took. A dry recitation of legal facts this is definitely not.
Nor is "The Uncondemned," despite the horrific specifics of war-time rape cases it inevitably details, a film that hangs the audience out to dry. Its conclusion, and its well-earned message, are more positive and hopeful than even its participants likely ever imagined they would be.
Mitchell and Louvel start the film with a brisk recap of 1994's appalling Rwandan genocide, where some 1 million Tutsi were slaughtered by the Hutu majority government in 100 days. "This is a very dark place I haven't opened in awhile," says a journalist who fills us in on the horrors.
Western outrage and guilt led to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, set up to investigate genocide and other crimes against humanity.
And although rape had been declared a war crime as early as 1919, and, as an opening quote from Genghis Khan indicates, it had been part of war from time immemorial, there were initially no plans to include rape in the indictments of the first defendant before the tribunal, Jean-Paul Akayesu, the former mayor of Taba.
How that changed is the story filmmakers Mitchell and Louvel cogently tell. It's the story of how history is made in small, at times uncertain, steps, but it is something more as well.
For what "The Uncondemned" convincingly demonstrates is the cumulative power of a small group of people with an intense passion for justice, idealists with practical experience whose belief in the power inherent in speaking the truth is not to be denied.
The story starts with Binaifer Nowrojee, at the time a researcher for the Human Rights Watch who went to Rwanda early on. Through the assistance of a local woman named Godeliève Mukasarasi, who founded a program called SEVOTA to help rape victims, she talked with many of them for an HRW report called "Shattered Lives" that shed a powerful light on the situation.
When Sara Darehshori arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, as an investigator for the tribunal (she ended up a co-counsel for the prosecution), things were grimmer than she imagined. There were no lights on the streets, her hotel room door would not close and there was a bloody handprint on her wall.
Arriving soon after was Pierre-Richard Prosper, the lead counsel for the prosecution, whose legal experience was not of the international variety: He had been a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles in the hard-core gang unit.
Though it was well known that extensive rape had taken place in Rwanda, the crime was marginalized in the face of the murder investigations. As Lisa Pruitt — sent to Rwanda by the International Criminal Tribunal as a gender consultant — put it, the feeling was, "Hey, little lady, don't you know what happened down here?"
Aside from the legal team involved, "The Uncondemned" interviews three rape victims, identified not by name but by letter, who took the first plane ride of their lives to testify in front of the tribunal. Their strength of character and resilience is remarkable, as is their belief that, as one of them puts it, "when you are telling the truth, you don't get scared."
If you want to understand how these ordinary rural women who lived without electricity or running water changed international law, "The Uncondemned" gives you the best seat in the house.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles