Storytelling is what defines humanity. Our ability to reflect on our experiences, construct a narrative around them and draw conclusions is what has driven civilisation from before Homer to the present day.
However, according to Professor Susan Greenfield in her book Mind Change, the ability of the brain to dwell on something and consider it, is under threat in the digital age. The “next economy” of content, which relentlessly pours out of our smartphones on a continuous loop of attention-demanding notifications, GIFs, tweets and posts is, she believes, altering our neurological responses. The message is now the medium.
Greenfield may well be right, but the art of storytelling is not lost. She should take heart from The Uncondemned, a new film from the directors Michele Mitchell and Nick Louvell, which tells the story of a group of young, inexperienced lawyers who brought about the first prosecution of genocide in Rwanda, and with their case against the small-town mayor John Paul Akayesu, the legal classification of rape as a crime of war.
It is a story within a story within a story. By focusing on the courtroom drama, it also allows the world to remember once again the events that unfolded in Rwanda in the early Nineties. Horrific, unsettling – even more so as they are so recent a part of our history – these events are still ripping through the country today. The mass and systematic rape of the Tutsi women rendered vast swathes of Rwanda’s female population “the living dead”, as one psychologist puts it in the film. “It is as if someone has reached inside you and ripped out your soul,” says Patricia Sellers, an attorney working at the Hague at the time, who was tasked with helping to bring about the prosecution for sexual assault.
It’s a description reflected in the faces of the three survivors who eventually stepped forward to testify, and whose evidence sealed the conviction. This is the third story. The heroism of a group of women who came to terms with their trauma, and had the courage to live through it again in front of the eyes of the world.
The Akayesu case went on to change legal history and precedent, and has been cited in cases from the Extraordinary Criminal Chambers of Cambodia, to the Guatemalan genocide. It has been tried in the national courts, cited in the Karadzic case at the Yugoslav Tribunal and all of the Srebrenica cases tried in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and every subsequent genocide case at the Rwandan Tribunal. “Akayesu has set the legal standard for the modern interpretation of the elements of genocide,” says Patricia Sellers, now a special advisor to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. “The Akayesu judgment is the first to hold rape as a crime against humanity in this modern era of international judicial mechanisms.”
It is a long, and at times profoundly uncomfortable, film but it is also utterly gripping. In a short-form world, it proves the value and art of long-form storytelling. It also succeeds in getting across a difficult and unsavoury message: recent, horrific crimes of humanity, and the intricacies of a complicated international legal procedure that has changed the outcomes of justice for women as the victims of sexual violence the world over. Skilful storytelling.