I’ve always had an almost morbid fascination with ethnic conflict…

15 Sep

Ever since my mom forced me to watch Schindler’s List with her in the third grade, I’ve had a desire to learn about ethnic strife in other parts of the world. After witnessing so much racial tension in the tiny, safety-scissors microcosm that was my elementary school, I found it somewhat terrifying that this happened in other parts of the world magnified a thousand times with the power of bullets, shrapnel and machetes.

I was glued to a television set during the crisis in Rwanda and have constantly kept up with the genocide in Darfur. But a part of the world that the media always seemed to gloss over was the ethnic strife in the Democratic Republic of Congo. So I was glad when I saw Sexual Warfare in the Democratic Republic of Congo on fourth page of the interactive narratives and was surprised reporters in some part of the world decided to draw attention to the issue.thecongo.jpg

The narrative was split into five interactive installments. The first was a feature video on sexual warfare, the second was testimony of rape and survival, the third was commentary by Doctors with Borders, the fourth show what life was like in the refugee camps, and the last was a map of the war zone.  I like that this news documentary has a good balance of numbers versus actual people and experiences. In ethnic conflicts around the globe, I feel there is a tendency to reduce the travesties of humanity down to a numbers game. This many people were murdered, this many women were raped, this many families were displaced. When I see this kind of mechanical, numbers-based reporting, it reminds of Joseph Stalin and his belief that the death of one man is a tragedy, while the death of millions is a statistic. When reporters only tell how many and how much, they’re doing a terrible disservice in the way of exposing injustices.

Sexual Warfare did give the startling numbers: one out of every three Congolese women has been a victim of rape. Five million people have been killed since the conflict started, and millions more families have been displaced. But it interspersed these numbers with still photos of families, landscapes, and homes. You saw the toll sexual violence had taken by looking at the numbers and by looking at the faces.

The narrative also made a good job of contrasting stark, still photos with amazing sound. In the first four installments, the reporters often used emotionally stirring photos of the Congolese in their homes, in flight, or in makeshift displacement camps. As background audio for the photos, they had a smorgasbord of sounds ranging from radio dispatches between French Doctors Without Borders workers to Congolese families speaking in hushed tones to one of the most powerful sounds of all, silence.

One of the most moving sounds that culminated the entire piece was in the fourth and last video installment which depicted the lives and daily routines of Congolese living in a displaced persons camp. Instead of the usual color photos spliced with video, the Australian team of reporters decided to just use a series of black and white photos with the sounds of a Congolese choir singing. This formed a stirring climax as the singing of the Congolese women wasn’t sorrowful or imbued with the pain that comes from experiencing unspeakable horrors, but it told the tale of survival, triumph and ultimately hope. Then the choir abruptly stops and the video portion of the narrative ends with a single Congolese man standing over a mass grave. I thought this entire installment used black and white photos, sound and silence to effectively connote the resilience among despair, and how the victims still managed to retain their humanity despite heartache and horror.

As for the multimedia/interactive elements and the overall “clickability” of the narrative, I felt it was lacking somewhat. The fifth installment was a simple map of the war zone, and I felt it would have added to narrative if I was able to click on certain parts of the map and hear a story or see an image. Having a map to begin with was a nice touch since it added geographic significance to the conflict, but a map alone would nothing to most users unless there was a level of interactivity to it.

But then again maybe the lack of “clickability” was the point. With sensitive issues such as this, I feel over-interactivity can draw attention away from the humanity of what’s happening. For the series of still photos, if I was stopping to click on random things, perhaps the wordless message that comes with a still photo would have been tainted or diluted.

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