An incredibly moving and intimate documentary about women who have survived FGM.
It is a film that allows women to speak about their experiences in their totality. The audience is not given the faces of black women flashed up in some statistics piece reporting on their perpetual victimhood. They are whole people, with whole lives, joys and challenges outside what was done to them. But all them want to speak out about their experience, to stop it happening to other girls, to break the taboo for other survivors, and just have their trauma acknowledged.
That is what is so pervasive and damaging across all their experiences – silence. The physical act of violence was bad enough, but there is a silence that is expected of survivors, that they never speak to other women, or warn other girls of the pain, the complications, the real mortal danger it puts you in. Never speak about the effect it has on periods, on sex, on childbirth. Like is so often the case, violence against women must not only be borne, but borne in silence, without complaint.
But as grim as the subject is, this film is a film of hope. And not in an abstract way, like the notion of hope. But real tangible progress that is being made, both in illegalising the practice, in normalising resistance to it among women, about breaking the taboo of talking about it, and in the advancements in reconstruction surgery which is literally giving women back what was taken from them. This film is both a product of, part of, and proponent of that change.
The hero of this piece is Mami, the documentary filmmaker herself, who makes the incredibly brave and intimate decision to include herself and her own experience at the centre of the narrative. This was not a decision she made lightly, as she said in the Q&A afterwards. The film was intended to be her interviewing other women about their experiences, and over the course of the interviews, their conversations brought up and touched on so many things she was dealing with. And she thought, “How can I ask these women to come here and talk about such intimate things, when I am not willing to talk about these things myself?”
So the film also becomes a memoir of recovery, as she goes back home to Kenya to talk to her mother about her circumcision, a topic which has never been discussed between them in 20 years.
And just a word about her mother – I bloody love her mother. Her mother adores her. Her mother would do anything for her. Her mother exudes love for her. She is not the image many cast the mothers of FGM survivors (in that way all blame for patriarchal violence somehow has to turned back into a woman’s fault), the idea of some unfeeling, unloving, brutally strict mother who we all look at askance asking, “How could you?!” She was a woman who loved her daughter fiercely, who came up against the limits of what she could protect her from.
Her mother has given her daughter the best of everything she could, has sent her to school, university, to study abroad in Germany. She is immensely proud of her, and has her graduation photo on the wall of her home, displayed in pride of place. Their relationship is one of such evidenced love, that is becomes unthinkable that they have never spoken about something so important in both their lives for 20 years. And in showing the impossibility of such a conversation even in the loving heart of their relationship, the power of the taboo is communicated to the audience in a very real way. These experiences around FGM may never have been yours as a viewer, but watching Mami struggle to speak to her mother, you feel the words being choked in your own throat, you understand how unsayable it all seems.
And for me, their mother-daughter relationship is the heart of the film. As the filmmaker travels the world, talking to different women about their experiences, as she speaks to doctors about advancements in reconstruction surgery – always waiting in the background is the conversation she is leaving undone with her mother.
One of my fears with a film on FGM is an anxiety about how graphic any descriptions of the actual physical procedure might get. Because the film is of FGM survivors telling their own stories, they are in control of how much they divulge, and because it is made by an FGM survivor, no attempt is made to dwell upon lurid detail instead of survivor empowerment. When survivors describe their experience, much of the focus is not on the physicality of it, but of the sense of betrayal, the anger, the trauma, of being held down and not allowed to escape when they realised exactly what was happening to them, of the silence afterwards holding them down and feeling inescapable.
But every now and then, someone will say a word that you don’t want to hear, like remembering the sound of scissors, and your blood will run cold. Because all the survivors describe their stories so matter-of fact, and because there is story heaped upon story, you begin to think you have become acclimatised. And then halfway through the film, Mami sits down with the German lassie who is helping her make the film, and she shows Mami her pussy. “Oh!” Mami exclaims, “It’s like a rose! You have so many petals!” and then in a voice that breaks your heart, she says, “Mine doesn’t have any petals”. And I burst into tears.
It’s hard in a film to balance relaying what a terrible loss and violation this was and continues to be for so many women, with empowering survivors with a narrative where they are not defined or encompassed by the violence done to them, but this film does so, communicating experiences you may not have had yourself effectively and powerfully, in a way that shows women speaking up is always a revolutionary act, and showing when it happens on mass, it can bring down centuries-old violent and sexist tradition, it can free and save girls from a future of similar violence. A deeply moving film.