'I was five when I was kidnapped': powerful new documentary turns heartbreak into hope
The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe begins with a close-up of a soulful-looking African woman in a pink singlet. She’s in front of a blue projected background simulating rain, touching her face. Her eyes are closed and her hands are wet. Small streaks of water trickle down her arms as her voiceover begins: “I love my neck … ”
Whatever beauty that moment has turns devastating in a heartbeat. As a deep, slow, operatic song plays on the soundtrack, matched to images of other women’s faces and hands, the narrator completes her sentence: “because it was never touched.”
Director Ros Horin’s documentary is a behind-the-scenes account of the and the remarkable people at its core. Arriving in cinemas this week after making the rounds at the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals, the film’s champions include veteran film-makers Gillian Armstrong (“emotional and uplifting”) and George Miller (“remarkable and unforgettable”).
Horin, an experienced stage director, worked with four African-raised women to turn their harrowing lives into a cathartic experience. First as theatre and now as a film she hopes will have a long life.
Rosemary grew up in Kenya and was abused for several years by members of her own family. Aminata was 16 when she was kidnapped by a rebel leader during the Sierra Leone civil war in the 1990s. She became a sex slave. Yarrie, a victim of the same war, grew up in a refugee camp in Guinea. There’s also Yordanos, whose story we will illuminate in a moment.
After introducing the four key subjects – none of whom had professional acting experience – Horin’s documentary poses a question she has spent a lot of time contemplating: how do women survive something like this?
“I have arrived at the conclusion that you can survive and reconstruct your life but it is absolutely dependent on breaking your silence,” she tells Guardian Australia. “Being able tell your story and have it acknowledged and heard and validated.
“Just imagine having this deep dark secret inside you that you feel you can’t mention to anyone. It’s like having a rock inside your stomach. Like this thing that’s constantly pulling you down.”
Yordanos’ journey to regain her life involved combining the theatre production with ongoing weekly counselling. When she was a young child, she watched her father kill her mother. When she was five years old, she was taken and trained to be a child soldier by the Eritrean army. For a decade and a half she suffered violence and sexual abuse.
Preparing the play required extensively workshopping sessions to find ways to tell each person’s stories. This meant Yordanos and the rest of the group had to revisit the trauma of their pasts, session after session, week after week. All this before getting on stage and reliving it, again and again, in front of strangers. It became too much for her. Four weeks in, Yordanos suffered an emotional collapse and quit.
“I felt tired and drained and I couldn’t continue,” she says. “There’s so many things that happened. I was five when I was kidnapped. From that age until my teenage life, I was in that place. While making this I had so many flashbacks and I couldn’t cope with all of that.
“I felt like the best thing for me was to withdraw. Just, get away from me, I don’t want to be telling this again. But my counsellor thought I was strong enough to go back and continue it. That is what I did. I was so grateful I got to finish it.
“In my life I have been voiceless. But to stand there and speak in such a way, to say ‘this is what happened to me and I’m explaining it’, I think it has huge power.”
In the early days of workshopping, Horin, concerned about the women’s welfare, would sometimes float the idea of abandoning the play altogether when things became overwhelming. These conversations tended to be marked by long stretches of silence, she says, eventually broken by “one voice which would pipe up and say, ‘Yes, this pain is coming out. But I can’t tell you how much better I feel.’”
The director used various techniques to protect the women from revisiting the most painful aspects of their stories. Instead of Aminata reading out a court testimony detailing her rape, for example, Horin swapped roles, so Aminata became the lawyer character and a friend played her. This sort of approach was used with each of the women in various ways, including through video footage and songs.
“If somebody was very fragile and they were observing aspects of their story I could say to them, ‘Tonight you don’t have to come on stage and observe that or even listen to it,’” Horin says. “There wasn’t just one structure to the play. There was a kind of A version, then a B version, then a C version. This was all invented out of necessity. How to solve a practical problem and not be too hard on the women.”
The results are inspiring to say the least. The group bonded and grew like a family; they now refer to each other as sisters. There are scenes in the film that bring tears to your eyes, though the story is ultimately life-affirming. Among its messages, perhaps, is that hope comes in many forms.
The four subjects found different pathways to resilience. One has focused on poetry, another on participating in philanthropic projects. Yordanos says that because of sticking with the stage production – slogging it out when her instincts told her to quit – she is now in a better place than ever.
“I tried so hard to fit in with my own community, it didn’t work,” she says. “But this has given me faith in humans. I made friends from different backgrounds and I get to be seen as totally the person I am. I came to accept that this is what I am meant to be and I am OK with that person.
“For someone like me, I have no one to blame. I can’t go out there saying, ‘You have done this to me.’ There is no one to say sorry, or even to acknowledge me as a human being. The play, for people to come to see it, to meet so many different people and to be able to talk about it openly – it’s amazing. To me, I got my life back. I got me back.”
• The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe is in cinemas now