In the aftermath of violent rape, an increasingly widespread form of terrorism in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, women undergo surgery to try to repair traumatic fistula — a devastating condition that causes extreme incontinence, doubly rendering victims pariahs. Set almost entirely at the HEAL Africa hospital in the troubled eastern part of the country, upbeat, vibrantly shot “Lumo” handles its ostensibly dreary subject matter with astonishing serenity, due in large part to the solidarity of the women and the resilience of pic’s titular heroine. Skedded to air on PBS in September, the colorful, deftly structured docu confounds expectations.
American helmers Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Nelson Walker III, who began as volunteers making medical training videos at the hospital, structure their docu around the 22-year-old Lumo — one of many patients being treated for the psychic scars of savage rape as well as the destruction of the wall between the vagina and the bladder.
By docu’s opening, Lumo’s courage, humor and indomitable intelligence have already survived four unsuccessful operations. Raped by renegade Rwandan militia (pillaging and terrorizing unchecked across the Congo border), and subsequently abandoned by her fiance, Lumo stands as living proof of the Nietzschean adage that what does not kill you makes you stronger.
Afflicted women are gathered from neighboring villages and brought to the hospital, where they are welcomed into a warm, non-judgmental community presided over by a group of “mamas” — hospital administrators, nurses and counselors — and composed of women who have undergone the same rape, humiliation, abandonment and pain. Though obviously clean and well-equipped, the hospital emits none of the sterile vibes of a medical facility; caregivers and patients alike are garbed in vivid native costume as they await or recover from surgery. In a visual dynamic that informs many African docus, the lush beauty of the land outside the enclave’s walls flourishes in ironic contrast to the underlying terrors.
Though Lumo’s fifth surgery and its attendant suspense gives the docu shape and momentum, the filmmakers trace an almost imperceptible process of healing and return to normalcy within the community overall, eavesdropping on the women as they tease each other, gossip and dream of marriage and babies, even though their families and villages have largely rejected them and bands of ravaging militia still roam the countryside. Hardly the first docu to celebrate the extraordinary strength and power of African women, “Lumo” is by no means the least.
Filmmakers’ ability to seamlessly weave Lumo’s story into the fabric of the hospital setting without falsely heroicizing her owes much to the clarity and certitude of their HD lensing, which makes the most of the sumptuous palette of African hues and textures.