The indomitable Rose Mapendo, a Congolese Tutsi, saw her husband murdered and endured imprisonment in a death camp with nine of her children; freed and relocated to Arizona, she became a tireless advocate for peace and reconciliation. The strength of “Pushing the Elephant” lies in the way it brings this larger-than-life inspirational figure into the everyday domestic realm, where activism becomes a function less of heroic destiny than of conscious choice, open to anyone. A must-see educational tool and a shoo-in for PBS or cable, pic is receiving Los Angeles and New York theatrical runs through DocuWeeks.
Speaking at the White House, representing her tribe at the Goma Peace Talks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and counseling Congolese refugees in her own community, Mapendo works with war victims far and wide as chief ambassador/spokesperson for Mapendo Intl., a nonprofit organization named in her honor. But helmers Beth Davenport and Elizabeth Mandel filter Mapendo’s every appearance on the world stage through her private home life, which occupies the pic’s foreground and provides its core.
The filmmakers join Mapendo’s story just prior to her reunion with her daughter Nangabire, whom she was forced to leave behind, more than a decade earlier, when she and other family members were captured. Mapendo’s transcontinental work with traumatized refugees is mirrored by her personal attempts to ease Nangabire’s adjustment to a largely unknown family and a totally alien culture. When Mapendo wins the United Nations Humanitarian of the Year award, the filmmakers present the event as an unexplained fun trip for Nangabire, who accompanies her mother; only later is the journey’s larger purpose revealed. Mapendo’s decision to revisit her homeland similarly elicits her oldest son’s fears for her safety — he, like the other children, bears the scars of his time in the death camp.
As Nangabire struggles to acclimate to her new environment, she falls into depression, her abandonment issues unable to crystallize into anger. At the same time, her arrival triggers unwelcome memories for Mapendo, who still copes with mixed emotions over choices made in the death camp, where survival came at incalculable cost and necessitated ignoble acts.
Though the filmmakers do not elide the real problems faced by Mapendo and her 10 kids, “Pushing the Elephant” remains remarkably celebratory (the title comes from a Banyamulenge saying: “One person alone cannot push the elephant, but many people together can”). Whether singing hymns with fellow expats or hosting local hoedowns, Mapendo never seems conflicted or self-conscious, her caring both spontaneous and nondiscriminatory. She no more hesitates to attend the Congo peace talks than she hesitates to leave early to return home, balancing work and family a no-brainer after the impossible quandaries of her past.