WIFF documentary shines spotlight on female genital mutilation

As a documentarian, Portenier has spent much of her career making films about the human rights of women and children around the world. 

Giselle Portenier's 'In the Name of Your Daughter' is one of the headlining film's at this year's WIFF

Human rights filmmaker Gisele Portenier wants audiences to understand that female genital mutilation isn't just an issue for women and girls outside of North America. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

Ask Giselle Portenier why she chose to travel to Tanzania for her latest documentary, and she'll say that Tanzania actually chose her. 

According to the self-described human rights filmmaker, whose latest project In the Name of Your Daughter is set to screen at this year's Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF), it was actually a Google Alert about female genital mutilation (FGM) that led Portenier to her next project.

"I was looking for a story that might be accessible to my audience, that people could engage with," said Portenier. "I had [set] a Google Alert about female genital mutilation for about five years, and one day, this story popped up about a safehouse that saves girls from their own parents so that they won't be mutilated."

As a documentarian, Portenier has spent much of her career making films about the human rights of women and children around the world. 

"I've made films about honour killings in Pakistan and child slavery in Africa," she said. "Female genital mutilation is something that had always eluded me, but I always felt was a very important topic."

Listen to Gisele Portenier discuss her film on Windsor Morning:

Female genital mutilation is the subject of a documentary screening at the Windsor International Film Festival. If you think it's something that only affects women in far-flung countries, you're be mistaken. Tony speaks with director Giselle Portenier about why this film, and this difficult subject, is something all Canadians should pay attention to. 8:54

When Portenier came across the safehouse in Tanzania — run by Rhobi Samwelly, who is heavily featured in Portenier's latest film — she knew she had a responsibility to tell the story of the women and girls who rely on the organization for security.

"My film is really about the voices of the girls, the voices of the children who are running away to save themsleves from female genital mutilation and the child marriage that follows thereafter," Portenier said. 

Still, while the film touches on a topic that has affected hundreds of millions of girls around the world — including almost 100,000 girls and women in Canada —  Portenier said she hopes audiences leave the documentary inspired.

WIFF executive director Vincent Georgie says the festival doesn't shy away from films that portray complicated subject matter. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

"[I hope] audiences walk away from it inspired by the children, because some of them are only eight-years-old," she said. "Imagine an eight-year-old risking her life and her family by running away from home, just so she won't have to go through the mutilation that she's heard about perhaps at school and knows is a risk to her life and her future."

Vincent Georgie, executive director and chief programmer of WIFF, said the festival doesn't shy away from films that cover sensitive topics, adding that In the Name of Your Daughter is a "very important film to show at the festival, and one that we believe in very much."

"One of the luxuries of running a large film festival like ours, is you're able to bring in all sorts of different films for different audiences and different points of view," he said. "And we've never shied away from films that are challenging our films that are different or films that provoke or make you think."

'I hope it's educational,' says survivor

Francis Cole, a survivor of female genital mutilation, who advocates for women and girls around the world by sharing her own story, said she's Portenier's film educates audiences, rather than presenting an inaccurate view of the issue. 

"I hope that this has a message of educating people about the practice," she said. "I just hope that they'll be made more aware if they're not already aware about what FGM is."

Cole said she also hopes Portneir's film acknowledges that FGM isn't just a practice maintained by any one particular religious group.

Francis Cole is a female genital mutilation survivor who advocates against the practice. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

"When people hear about FGM, they automatically think it's a Muslim thing," said Cole, who has yet to see In the Name of Your Daughter. "I was raised Catholic and I wasn't spared."

Cole added that she hopes audiences understand that FGM is a "global issue."

"It's a human rights violation," she said. "It's torture and it has lifelong consequence and it's happening all around us. It's no longer happening in some remote village in a country in Africa."

Speaking about the subject, Portenier acknowledged that an important thing to note is that FGM "doesn't have anything to do with religion."

"[In] the safehouse, for instance, there are children from Muslim communities, children from Christian communties and also from animist traditions," she said. 

FGM is about 'sexual control of girls,' says filmmaker

While many might believe female genital mutilation is a cultural practice, Portenier said the truth is far less complicated.

"The common denominator everywhere is sexual control of girls," she said. "It's thought that if you put a girl through female genital mutilation, she won't be having sex before marriage, and then she won't be having affairs — be unfaithful — during marriage."

At the same time, Portenier wants her audience to understand that topics like female genital mutilation don't just take place in so-called "other" parts of the world. 

"There are 200 million survivors and every 11 seconds somewhere in the world, a girl is going through FGM and that's a lot of children," she said. "It's also a Canadian issue … because we have upwards of 100,000 survivors in Canada and these women are not getting the support that they need."

"And we have girls at risk. Government documents show that girls are being taken in the summer months back to their home country to be cut."

Windsor refugee settlement agency connects FGM survivors with access to care

Mike Morency, executive director of Windsor's Matthew House Refugee Welcome Centre, echoed Portenier's comments about FGM survivors in Canada.

According to Morency, his agency has seen an increase in women fleeing to Canada to escape FGM or who have already experienced the issue.

"We're certainly seen an increase in the number of people fleeing to Canada, and while that's not the exclusive reason for their refugee claim, it is part of their story," he said. 

Matthew House executive director Mike Morency says access to trauma counselling is essential for survivors of female genital mutilation. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

As for how Matthew House provides support to survivors, Morency said an important part of the work he does is "connecting them with counsellors, trauma experts to deal with the experiences that they have had prior to coming to Canada."

"Depending on the depth of their trauma, we would want to try to make sure that they get connected with a counselor that has trauma treatment experience and help them walk through that process," Morency said. 

With files from Amy Dodge


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