In spring 2004, Rwanda commemorated the 10th anniversary of the genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people in 100 days. Wide Angle, a PBS series, traveled to the fractured nation to make a film that looks forward instead of back. The staff’s work resulted in “Ladies First,” a documentary that looked at women’s involvement in Rwanda’s restructuring.
Building momentum for such a film was the groundbreaking September 2003 parliamentary elections in Rwanda, which resulted in Rwanda superseding Sweden as the country with the largest percentage of women elected into national parliament. Today, nearly half of the seats in Parliament are occupied by women.
“The significance of this election is extraordinary when one considers that just 10 years earlier women were not allowed to own land, open a bank account, run for political office or even work outside the home without their husband’s permission,” said Stephen Segaller, director of news and public affairs for Thirteen/WNET New York and executive director of Wide Angle. “As Florence, a mayor who appears in the film, notes: ‘Men owned property, women did not own property. Actually, women were among the property that men owned.’”
Despite this remarkable social transformation, Rwandan women still received little media coverage, making “Ladies First” an original and ground-breaking report to many viewers.
“We were delighted to discover, in the midst of our shoot in Rwanda, that the United Nations chose this story – the role of women rebuilding post-genocide Rwanda – as one of the world’s top 10 news stories that deserve attention in the media,” said Segaller.
The team spent months researching, reporting and editing the documentary. Producer Colette Kunkel made a three-week trip to Rwanda in March 2004. She returned with a crew in May 2004 for 17 days of shooting. The team then spent six weeks editing “Ladies First.”
“One of the great advantages of working in public television is that it allows one to pursue under-reported stories and affords a generous block of time in which you have to tell them,” said Kunkel. “The film told the story of a sociopolitical milestone that deserved a higher profile.”