The film recently had its LA premiere—here are nine things we learned from the screening and discussion with the filmmakers.
The nights of April 14 and April 15, 2014 permanently altered the lives of 276 school girls in the town of Chibok, Nigeria in Borno State. Taken hostage by Boko Haram and held in the depths of Sambisa Forest in Northern Nigeria, the brazen kidnappings ignited a social media firestorm.
Celebrities and public figures, ranging from former First Lady
Michelle Obama to Queen Latifah, Usher, Whoopi Goldberg, Mary J. Blige, Angelina Jolie, Ellen Degeneres and more, rallied behind the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls in hopes of securing their speedy release. The Nigerian government, under tremendous international pressure, attempted negotiate with Boko Haram leaders; in the interim months 57 girls managed to escape. Then, in October 2016, the government secured the release of 21 girls. Three years later in May, 2017, Boko Haram released an additional 82 girls. As of today, a total of 103 girls have been released, and just over 100 still remain in captivity.
HBO's documentary Stolen Daughters: Kidnapped by Boko Haram delves into their lives post Boko Haram, highlighting the triumphs and the struggles of reintegrating into a society where they, as survivors, are at once celebrated and treated as other. Nigerian-American actress Yvonne Orji recently hosted a screening of Stolen Daughters followed by a panel discussion with producers Karen Edwards and Sasha Achilli—who were one of the few people granted access to the government safehouse in Abuja, where the girls received counseling before going on to attend university.
Below are nine things we learned from the film and panel discussion.
The release of 82 Chibok girls in May 2017 was the catalyst for the producers to get the green light to film.
Achili had worked as a producer in Nigeria previously but lost many of her sources during the government shift from Goodluck Jonathan to Muhammadu Buhari, and thus had to re-initiate contact by writing letters of request to the NSA (National Security Agency) and the SSS (State Security Agency).
"At the time we wanted to start filming 82 more girls had been release,d so I think the government was a lot more willing to let cameras in because they could show they achievement and that they were protecting the girls." —Sasha Achilli
Intermediaries were an imperative part of the release negotiations.
Local community and religious figures who knew, and in some cases, helped raise senior members of Boko Haram assisted the Red Cross and Nigerian government in negotiations.
"There's a barrister [ Mustapha Zanna] from Maiduguri, who knows a lot of the leaders of Boko Haram because he's known them since they were children. He started a school that has never been attacked because he kind of respects their rules so he had an existing relationship so he was key in those negotiations." —Sasha Achilli
The girls are discouraged from speaking in detail about their experience for fear of further endangering their captive schoolmates.
"I met with the Minister of Women's Affairs because officially on paper she was in charge of the girls. The first thing she said to me is, 'If we let you in you can't ask them about the forest.'" —Sasha Achilli
Limited resources and a culture of silence makes addressing the trauma difficult.
Although the Chibok girls are receiving therapy, government resources are limited and cultural attitudes make it hard for escaped women and girls who even have access to a therapist to unpack what they've been through.
"When I filmed the counseling session, I was taken aback by the methodology. I thought, 'surely that's not effective,' but then I thought more about it and I feel it is part of the culture of tough love. When you come from a place where the priority is where you're going to get food the next day, you really don't have the luxury of dealing with your mental health and your trauma, you just have to get on with it." —Sasha Achilli
"Still, it was awkward to watch them being silenced and told that the way to be counseled is not to talk about it, but instead go to amusement parks and get some gifts." —Karen Edwards
The filmmakers intentionally chose not to address the sexual violence associated with Boko Haram kidnappings.
"The tough thing when you're making a film is that you have to make choices. I made the decision when I was cutting the film not to include anything regarding the rape of any of the Chibok girls. We did see and hear some evidence of it, but what I do believe is that every woman has the right to say if it happened to them or not. I didn't want to make a blanket statement and imply it had happened to all of them unless any one of them wanted to speak to me, and they didn't. We know how long it takes to come out and talk about these things, it's their right to decide." —Karen Edwards
Part of the reason Boko Haram is so nebulous is because it has split into two factions.
"Back in 2012, ISIS, who was presumably a partly funding it, became outraged by Boko Haram's behavior because they were killing Muslims. So there's now kind of a split: you have Abubakar Shekau, who is essentially now Boko Haram as we know it and then there's an ISIS tie, which basically targets military and government and is more official. It's not quite so contained and you don't always know who is who, but Shekau has the girls, and Shekau attacks civilians and Muslims. —Karen Edwards
The girls are separated from other students at their university.
"The Chibok girls, despite going to school previously, were incredibly behind in school so their academic record was not high enough. They're actually in a foundation school within the university so they weren't part of the university. We included that because it was a moment that you could kind of really see the desperation—they've spent 3 years in captivity and then they're kept behind closed doors with the government. They're just aching to be normal and to not just be grouped as a Chibok girl." —Karen Edwards
Kidnapped girls are sometimes treated as pariahs, making re-assimilation difficult.
Many other "stolen daughters" do not return to the resources the Chibok girls received due to the international profile of their kidnappings. Zara and Habiba, who are also featured in the documentary, escaped to Maiduguri where they struggle to survive and keep their experience secret for fear of being outcast by the community.
"They didn't want their neighbors to know why we were interviewing them because they didn't want them to find out they were girls who had come from the forest. In Maiduguri, women and girls are most often used as suicide bombers; it still happens often enough for people to feel the fear of Boko Haram, so there's a general distrust." —Sasha Achilli
Every girl has a different story.
"In Maiduguri, I met some girls who were rescued by the military but found life in Maiduguri so tough that they wanted to go back. At the end of the day, even though they [Boko Haram] are brutal and horrible, not everyone had it as difficult There are different stories—if you get married you might have [a] slave working for you, and maybe life is a bit better than waiting for food rations if you even get any. We even met some girls who were former wives of Boko Haram commanders and when they came out they were not sent to a camp, but they were put in a secure safe house, which was very nice. The Governor of Borno State would even go and pay them visits." —Sasha Achilli
'Stolen Daughters: Kidnapped by Boko Haram' is out now on HBO. Catch it on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners' streaming platforms.