The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo

The Carolina Film and Video Festival returned to Greensboro this weekend, with its spotlight aimed at women and documentaries. Prior to an evening of documentary films, I attended what I was sure would be the highlight of the festival, a two hour presentation by Debra Zimmerman, Executive Director of Women Make Movies (WMM) – the largest distributor of films by females. Looking forward to an engaging a thoughtful dialogue on her years of experience working with women in the film industry, I was disappointed that Zimmerman spoke only briefly – and from a podium so large I could barely see her face – about the realities of being an independent filmmaker. She used the bulk of her time slot to surprise the audience with a sneak preview of the most recent documentary distributed by WMM:

The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo

In one of the most beautiful and resourceful regions of the world, power and dominance are being abused and manipulated in a genocide so fierce it is the deadliest battle since World War II. For the past 10 years, civil war has ravaged the Democratic Republic of the Congo killing over four million people and that doesn’t count the estimated 200,000 women who have been murdered emotionally, spiritually and socially as their mutilated bodies are left to deteriorate. It is these women who filmmaker Lisa F. Jackson, seeks out hoping find; “If I tell my story will she break her silence?”

Winner of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize, this full length documentary is a brave attempt by Jackson to call attention to the realities of girls and women struggling to survive in a devastated nation. Jackson herself was a victim of gang rape – right here in our nation’s capital – at the age of 25 and it is this experience that she cites as inspiration for her journey to the Congo. From off screen Jackson recounts her personal history with rape and briefly ponders the differences between two cultures, both of which exploit women and their bodies for political and economic gain. Yet, as the film progresses, she fails to elaborate any of the political, economic or emotional issues she seeks to explore.

As a filmmaker and activist, Jackson’s motivation is compelling. As a researcher, however, she often falls short. Her attempt to dialogue with a group of male soldiers about why they rape only illustrates her naiveté and the soldiers own ignorance of their actions. No reference is made to the systematic and historical ideologies that have encouraged sexual violence and Jackson stays far away from her own country’s complicity in the Congolese conflict – Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, you know. While the film gives a brief yet informative history of Congolese violence and is heavy with statements on the political nature of rape, Jackson neglects to take the discussion any deeper. There is no commentary on why rape is used as a systematic tactic of war and her soft spoken voice-over serves only the echo what the women themselves are saying.

Visually, Jackson’s choices catapult from captivating – just outside a village a line of school girls walk by singing, in bold red head wraps, white shirts and deep blue skirts, to confusing – does the camera really need to be in the operating room as a young, scared girl receives treatment? Thankfully she steers clear of violent images, but the recollection of their rapes by the Congolese women are rife with imagery and it is in these interviews where the true magnitude of this story lies.

The most poignant moments come when Jackson is silent and the camera finds the women telling their stories in their own voice. Each woman Jackson interviews clearly and eloquently recounts the memory of her rape and the events of her life since. In a small room of one of the only hospitals available to rape victims in the Congo, twenty women, ranging in age from pre-pubescent to elderly, are crowded. They have been rescued from deep in the forest where they had been left for dead by the soldiers who raped them all. One woman stands tall among the group and challenges the way they have been treated, clearly identifying her own self worth and that of all humans. Her voice is strong, clear and filled with emotion. When she is finished she moves away from the group and turns toward the wall, sobbing quietly into the cloth of her dress.

Originally funded by Jackson herself, The Greatest Silence, is a testament to the individual filmmaker and the tremendous possibility that holding a camera yields. She struggles however to take this story further than it context and misses an opportunity translate what is being recorded through her viewfinder into a deeper social commentary with the possibility of creating tangible, global change.

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