The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo

by Latoya Peterson

The Greatest Silence is a documentary about rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and specifically about how rape is a weapon of war. The film premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on HBO.

More information can be found on the HBO website and the filmmaker’s own site.

I poked around the internet to get some perspectives on the documentary – I have presented some of the write-ups below. [Trigger warning.]

Washington Post – The Brutal Truth

In a 10-year-old conflict that has left some 5 million people dead, the tens of thousands of women and girls who have been systematically raped and mutilated by an array of combatants are the silent victims among the living, Jackson tells us. What makes her documentary more stunning: She goes into the forest and confronts the rapists.

“I slept with some women,” says the rapist, a gray sweater wrapping his head, the sleeves tied around his neck.

“Did they want you to sleep with them?” Jackson inquires, her voice incisive, a bit on edge. A translator repeats her words in Swahili. Is it about control? Sex? Why violate a woman, leave her to bleed in her village, while her husband watches, tied to a tree? Why would 20 men line up and take turns, one after the other, raping a girl until she passes out and separates herself from a pain too evil to imagine?


In another scene, the gray-sweatered rapist doesn’t flinch at Jackson’s question: “If she says no, I must take her by force. If she is strong, I’ll call some of my friends to help me. All this is happening because of the war. We would live a normal life and treat women naturally if there was no war.”

San Francisco Chronicle (SF Gate) – Film captures rapists and their victims in Congo

When Lisa F. Jackson was 25 and living in Washington, D.C., she was gang-raped after leaving work in the upscale Georgetown district. Her story was front-page news, but the three perpetrators were never caught.

Jackson, a documentary filmmaker, kept recalling that trauma last year, when she visited Congo to interview victims of sexual violence. Tens of thousands of women and girls are raped each year by armed militiamen who often mutilate the genitals of their victim with guns and sticks.

Why, Jackson wanted to know, if her rape was considered news, does the huge wave of Congolese atrocities go unreported and unacknowledged? In her devastating 75-minute film, “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo,” Jackson searches for the answer by speaking to the victims; to physicians and aid workers; to U.N. peacekeepers whose numbers are inadequate to the problem; and, finally, to the rapists themselves.

Jackson, 57, calls the crisis “a holocaust in slow motion.”

Interestingly, the New York Times takes a completely different view of the documentary:

What has driven Ms. Jackson isn’t the tragedy itself but her own status as a rape survivor, which leads her to take an aggressively central role. She is motivated not simply by her reportorial instincts but also by her unfortunate wish to relate.

Hundreds of thousands of Congolese women, many tortured, sodomized and left incontinent, become their society’s pariahs. Ms. Jackson was raped years ago by a group of men as she was coming home from work late one night in the Georgetown section of Washington. Comparing herself to the impoverished women she finds, women shunned and abandoned by a nation of men who condone the prevailing, systematic brutalities, Ms. Jackson tells us that when she was married, her husband referred to her as “damaged goods.” While he may have meant that her emotional wounds left her unprepared for the trials of marriage, Ms. Jackson leaves the phrase dangling there to suggest that the anguishes of sexual violence are experienced universally and that all shame is essentially the same shame.

Now, I can understand that viewpoint. We have yet to see the documentary, so this reviewer could be right. However, this next section gave me some pause (emphasis mine):

The warrior-rapists Ms. Jackson finds through her translator speak in the chilling language of hypocrisy, and she presses them toward a logic they are incapable of. They see rape as patriotic, necessary. While they admit freely to taking women by force, at the same time they explain that they would never stand for the same treatment of their wives, mothers or sisters.

Ms. Jackson, imagining perhaps that her subjects had read Susan Brownmiller, asks them if they consider their crimes acts of sex or power. “These are complicated questions they can’t answer,” her translator tells her.

Is it just me, or does that passage reek of condescension? I get where the writer was going with this – many rapists tend to distance themselves from the crime, either by using circumstances (we were in a war, rape just happens) or the woman’s identity (she was a whore anyway.) A lot of rapists distance themselves from what they have done so well that they are loathe to call what happened rape.

But those lines in particular make me think the reviewer really wanted to write “what do you expect of these savages?”

Then again, the reviewer could be responding this way to the documentary because the filmmaker is white – which may have cast the reviewer’s perception of the film in a different light.

This is how the NY Times piece ends:

There are certain kinds of art that obviously benefit from egocentricity. This kind of filmmaking almost never does. “The women of the Congo gave me a new definition of grace,” Ms. Jackson says at the end of her film, as if that were the point.

Your thoughts?

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