Lisa F. Jackson’s documentary The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo is a deeply troubling work that paints a picture that grows ever darker—and more sinister—as the film progresses. At the start of the film, Jackson informs us that “in the past 10 years, hundreds of thousands of women have been raped, but their suffering goes unacknowledged. They are invisible, shamed and silenced.” It’s the kind of statistical information that shocks you without quite registering. It’s a number without an identity. Intellectually, we know that the figure is horrifying, but it has the abstraction and distancing factor of being a number—a number so high that it’s impossible to really process it. What Jackson does—and what makes the film so powerful—is put faces to the number. Suddenly, the victims start having identities. They become real.
Jackson, herself a victim of a gang rape, went to the Congo in the belief that if she shared her own experience with these women, they might “break the silence” that surrounded their stories. Much of it is about the stigma of rape. One woman even says that her husband (who ran away while five soldiers raped her) tells their children that their mother “wanted to be raped.” This is but one of a series of tales—tales that are almost inconceivable. As the stories mount up, the enormity of this monstrous occurrence becomes increasingly real, and the fact that the government does little to try to stop it—or even admit that it’s happening—becomes maddening. It also becomes frustrating in the essential limitation of the viewer to do much about it. But it’s more than that.
Making the case perhaps even more appalling is that all of this is a by-product of war, that these are war crimes and the soldiers responsible for the rapes—at least the ones that we see—“excuse” their actions on the basis that this is war. They claim that it’s the circumstances that cause them to behave in this manner, and that if the circumstances were different, they wouldn’t treat women this way. Of course, all the while they’re explaining how they sometimes “have to” take the women by force, and offering this rationale, they’re also more than happy to tell Jackson just how many women they’ve raped. This footage is every bit as chilling as the women’s stories are heartbreaking.
More, The Greatest Silence doesn’t let us off the hook either. How so? Well, it’s made clear that the war behind all this is fueled by economics—economics tied to the Congo’s natural resources. And these resources are used by the Western world—notably a metal that’s employed in the manufacture of such everyday items as computers and cell phones. In our own way—even if by proxy—we share in the blame.
As filmmaking, there’s nothing particularly extraordinary or groundbreaking about The Greatest Silence; it’s a straightforward documentary. But what it contains is something else again.