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Heart of Darkness: Lisa Jackson Confronts Sexual Violence in The Congo in 'The Greatest Silence'

By Cathleen Rountree

"Why use sex to humiliate and defeat someone?" asks Dr. Denis Mukwege, who specializes in treating hundreds of female victims of sexual violence at an understaffed eastern Congo hospital in Bukavu. That question serves as the subtext of Lisa F. Jackson's The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo as she encounters face-to-face the physically brutalized, soul-wounded survivors of a dark force that has assaulted 250,000 women and girls. Jackson's approach is political and humanist and at the same time profoundly personal, given her own survival of a gang rape in Washington, DC, when she was 25 years old. This personal/political confluence serves her well in building up a sense of trust among the women she meets and interviews, especially given her willingness to share her story with photographs and newspaper clippings with the film's participants. But perhaps the most chilling aspect of the film is Jackson's interviews with members of the Congolese army in the bush, who unabashedly admit to raping and torturing women. Jackson performed all the production functions (producer, director, DP, sound and editor) on The Greatest Silence, which won a Special Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance this year and premieres Tuesday, April 8, on HBO. IDA sat down with Jackson in Park City's Yarrow Hotel during the Sundance Film Festival.


First of all, I want to commend you on your courage in addressing this horrific issue. How did you decide to include yourself and your own experience with rape in the film?

This was a difficult decision and it didn't happen until halfway through the edit. In fact, I shot for two months in May and June in '06, then I went back in November to film the rapists. In between I'd assembled some cuts, and people who saw it kept asking, "How did you get these women to open up to you?" and "What did you tell them about yourself?" I had intentionally gone over my story with the women, using the photographs, the newspaper articles and all the background information about myself. When I told people this, they said, "Well, why don't you put that in the film? And why don't you put yourself in the film? You have this incredible journey."

Then it occurred to me that it was also a way of making these amazing stories I was getting a lot less voyeuristic. So I shot some recreations of me showing the photographs to women and, actually, those reaction shots of the women (when they're looking at me kind of baffled early on) are when I was telling them what was going on and the translator was relaying it to them. So there were some very authentic moments and, obviously, they could see that my photographs were real.

So, it wasn't a conscious thing from the beginning, but it seemed to me an appropriate narrative device. And also a way of making the film more accessible, because the whole point of the film is that these women are not "other." That we [in this country] experience the same things they do. Within the gradation of human experience, the overlap is a lot more profound than you might think.


How do you feel when you see yourself in the film?

It still makes me a little squeamish to see myself on the screen, but in the end I think my friends persuaded me in the right direction.


How frightened were you when you were traveling in these dangerous war zones, especially when you confronted the rapists? I guess there was a period when it was just you and the translator?

I was alone the entire time. Bernard [Kalume, a Congolese man who works with the UN peacekeepers as a translator and liaison] came with me for my first trip into the bush, but for the second one, I was pretty much on my own because the UN was completely preoccupied with the election and the count.

I've done a lot of traveling in the third world and you get into this zone where you're just so into the moment, you're not really thinking about what's going on around you. People have asked me at the screenings, "Weren't you afraid of getting attacked?" Well, people get attacked on the streets of Manhattan, so you can't not leave your apartment because you might be attacked.


Yes, but you were in the midst of known rapists.

Yes, that's true, and there was a moment when I was heading up into the mountain when I went, "Holy crap, what have I gotten myself into?" And suddenly I was just drenched in sweat. Again, it was just putting one foot in front of the other. And then it occurred to me that these guys were such narcissistic, preening, arrogant assholes that they really wanted to be filmed, and that my camera really was in effect a weapon. If anything were to happen to me, they wouldn't have the opportunity to brag about their accomplishments.


I'm sure that you had already dealt with it in depth, but I'm wondering if making this film had any kind of healing effect on you?

Well, I'd dealt with it pretty thoroughly, and I've made other films about women and sexual violence, and I've told my story and written about it. But what was poignant to me is that I had been able to move on, and I've actually been able to use that experience to inform a lot of what I do. But the majority of women I met will never be able to move on; they will be stuck in that place.


They've also suffered severe lasting physical effects and many of them have children produced from the rape. How are the women dealing with their offspring? Is there any resentment toward them or have they transcended their anger?

No, there's something about the women I met...I had an interesting question at the Q&A last night: Have I heard anything about these women committing suicide because their lives are at a dead end? There is still an incredible love among these women and a commitment to family and their children. They have such resilience and a grace and strength that shine through. Even that young Immaculate, who had a child by rape, you know she's going to stick with that child. She may resent her and she may remind her of the rapist, but the maternal instinct trumps everything.


Did you come away with any sense of forgiveness or compassion for these men, who themselves are products of a horrendous culture of violence?

Pretty much zippo. If I had seen any sign from them that showed the least bit of contrition or even an understanding of what they had done, I might have been able to see them as something other than callous assholes of the first magnitude.

I found myself, in the interviews with them, being extremely polite with them and not pressing them on questions they didn't understand, so I was obviously intimidated by them. I did feel sympathy for them in the sense that they are part of the culture and were raised in the same cycle of violence. They were probably raised in conflict zones as kids and saw a lot of violence. And you wonder, did these guys ever respect a woman? Maybe that's the source of their contempt for women.


The level of atrocities perpetrated on those women is unimaginable. It's hard to wrap one's mind around them, like the men forcing a pregnant woman's child to trample on his or her mother's stomach to kill the fetus.

Yeah, well, there was a lot that I just had to edit out. One woman talks about being forced to eat her own feces that was mixed with the flesh of her child whom the men had murdered. Acts that you really cannot imagine.


My god...

It's on a Nazi level.


It's beyond that -- it's pure evil.

Yes, it's pure evil.


How do you maintain the filmmaker's point of view and maintain a human presence, an emotional equilibrium, without being entirely overwhelmed by what you're hearing and seeing? How do you walk that line?

Well, as a documentarian, part of your job is to probe the soul, if you will. And I've had countless, countless interviews where my job is to get that person to return to that dark place, to remember it and to feel it and to share it.


How do you do that?

Well, I don't just sit down and start talking to them, first of all. There's always that long, slow approach so that we know each other and trust each other. And I let them take their time. And, of course, so much of it was in another language. I had a female translator for the majority of the time, but for the rest of it, I didn't have a translator at all. And these stories didn't come out until later. Like in the church group, for instance, Bernard was there for the very beginning, and when the old woman started telling the story about being raped by the seven soldiers, he couldn't take it anymore. He fled, and spent the rest of the three hours sitting outside, while I was inside. I had a sense of this incredible passion and this truth-telling, and also felt this incredible privilege. That was just a spontaneous moment and I kept filming.


You must have been a wreck by the end of each day.

Yes, in terms of the interviews, by the end of the day, I would just be shaken, just destroyed, particularly out in the bush. At night I would just weep. I still find it hard to watch. I feel such an incredible responsibility to these women. You know, they said to me, "We're telling you, so that you will tell other people."


What do you hope this film will accomplish?

Well, that's what's been so gratifying about these screenings [at Sundance]. After the second screening, I was overwhelmed with people wanting to know what they can do. So we cobbled together a one-pager with a website of where they could go for further information []. Also, we're building a huge outreach campaign for when the film airs on HBO.


So did you pre-sell the film to HBO?

Yes, they bought it on second rough cut, back in the spring.


Is there anything else that you'd like people to know about your film?

Well, yesterday we were up skiing and a couple of women who'd been at the screening the day before came up to me and said, "We're a group of six women from Phoenix and we all had tickets to your film, but at the last minute, four of the women said, 'I can't take it; I don't want to see those stories this early in the morning.'" But people, I think, have a moral obligation to listen. Particularly because there's a certain complicity the first world has in the destruction of a lot of third-world countries; and the Congo is very much an economic war. You know, our cell phones literally have the blood of Congolese women on them.

I just hope that people aren't turned off by the title, and that they're driven by a sense of compassion and by a sense of our common humanity, and also by a sense of curiosity about an invisible war and the invisible victims of this invisible war, and that they will want to know, and that knowing, they will do something.


Do you have any sense of hope about the condition of our world?

In general, not much, but in the specific...I've started shooting a film in Columbia, kind of on the same subject, where the war has been going on for almost 60 years, when the presidential candidate was assassinated by the CIA--very much like Lumumba in the Congo.


And Allende.

Yeah, and Allende. They say that at least half the women in the country have been personally affected by the sexual violence--either through rape or physical assault. One 11-year-old was raped by the para-military, and when her mother denounced them, the threats began. They have all left their homes because of the violence and have found each other. So, I'm just going to follow them over the next year. When you look at the aggregate of Columbian women, you just think, How has this country kept going? That country is our [the US government's] personal embarrassment; it's a disaster.

But when you talk to the individuals and you see that, despite it all, they want to start a beauty salon or they want to get their daughter back to being the champion rollerblader that she was before she was raped, they have hope and they keep going. They're living in slums with no running water, but they still have this dignity. And it's the same with the women in the Congo. It's the women who are going to save that country, and we have to save them.


Cathleen Rountree, Ph.D., is a film journalist and critic and author of nine books including The Movie Lovers' Club, which explores the process of creating community through film discussion groups. She covers film festivals and writes extensively about films and directors for print and online publications. She taught writing, film studies, women's studies and multicultural studies for 16 years at University of California, Santa Cruz. Her blog at closely follows the work of female directors and global women's issues as addressed in films.