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"Silence" gives voice to Congo's rape victims

PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - If one of the roles of documentary film is to shock, educate and move people to action, then Lisa F. Jackson’s “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo” is more than doing its job. Working as a one-person crew, she ventured into the war-torn region of the eastern Congo to bring to light an unreported epidemic of rape and mutilation of staggering proportions. The film will air in April on HBO and hopefully help to end the silence.

What started as a project to chronicle the female victims of wars around the globe became focused on the Democratic Republic of the Congo when Jackson traveled there and witnessed the extent of the problem. She also brought with her a firsthand knowledge of the situation, having been gang-raped herself when she was 25. Her personal experience encouraged women who have never told their story to talk to the camera.

The war in the eastern Congo with neighboring Rhodesia has been raging since 1992, with the rape of women by both Rhodesian and Congolese fighters escalating since 1999. It’s a war pushed by economics, with the West benefiting from the Congo’s vast reserve of natural resources, including the metal coltan, used in the manufacturing of cell phones and laptop computers.

Although an estimated 250,000 women have been brutally attacked, the Congolese government has stonewalled attempts to address the problem. And in a deeply Catholic country with taboos against rape, few people want to come forward, which makes Jackson’s documentary even more remarkable.

After arriving in the Congo and telling her story to a group of rape victims, she is welcomed with a chant as “Big Sister Lisa.” The stories she hears are hair-raising. Marie Jeanne, 34 and a mother of eight, was attacked by five soldiers while she was five months pregnant. Her husband abandoned her and told the children she wanted to be raped.

Women who are ashamed and men who won’t take responsibility for their actions, on top of incredible poverty, make this a deep-seated and complex problem. There are barely any laws on the books banning the brutal practices inflicted on women, Jackson is told by Major Honorine Munyole, who acts as a one-woman special victim’s unit working out of a wooden shack.

The crimes are horrendous. Even Dr. Denis Mukwege, who runs the woefully understaffed Panzi hospital in Bukavu, is shocked on a daily basis by the mutilation that often accompanies the rapes. A bearish man of great compassion, he refers to the rapes as the “monstrosity of this century.”

To answer the question Who are the men who do this?, Jackson courageously journeys into the bush to interview a band of fighters, accompanied only by her Congolese translator, Bernard Kalume. It is chilling to see these men, boys really, masked by their ragtag uniforms, saying almost flippantly that if they have to suffer, they will make women suffer.

With the eye of a veteran documentarian, Jackson sees the innocence, colorfulness and spirit of the Congo in the background, but what she presents is a country that clearly will not be whole until its women are protected.

Director-producer-editor: Lisa F. Jackson; Music: the Kronos Quartet; Additional editing: Lisa Shreve.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter