The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo. Directed by Lisa F. Jackson. New York: Women Make Movies, 2007.

Reviewed by Rachel Zaslow

The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo by filmmaker Lisa F. Jackson is one woman's exploration of some of the world’s most brutal acts that go virtually undocumented. Jackson begins the film by locating herself as a victim of rape. She then uses her experience as a rape survivor to connect with women who have been raped in the Congo and to shape the narrative of the film. Ultimately, she creates a tale of devastation and horror that can be a useful tool for understanding some of what has happened to women in the Congo, but this film should also not be presented as the only version of their story.

The film successfully investigates and offers key insights into the history of the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Jackson travels under UN protection into the Congolese bush where she interviews soldiers who rape. She asks questions that draw out the hypocrisy that many of the soldiers live by, such as in the case of the man who rapes women with no shame, yet says he would kill a man who raped his sister. These moments capture some of the gaps in understanding between acts of aggression that are culturally promoted and the reality of violence as it situates women's bodies and positions in society. At the same time, however, the interviews fail to capture the complexity of the situations of the soldiers themselves, and thus construct an arguably irresponsible metanarrative of heartless men lurking in the African bush to rape and pillage women for no reason. One thing is clear, though: within the context of this war, men systematically rape, and women systematically are raped and then stigmatized.

The camera takes us inside a rape survivor group where storytelling is a medium for healing. This potentially powerful moment is overshadowed by Jackson describing her own rape during most of the scene. These moments threaten to make the film more about a white woman's journey of healing in Africa than about the very real global implications of gendered violence in the Congo. In the last scene of the film, Jackson hands the Congolese women and girls lipstick and nail polish and sees them “smile for the first time.” This chilling image is ironic in light of make-up’s role in the objectification of women, but the voice-over seems to imply that the smiles lead to a healing catharsis, if not for the women of the Congo, then certainly for Jackson.

With careful critique, this film can be a useful teaching tool for contextualizing rape as a tool of war and for raising awareness about a global human rights issue. It can also be a useful tool for talking about hegemonic narratives and consciousness raising. The question that should be asked of all students is: What will you do, now that you know?

Rachel Zaslow is a midwife and director of Earth Birth, A Global Women’s Health Collective. She is a doctoral student in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University.