We talk about the battle of the sexes, but in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that term means something completely different. For the last 10 years, rape has become shockingly common in this war-torn nation. The primary accomplishment of Lisa Jackson's documentary "The Greatest Silence," which makes its premiere tonight on HBO, is to expose the horrors of what is surely the world's most uneven gender conflict.
Another worthy cause, another dead-earnest depiction of the sorrow and the pity of Africa: In more ways than one, Ms. Jackson's film is frustrating to watch. "The Greatest Silence" is not the first report on rape in the Congo — CNN's Anderson Cooper, for one, has documented it — but her examination of these still underpublicized atrocities has a personal angle. Years ago, Ms. Jackson was gang-raped in Washington, D.C., on her way home from work. When she explains this to a group of Congolese rape victims, they ask her which army her attackers were fighting for. It's a telling point: The savage treatment of women that has only in the last decade become widespread in the Congo is inextricably linked with the nation's ongoing civil war — the deadliest war since World War II, in fact. So far it's estimated to have claimed more than 4 million lives.
The film's implicit point is that the "greatest silence" here is not that of the dead, but that of the 200,000 rape victims the war has claimed. (Although a ceasefire in effect since January has eased tensions somewhat, it did not include Rwandan rebel groups responsible for much of the sexual violence in Eastern Congo.) Relying on a personable translator named Bernard and doing nearly all of her own camerawork, Ms. Jackson does an admirable job getting these devastated women to tell their stories. Ostracized by their communities and abandoned by their husbands, they are paralyzed by shame. There's also the fact that some of the younger victims, such as the 4-year-old shown in one of the film's most haunting moments, have barely learned to speak. Nevertheless, tales of what one doctor on the front lines calls "the monstrosity of the century" emerge — and they are jaw-dropping. The victims are of all ages, pregnant, visibly ill; about one-third of them have contracted HIV as a result of rape. The number of women awaiting treatment for destroyed uteruses has the director of an eastern Congo hospital completely overwhelmed. "I practically went into shock," he says, recalling a patient who had been gang-raped by soldiers and tortured using hot coals. Thanks to the country's feckless government and sexist culture of impunity, the perpetrators of these horrific crimes are rarely brought to justice.
This is explosive and shattering subject matter, and Ms. Jackson presents a clear case. But has she made as powerful a film as she could have? With all respect to HBO, which deserves credit for airing a far-flung issue documentary when once-educational channels like TLC have moved on to the tragedy of the wrong wedding dress, the answer is not really. Ms. Jackson's ability to empathize with rape victims on another continent no doubt makes her personal encounters with them more meaningful, but it may in fact be a drawback. Like a good number of Western-made documentaries about Africa, her film relies primarily on a numbing litany of recounted horrors, adhering to the well-worn belief that sitting Africans down in front of a camera is the surest way to explore a traumatic subject.
But the most affecting scene in "The Greatest Silence" comes not from Ms. Jackson's many interviews, but during a support-group meeting in which Congolese women describe to one another their experiences of being raped; the responses offered by their peers speak almost as loudly as the emotional confessions themselves.
The talk-to-the-stranger-with-the-camera approach proves most futile when Ms. Jackson confronts men who have committed these horrors. Between chuckles, they hide their faces and say very little. These uneducated guerrilla fighters probably agreed to be filmed because they wanted to meet a white woman. They certainly don't have anything to say when she asks, "Is it about sex or power?"
Disappointingly, the film also shies away from larger questions. Why, for example, is rape more prevalent in the Congo's conflict than it is in Darfur's, or was in Rwanda's? And why has rape become a standard practice in these wars at all? Such questions are neither insensitive nor beyond the point. "The Greatest Silence," which won a special jury prize at Sundance, is in some ways a well-made documentary. But by treating one country's tragedy as another chapter in Africa's endless suffering, it risks selling its important subject matter short.