Interview with Lisa F. Jackson, Director of The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo
Documentarian Lisa Jackson went to the Congo to take the testimony of women and girls being raped and sexually assaulted for the last decade in her new film, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, which premiered at Sundance this week. It will air on HBO in April.
Lisa spoke to me from Sundance on the eve of her world premiere.
Melissa Silverstein: Why did you want to make this movie?
Lisa Jackson: It's an invisible story as a lot of women's stories are, the horrific tale of the systematic rape and mutilation of hundred and thousands of women. It's just stunning to me that nobody was reporting it. The NY Times did one story on this angle of the war. But what they are doing to women…not only the militias from the neighboring countries but the Congolese army itself. I interviewed soldiers who were raping the very women they were supposed to be protecting.MS: It was amazing that when you were talking to the rapists how they had a complete and total disconnect from the harm they were actually causing.
LJ: They [the Congolese army] see themselves as just "raping" whereas the militias are the one who mutilate the women and fire guns into their vaginas. But the end result is exactly the same. The women are shunned, turned out from their villages and abandoned. So the end result is exactly the same and that they parse the difference is just ridiculous, the disconnect is pretty profound.MS: You made yourself a character in the film. Why did you do that?
LJ: It wasn't something I was initially going to do but people who saw rough cuts said that I absolutely had to because it was through telling them my story [of being raped] that the barriers between us came down.MS: What compelled you to go to the Congo?
LJ: Here was this story, the stories of these women and no one was telling it. It seemed important to me not to have some hand wringing piece but to actually listen to the women's stories. These are women who are silent and to be able to share their story with someone who was not judging them was an experience none of them ever had.
I went to Kinshasa on frequent flyer miles and with documentaries you never know what you are getting into. I don’t have much experience shooting in conflict zones but a friend working with the UN Peacekeepers was able to get me a UN credential. I then made my way east to where the real nightmare was unfolding.MS: How did it feel being a first world white woman going into a third world country?
My radar is particularly attuned to those voices, which are the other side of war. I thought for years of doing a survey film on the fate of women and girls in conflict zones because of the ongoing devastating effects of war. So I went to the worst place first to shoot.
I am continuing the theme and have been to Colombia twice in the last three months doing a film on displaced women. It is said that 60% of the women in Colombia have suffered either physical or sexual violence. This is another one of those invisible stories, and it is a requirement of a documentary to find stories that otherwise you would never hear about.
LJ: I thought that through before I went. I was a white woman in the bush with a camera. I might as well have been dumped from a spaceship. I thought that as much as I could it was important to let them know I was one of them so I brought photographs to demystify where I was coming from and I shared my story of rape. They kept asking me about the war [thinking that rape only occurs in timer of war]. They asked lots of questions including, did you family know you were raped? How was it is you got married? They were fascinated that I had a boyfriend, and they were stunned to hear that I chose not to have children.
Their questions pointed to how different we really were. I feel an intense responsibility to them. It was the rare woman who would tell me her story without pleading for help for her and her sisters.MS: Why do you think that women directors are so well represented in documentaries versus features?
LJ: I've only made documentaries for 35 years, but the thing about docs especially now, is that you have the option of doing it on your own. On this film I shot it, did the sound, directed, and edited it -- I was a one-person band. I tried for almost a year to get funding. I have never done a doc this way but you really do have that option especially working on a small scale. You have a lot more control. This is also a film that nobody would have funded because it's such a bummer subject, but once people see it they are shocked that nobody has done it before. I knew that once I got over there are started filming that I would get support because people would see from the women's faces hear their stories and realize what a compelling subject it was.MS: What can people do to help?
LJ: We are putting together an outreach strategy around the culture of impunity to hopefully pressure the Congo government to prosecute rapists. We will provide resources where people can donate money. But also it's important for the first world to look at its role. This is an economic war. The blood of Congolese women are on our cell phones. It's important to understand that it's not just a bunch of crazy Africans killing each other. There is an economic imperative behind the pillaging, killing and rape.
To strike at the women is to strike at the heart of the culture. If you destroy women the civilization collapses.For more information and to see the trailer: http://www.thegreatestsilence.org/
Two films directed by women sold in the last two days. Nanette Burstein's doc, American Teen, a look behind the lives of high school seniors in a small town in Indiana sold to Paramount Vantage; and Frozen River, Courtney Hunt's look at immigrants and single mothers went to Sony Pictures Classics.
Sony Classics Warms to Frozen River (Hollywood Reporter via Yahoo)
More Oscar News
The LA Times does a story acknowledging the unprecedented fact that four women got solo screenwriting nominations. It's still only 40% but that's better than the 0 nominations that women got in the directing category. The subtitle kind of pisses me off: "In a 'freaky windfall,' four women earn their first nominations for solo screenplay work." It's as if no one could ever believe that women would be talented enough to write a screenplay worthy of a nomination.
From Diablo Cody: "Isn't it shocking that women can formulate original ideas on a piece of paper? I mean, next we'll be demanding equal pay! Can you imagine?"In an Oscar first, four women earn solo screenplay nominations (LA Times)
It certainly marks a new chapter in Oscar history. There is no precedent for four women earning nominations as solo authors of such idiosyncratic, visionary features, let alone three original screenplays, in the 80-year history of the Oscars. The years 1988 and 1991 had strong total showings of women, but many were co-writers.