(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)
THE REELER: Can you tell me about The Greatest Silence in your own words, including how you came to the subject?
LISA F. JACKSON: The Greatest Silence is about the war in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and the systematic rape, torture and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of girls in that war -- and the use of rape as a weapon of choice. It's a topic that I've been interested in for a long time; I have a special interest in the issue of violence against women and girls, especially in conflict and post-conflict. I was researching a longer film that was going to be a compilation shot in five or six countries. I got credentials from the UN peacekeepers and went to the Congo; I went to the worst place first. I spent four months there on-and-off and realized it wasn't a segment but a film unto itself.
R: Considering the magnitude of the issue itself, not to mention the peril in covering it, how did you approach those four months as a filmmaker?
LFJ: You don't really know you're going to pull it off until you've gotten back, looked at the footage, put something together and realized there's something viable. I went as a one-man band: I shot it and did all the sound myself. I was very low-profile. And because I had credentials with the peacekeepers, I was able to go with them on missions into the bush where I befriended mostly clergy -- they're the ones with the outposts deepest in the jungle. I'd stay in the bush for four or five days at a time interviewing women and getting to know the situation.
In terms of access, there were so many tens of thousands of women I was in contact with and dozens and dozens that I interviewed. It comes out in the film that when I was 25, I was gang-raped, and I tell all the women that I interviewed about my own experience and how much better it made me to actually speak about it. I'd written about it, and I brought those articles. They were stunned to see that; they would ask about the war in my country. But it was an icebreaker; I'm a white, middle-class woman in middle of the East African jungle, and I was a creature from another planet before they realized we had more in they common than they could ever imagine. In some cases, gender trumps everything.
R: There's an interesting quote in the Sundance notes: "He who rapes a woman rapes an entire nation." I have a feeling your film explains how, but can you unpack that a bit as it relates to Congo?
LFJ: The person who says that is a policewoman who is sort of a one-woman special-victims unit. I think she really hits it on the head, because the woman is really the center of the family and the center of the culture. When a woman is raped, she is, first of all, horribly mutilated; her childbearing years are over. She's basically destroyed. If her husband isn't murdered, he usually shuns her. He'll take another wife. The incontinence that often results from her injuries means she's shunned from the village. She will leave to seek medical help or an alternative shelter, often taking with her four, five, six children whom she cannot feed and who become easy pickings for the militia, who recruit them as child soldiers. Or a consortium might recruit them to work as slaves in the mines. So it's hitting at the heart of the culture when you destroy the women at its center. It's femicide -- it's war against women.
R: What kind of outreach is planned to get the film in front of not just filmgoers, but leaders with some influence over potential action?
LFJ: We have a huge outreach program in place; the Soros Foundation is going to give us some money for starters. There are four separate areas: Women's health; women's economic empowerment; bringing justice to the victims; and the fourth is an awareness campaign to bring international opprobrium onto to Congo. We're showing it in The Hague to help perhaps start a prosecution against these generals; there are known players within [President Joseph] Kabila's government who are rapists. They walk free; for $5 a rape conviction can be tossed out of court and the papers burned. We're screening at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., hopefully to members of Congress there. It's opening night at the One World Film Festival in Prague; the entire festival will be used to raise money for the women of Congo, and we're working with grassroots organizations within Eastern Congo so whatever money we raise will get straight to the women and not get stuck in some bureaucracy.
But the first step is just bringing an awareness to the public; 10 Darfurs have happened in the Congo in the last 10 years. Four million people have died. It's unimaginable. We see how the Darfur campaign has been built, and we hope that this is the beginning of something similar for the women and girls of Eastern Congo.
R: And it all pretty much starts in Park City, where you're screening your world premiere. What do you have planned on a more microcosmic level? And do you have any nerves going in?
LFJ: The biggest fear I have is that people will be come so overwhelmed by what they see and hear in the film that they will feel like there's nothing they can do. But there's such incredible grace and dignity and intelligence in the women that you meet that I hope people will realize that reaching out to even one of them will make a difference for them. I haven't been to Sundance since it was the US Film Festival, and I'm really looking forward to the film being seen as a film -- not as a policy piece. I think that's one of the great honors of screening it there. Also, as a filmmaker, when you're working on something like this, you feel so isolated sometimes. To step out of the edit room or get your eye from the eyepiece and see the amazing variety of films that are being made -- and the people who are making them -- is a real affirmation about why you do it.
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