Vet documaker Lisa F. Jackson offers a harrowing look at violence against women as a war crime in “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo.” Winner of a special jury prize at Sundance, pic likely will be widely circulated in various educational and nontheatrical venues after scheduled April premiere on HBO.

Doc examines the horrific phenomenon of widespread rape and torture of women by rebel soldiers (and, sometimes, government troops and U.N. peacekeepers) during the decade-long civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Many of these atrocities, “Greatest Silence” persuasively argues, are methodically carried out to sustain a climate of political and economic instability in a country where valuable natural resources — including coltan, an ore used in cell phones and laptops — are exploited by profiteers.

Right from the start, Jackson admits to intense empathy with the victims she interviews –decades earlier, she was gang-raped in Washington, D.C., and her assailants never were caught. But she wisely refrains from ever allowing her personal tragedy to upstage the graphic testimony of the Congolese women, including several who were mutilated or infected with HIV by their attackers.

Jackson also interviews doctors, caregivers, human-rights activists and, in sequences that could serve as textbook examples of the banality of evil, heavily armed rapists.

One unrepentant thug, part of an unregulated militia group, casually explains that because he’s forced to spend so much time in the wild without female companionship, he’s entitled to take any woman by force. (“If she is strong,” he adds, “I’ll call some friends to help me.”) Another claims, without a trace of irony, that raping women magically enhances his prowess as a solider in battle.

Pic provides an admiring portrait of Maj. Honorine Mungole, who introduces herself as “the sex crimes police.” (She is, in fact, the only police officer in her area of the Congo assigned to a sex crimes unit.) A widowed mother of four, Mungole dedicates herself to encouraging victims — who often are shunned or deserted by husbands and loved ones — to register complaints against the men who attacked them.

Unfortunately, as a human-rights activist notes, good intentions may not be enough to end what appears to be an institutionalized outrage: “The rapists of yesterday have today become the authorities. And they encourage sexual violence because for them it has become a lifestyle. That is why the violence doesn’t end.”

Lensing is exceptional throughout this distressing and disturbing doc.

The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo

  • Production: A Jackson Films production in association with HBO Documentary Films, the Fledgling Fund. Produced by Lisa F. Jackson. Executive producer, Sheila Nevins, Diana Barrett. Directed, written, edited by Lisa F. Jackson.
  • Crew: Camera (color, DV), Jackson; music, the Kronos Quartet, Bernard Buleri Kalume; sound, Richard Allard; associate producer, Alexandra Lescaze, Jennifer Ollman. Reviewed on DVD, Houston, Jan. 27, 2008. (In Sundance Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 76 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Clothilde Bikafuleeka, Ndejeje Dieudonne, Lisa F. Jackson, Bernard B. Kalume, Denis Mukwege, Honorine Mungole.