Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Break the Silence

It may seem cliché or trite to say that I traveled through film, but this past Monday evening I feel that I had the opportunity to experience a horrifying new reality in the documentary "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo." I would constitute this experience as travel because for the duration of the documentary I was more aware of the women speaking in front of me than of my place seated in a chair at Loyola College. I was able to connect with them as another woman. They shared chilling details of personal experience with filmmaker Lisa, a blonde woman from New York who had been raped in Georgetown and wanted to "break the silence" in solidarity with their struggle. Once they trusted her, they shared that many had been raped by Congolese soldiers, or rebels from neighboring countries including Interahamwe, the Hutus who had perpetrated the 1994 Rwandan genocide. One woman cried as she said that when she became pregnant after being raped, soldiers made her other children stand on her belly to cause her to miscarry and she then had to drink her own blood. The documentary included many other disturbing episodes, including meeting a four year old, Matilde, who had been raped, as well as seeing the extensive damage to women's internal organs. It was extraordinarily hard to sit through, as Sia Figiel's "They Who Do Not Grieve" was to read at times.

In the moment when the event began, I was exhausted, had lots of homework to do, and a little skeptical that the Loyola students around me would appreciate the evening, as Knott Hall B01 was full of first years inquiring about the length of the film. As Dr. Schmidt introduced the topic, she reminded us of our role as US citizens. The obvious structure of the current world order places me in a socially complicit role. As I encountered these Congolese people who suffer as foreigners pillage their country for coltan, my cell phone sat in my pocket. This moment reveals the need to constantly inform my conscience. At the close of the night, I was positively surprised that Loyola students around me were also deeply moved, as they stayed the entire time, asked thought provoking questions and appeared appropriately disturbed. I viewed this documentary with a particular concern for women, as my lens is prominently shaped by my own time with people who are suffering, specifically in El Salvador. There many women shared their personal stories with me, including testimonies of rape.

Sia Figiel's "They Who Do Not Grieve" focuses on intricate relationships which compose a matriarchal structure. Figiel, too, speaks of the power of language, the ability to speak which defines humans and allows them to cry out against oppression. Lalolagi, however, encourages silence. Malu internalizes her feelings, which actually allows her to develop confidence. She narrates: "In my silence (which everyone was repulsed by and treated with contempt), I had the power to become my self, that is, to live with great comfort in the house that was my body, not walking around pretending to be (or envying for that matter) something else I was not (48). Yet Malu lives a bleak existence: "The despair in my voice is nothing new. It is old. As old as Grandmother. As old as the Wind even. My despair is shared. Between Grandmother and Auntie and my mother, even though she's dead" (63). Ela explains that she does not have the capacity to "break the silence." The women in the Congo have nowhere to turn either. Their communities and husbands reject them once they are raped. But they saw hope in Lisa, in the fact that a Western woman wanted to share their story, their struggle. Each woman who gave testimony on camera accomplished an incredible feat of courage in speaking out.

Auntie Ela, too, recognizes that women should not stay silent and longs for the courage to command her own inner voice. She dreams that she is being chased by Martin and she cannot speak. Ela tells Lalolagi: “But one thing you taught us that I despise is this silence. This disease. This not explaining anything. So that when things happen to me—things you don't even know about, I didn't know who to talk to. I didn't know whether it was proper to talk about such matters…So that when Martin started hitting me…I just took it" (97). Figiel is the first female Samoan to bring these women’s struggles to light for a worldwide audience. Like Lisa’s documentary, Figiel emphasizes the need for women to utilize their human capacity for communication. Figiel, speaking through Ela, wrote: “I wanna inspire more women to know their potential” (120).

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