Through a Lens Darkly

Films of Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing

by John J. Michalczyk (Volume editor) SJ Raymond G. Helmick (Volume editor)
©2013 Textbook XXI, 283 Pages


While the ashes of the Holocaust were still fresh, Polish Jewish attorney Raphael Lemkin put a name to the tragedy that had decimated his family – genocide. The twentieth century was brutally scarred by the massive scale of genocide and its manifest forms of ethnic cleansing, massacres, and atrocities. We ask how these horrors can be visually translated to the screen while both maintaining their authenticity and serving as commercial «entertainment». Through an analysis of a series of poignant films on the plight of the Native Americans, the controversial Armenian genocide, the Holocaust and its legacy, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the Hutu-sponsored massacres in Rwanda, the reader can grasp the driving mechanisms of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The oft-repeated, «Never again» rings hollow to our ears in the wake of these tragedies in a post-Holocaust era. The films discussed here, both features and documentaries, are set in an historical context that sheds light on the dark side of humanity and are then discussed with the hope of better understanding our frailty. In the end, however, we ask can the «unrepresentable» ever be represented?

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Editors
  • About the Book
  • Advance Praise
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgments: John J. Michalczyk
  • Permissions
  • Photos
  • Poem
  • Foreword: Raymond G. Helmick, SJ
  • Notes
  • Introduction: John J. Michalczyk
  • Notes
  • Part One: Trail of Tears: Cleansing the Land of the Indian “Problem”
  • “Make His Paths Straight”: Removing the Indian Obstacle to US Expansion: Jordan Jennings
  • Notes
  • Stagecoach (1939) and the Image of “Indians” in John Ford’s Films: Marilyn J. Matelski
  • The Individual Within a System
  • The Hollywood Studio System
  • John Ford’s Dilemma
  • Notes
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007): The Epic Fall of the American Indian: Nancy Lynch Street
  • The Nineteenth Century: Tatanka Iyotanka—Sitting Bull (1831–1890)
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: The Epic Fall of the American Indian
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee—Synopsis/Analysis
  • Charles Easton—Ohiyesa
  • Definitions: Massacre and Genocide
  • Today at Pine Ridge
  • Notes
  • Part Two: Armenian Genocide: “Who Remembers?”
  • The Armenian Genocide: History and Turkish Government Denial: Dikran M. Kaligian
  • Notes
  • Atom Egoyan’s Ararat (2002) and the Critique of Diplomatic Reason: Devin O. Pendas
  • Notes
  • Everyone’s Not Here (1987): Families of the Armenian Genocide: Paul Bookbinder
  • Notes
  • Part Three: Nanking: Evil Unleashed
  • The Rape of Nanking from a Chinese Perspective: You Guo (Joseph) Jiang, SJ
  • Introduction
  • Historical Background
  • Result of the Invasion
  • Killings and Rape
  • Destruction
  • Cultural Massacre
  • Psychological and Emotional Trauma
  • Comfort Women System
  • Causes of the Massacre
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • City of Life and Death (Nanjing! Nanjing! 2009) and the Silenced Nanjing Native: Rebecca Nedostup
  • Nanjing as Experience and Symbol
  • The Aura of Authenticity
  • Spartacus
  • Notes
  • Nanking (2007): “A Question of Righteousness”: Jeremy Clarke, SJ
  • Notes
  • Part Four: Holocaust/Shoah: A Moral Tragedy and Where Was Man?
  • The Growing Consciousness of the Shoah through Film: For Better or Worse: John J. Michalczyk
  • The Last Stop (The Last Stage/Ostatni Etap, 1948)
  • Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard, 1955)
  • The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)
  • The Pawnbroker (1964)
  • Holocaust NBC Mini-Series (1978)
  • Sophie’s Choice (1982)
  • Shoah (1985)
  • Life Is Beautiful (1997)
  • Schindler’s List (1993)
  • The Pianist (2002)
  • Amen. (2002)
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Night and Fog (1955): A Microcosm of the Genocide: John J. Michalczyk
  • Notes
  • A Note on Image and Sound in Memory of the Camps (1985): Jeffrey Gutierrez
  • Notes
  • The Flawed Vision in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) and the Corrective Lens of Pierre Sauvage: James Bernauer, SJ
  • Notes
  • The Architecture of Doom (1991): Blueprint for Annihilation: Melanie Murphy
  • Notes
  • Amen. (2002), the Catholic Church, and the Holocaust: Kevin P. Spicer, CSC
  • Notes
  • A Jewish Mother in the Ghetto in the Shadow of Genocide: Fred Wiseman’s The Last Letter (La Dernière Lettre, 2002): Diana Elise Araujo
  • Notes
  • Saviors in the Night (2009): German Loyalty—to the Reich or to Humanity?: Michael Resler
  • Notes
  • The Complicity of the French in The Roundup (La rafle, 2010) and Sarah’s Key (2010): John J. Michalczyk
  • Cinematic Representation of French Collaboration in Paris Deportations
  • La rafle
  • Sarah’s Key
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Part Five: Cambodia: “The Khmer Rouge Come to Town”…to Purge
  • Cambodia: The Bones Cry Out!: John J. Michalczyk
  • Notes
  • Epic Genocide: Roland Joffé’s Killing Fields (1984): John J. Michalczyk
  • Notes
  • Who Are the “Enemies of the People”?: John J. Michalczyk
  • Investigative Procedure
  • Oral History Controversy
  • Reconciliation
  • Notes
  • Part Six: Ethnic Cleansing: “Purifying” the Land
  • Ethnic Cleansing: Raymond G. Helmick, SJ
  • Notes
  • The Balkan Conflict and Its Psychological Ramifications: Charles David Tauber, MD
  • The Balkan Conflict and Its Psychological Ramifications
  • Snow (Snijeg, 2008): So That a Trace Remains: Cynthia Simmons
  • Notes
  • Srebrenica: Graves Cry Out: John J. Michalczyk
  • Notes
  • Sarajevo Ground Zero (1994): SaGA’s Films of Crimes and Resistance Produced Under Siege, 1992–1993: Trevor Laurence Jockims
  • No Exit: Palestinian Film in the Shadow of the Nakba: Eve Spangler
  • Notes
  • Part Seven: Rwanda: 100 Days Engulfed in “Unimaginable Terror”
  • Rwanda: Where the Genocidal Devil Ran So Wild: John H. Stanfield, II
  • Saviors and Survivors: Western Passivity, African Resistance, and the Politics of Genocide in Hotel Rwanda (2004): Zine Magubane
  • Notes
  • Specificity in Genocide Portrayal on Film: Sometimes in April (2005): Sara L. Rubin
  • The Director’s Social Consciousness
  • Film Background
  • Relation to Holocaust Film
  • Highlighted Specifics of the Rwandan Genocide
  • Lessons Learned
  • Notes
  • Village Justice: In the Tall Grass (2006): John J. Michalczyk
  • Notes
  • Part Eight: Sudan: Far from the Western Eye
  • Making Sense of Sudan’s Conflicts: Nada Mustafa Ali
  • Introduction
  • Notes
  • No Heaven on Earth: Lost Boys of Sudan (2003): Ajak Mabior
  • Notes
  • Eyewitness to Genocide in Darfur: The Devil Came on Horseback (2007): John J. Michalczyk
  • Notes
  • Part Nine: Congo: In a Jungle of Man’s Inhumanity
  • Atrocities and Exploitation in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Willy Moka-Mubelo, SJ
  • I
  • II
  • Notes
  • A Reign of Terror in the Congo Free State: Congo: White King, Red Rubber, and Black Death (2004): David Northrup
  • Notes
  • Contributors
  • Selected Bibliography
  • General
  • Native American
  • Armenian Genocide
  • Nanking/Nanjing
  • Holocaust/Shoah
  • Cambodia
  • Ethnic Cleansing
  • Rwanda
  • Sudan
  • Congo
  • Index of Films


1.“People escaping from the Indian massacre of 1862 in Minnesota, at dinner on a prairie.”
(Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

2.“Some who fell by the wayside.”
(Armenian Library and Museum of America Archives)

3.Japanese soldier near bodies from Nanking massacre at Yangtze River. (Wikimedia Commons)

4.Cameraman films bodies of victims at Kaufering concentration camp.
(US Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archives)

5.Jews ordered to board a passenger train for deportation.
(US Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archives)

6.The Last Letter, “Remembering”: Anna, a Ukrainian doctor in the ghetto.
(Zipporah Films, copyright 2002, Laurencine Lot,

7.Buddhist monks with skulls from killing fields.
(National Geographic stock, photo by Paul Chesley)

8.A demonstration of slitting a victim’s throat.

9.A mass grave unearthed near Srebrenica.
(Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Minnesota)

10.Skulls are lined up at a memorial site in Nyanza, Rwanda.
(National Geographic stock, photo by Michael Hanson)

← ix | x → ← x | xi →


John J. Michalczyk

Appalling as is the subject of genocide and the viewing of the graphic images that document it, it is the positive hope that many other scholars who contribute to this text wish to understand and then express their ideas on this topic, in order to make the book a rewarding venture. Raymond Helmick, SJ and I are grateful to the cohort of writers who have generously provided a myriad of fresh ideas in this collection of essays. These authors come from a host of disciplines that can help us understand the tragic phenomenon of man’s inhumanity to man in the genocidal behavior depicted here. The solid contributions of all of the authors represented in this work will perhaps raise more questions than can be answered, but it is a noteworthy start to the pursuit of comprehending human behavior in crisis.

Kelly Fleming assisted with the close reading and proofing of the manuscript. Jordan Jennings, who first served as Teaching Assistant for the course “Genocide and Film” at Boston College in the fall of 2011, has served as a most valuable guide and sounding board throughout the process of creating this text. The students in the course with their own personal reflections offered many new perspectives on genocide. We are grateful for the research assistance that Boston College has provided us with both funding and student assistance, not to mention a much needed sabbatical to publish this book. Aileen Bianchi collected the images necessary to illustrate the essays, while Ben Heider, a member of the “Genocide and Film” class, developed the bibliography required for further research. Kerry Burke of the Graphics Department assisted with the retouching of photos, especially the Armenian original photo, graciously provided by the Armenian Library and Museum of America. Joanne Elliott, the Administrative Assistant, and Jeffery Howe, Chair of the Fine Arts Department, supported our scholarship in a multitude of ways. Adeane Bregman and Eugenie M’Polo of the O’Neill Library were most instrumental in obtaining a very significant number of films, some almost impossible to locate, for our scholarly research. Sharon Rivo of the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University offered important insights into the Holocaust film.

The Armenian Library and Museum of America further provided invaluable assistance with suggestions for the essays. ← xi | xii →

I am most indebted to my wife Susan who generously provided me with the time to pursue my passion of publishing this book, despite her own challenging academic and family commitments. Our adult children, Rachel, John, and Miriam, will no doubt be delighted that I am relieved of the study of this challenging topic that has weighed so heavily upon my heart.



Armenian Library and Museum of America Archives.

Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Minnesota.

US Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archives.

Zipporah Films, copyright 2002, Laurencine Lot, www.zipporah.com.


Sonia Schreiber Weitz, “Where Was Man? My Private Battle with God,” Facing History and Ourselves Foundation/Sandy Weitz. ← xii | xiii →


Raymond G. Helmick, SJ

The idea for this collection of essays arose while John Michalczyk and I offered a course on the topic of genocide and ethnic cleansing during the fall term of 2011 at Boston College. The course had a double focus: a study of the many instances of genocide and the usefulness of film to the topic. The course was consequently listed under two departments of the university: Theology for its ethical dimension and Fine Arts for its film aspects. The students had to attune themselves to these two dimensions. I brought to it my extensive experience as mediator in many violent conflicts while John was the filmmaking specialist. It was during the making of many documentary films about peace-making over the years, beginning in 1997 in Northern Ireland, that we realized we shared one another’s concerns.

Genocide is a term invented by Raphael Lemkin, first used in his Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, a book published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in November 1944. Lemkin, a Jewish student at the University of Lwow, had become fascinated by the trial of Soghomon Tehlirian, a young Armenian who in 1921 had assassinated Mehmet Talaat, the former Interior Minister of Turkey and organizer of the killing, by firing squad, bayonet, bludgeon and starvation, of over a million Armenians in 1915. It seemed bizarre to Lemkin that the assassin should stand trial for murder in a court that had no quarrel with mass murder by the agent of a sovereign state. To put an end to what he called “universal repression,” murderous assault on a whole race of people, Lemkin, by 1929, was drafting an international law to prohibit the targeted destruction of ethnic, national or religious groups. In 1933, he brashly presented his case to a League of Nations legal conference in Madrid and was appalled to see his colleagues evade the topic.

Lemkin had to escape under peril when the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939. The war’s vicissitudes eventually brought him to the US, where the War Department took him on as an international legal expert in 1944. Still, he found no responsiveness to his horror stories. Torn by the recognition that the mass killings of Jews was “a crime without a name,” he combined the Greek term genos, or race, with the Latin cide, a derivative from caedere, the verb to kill, in order to designate it: Genocide. ← xiii | xiv →

Samantha Power’s magisterial book, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, describes in great detail Lemkin’s single-minded lifelong struggle to get this crime recognized and condemned.1 His reward came when the international Genocide Convention was passed by the UN’s General Assembly, meeting in Paris on 9 December 1948. The Convention defined the actions that would constitute genocide in very broad terms. This came to mean that many episodes which met the definition would seem not to measure up in terms of the prime analogate, the Nazi extermination of the European Jews in the Holocaust/Shoah.

But the Convention had yet to be ratified by the nations. The US, the essential world power without which the Convention was a dead letter, fearing that it might be condemned for its historic treatment of American Indians, or its treatment of slaves, would not ratify it until October 1988, and then it was ratified with multiple reservations as escape clauses that prevented its taking real effect.

Power, from that point on, tells the tale of evasion of justice in each new case of genocide—Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, the Congo, Kosovo—or in recognizing responsibility for earlier genocides—the Armenians, the American Indians, the whole epic of slavery and its multiple aftermaths. Power further shows in great detail how America and the rest of the international community delayed and found excuses to give these acts some other designation than genocide, so as to escape the Genocide Convention’s requirement that other nations come to the aid of victims. The observers invented a new category called “ethnic cleansing” to describe what happened under their noses in Bosnia so as not to have to call it genocide, though the Convention so clearly covered the crimes committed there. It was useful to have that name available for the expulsions of either Catholic or Protestant communities from their neighborhoods in Northern Ireland, actions steered by popular vendettas and prejudice rather than by government.

It is necessary that individuals, communities, and nations understand the nature of genocide, its origins in varied cases and what can be done to head off such horrors or how to deal with the perpetrators during and after the events. Lemkin himself, learning as a young man of the Armenian genocide, was astonished that human beings could bring themselves indiscriminately to do lethal harm to others, especially on a mass scale.

One must also comprehend the role of the bystanders—persons, communities, and nations—who stood by and watched without interfering. It is also important to understand the fears that gripped them and their reluctance to be involved. When the Convention was being discussed as a proposal for the UN, by reason of the shame felt by countries that had failed to act during the ← xiv | xv → Holocaust, the old precept against interfering in the internal affairs of other nations had to be addressed. Yet, despite the eventual clear requirement of humanitarian intervention in such cases, nations, the US among them, regularly came down with decisions based only on their national interests and refused to intervene unless their own ox was being gored.

Our first instance of the wholesale destruction of a major city and all its population was Nanking, the Chinese capital, by the Japanese invaders in 1937. The city simply stood in the way of the conquest and was savaged without compunction. It was telling to find that a German diplomat and member of the Nazi Party, John Rabe, was the most intrepid defender of victims and rescued as many people as he could. If we want to understand how such an atrocity could happen we have only to discover the lonely tells that dot the landscape all over the Middle East, each witness to the destruction of one city after another wiped out on that same site. Homer’s Troy, whose destruction by the ancient Greeks is described in the Iliad, was only the seventh of many cities subjected to wholesale murder in that place, layer after layer of cities building up the tell, and there were more after it. This had happened to Magdeburg in the seventeenth century, to cities all over Europe in the twentieth century. We learned how a population, mobilized by a determined governing regime, could be brought passively to accept the orders for such actions and carry them out.

What could film bring to the understanding of such tragedies? We can view, at least in a number of films, many treatments of the various forms of genocide. The Nazis had assiduously produced propaganda films, to denigrate their Jewish victims, to present their incarceration in some deceptively favorable light. Action films, showing the actual events, rarely survived, though the Allied Powers, when they liberated the camps, made a series of documentaries about starving survivors and of the bulldozing of bodies into mass graves, things which were shown constantly to young Germans in their schools for many years. For this period we are more likely to find still photographs, and for some time after the conclusion of WWII little was done to produce either documentary or feature films to interpret it all. More recently, we have had a plethora of such films as Schindler’s List (1993) or The Pianist (2002), graphically dramatizing the events and evincing powerful empathy for the victims. Other films have lionized resisters who survived the carnage and achieved various measures of revenge. For Cambodia, film representations also came slowly until The Killing Fields (1984) finally broke the taboo.

One has to discuss the question of bias, or outright propaganda, and ask whether it is possible to have produce an objective film about such matters. ← xv | xvi → No film is worth looking at if it does not have a point of view and convey the thinking of its creator; truth or objectivity can only rely on the honesty of the producer’s judgment.

The genocide of the North American Indians was a case in point for the honesty of film. For longer than a generation the standard “Cowboys-and-Indians” film projected only a picture of rampaging savages intent on the murder of good white pioneers, with the common attitude that “the only good Injun was a dead Injun.” Only at a late date, when Americans began to have doubts about their wars, did this picture change. Soldier Blue (1970) appeared in the movie theaters during the Vietnam War, and the parallel of the massacre of Indians to the My Lai Massacre came through to audiences.

Film may be documentary or feature. It may be the blockbuster or the obscure studio film. How much influence will what kind of film have? Who is likely to see it? And will it simply be sensation, with no lasting consequences for the viewer?

Film readily conveys the horror story of a genocide. But is it able to get to the origins, psychology, or means of protection or prevention? It is a rare film, produced by a filmmaker of genius, that will achieve such things. Yet, film is a medium of unparalleled power. Used with passion, conviction and honesty, it can be among the most significant forces to educate the public. We can hope it will inoculate them against submissive acceptance of depraved leadership, which hides behind the power of official governance of a state, or a communal prejudice, which will rage on in mob fashion against unpopular minorities.


XXI, 283
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2012 (November)
authenticity humanity frailty Holocaust
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2013. 283 pp.

Biographical notes

John J. Michalczyk (Volume editor) SJ Raymond G. Helmick (Volume editor)

John J. Michalczyk, film professor and Director of Film Studies at Boston College, is the author of 10 books and numerous articles on the relationships of film, literature, and political thought. Since 1991, he has been involved in documentary filmmaking, having completed 20 films, notably on social justice issues, including conflict resolution. His documentaries, especially Nazi Medicine: In the Shadow of the Reich, have been broadcast nationally and internationally. Raymond G. Helmick, SJ, teaches ecumenical theology and conflict transformation at Boston College. He has worked as mediator, counselor, and an interpreter of events in many conflicts since 1972 – in Northern Ireland, the Middle East (Israelis and Palestinians, Lebanese, the Kurds of Iraq and Turkey), the Balkans, and several other sites. He has collaborated with John J. Michalczyk on nine documentary films on conflict resolution topics.


Title: Through a Lens Darkly