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Through a Lens Darkly

Films of Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing

Edited By John J. Michalczyk and SJ Raymond G. Helmick

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?


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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...

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