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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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“Make His Paths Straight”: Removing the Indian Obstacle to US Expansion: Jordan Jennings

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Jordan Jennings

The present policy of the Government is but a continuation of the same progressive change by a milder process. The tribes which occupied the countries now constituting the Eastern States were annihilated or have melted away to make room for the whites. The waves of population and civilization are rolling to the westward, and we now propose to acquire the countries occupied by the red men of the South and West by a fair exchange, and, at the expense of the US, to send them to a land where their existence may be prolonged and perhaps made perpetual.

—Andrew Jackson, “Second Annual Message to Congress,” 6 December 1830

With the simplistic paternalism that was a hallmark of his presidency, Andrew Jackson summarized what would later become one of the most lamented, enduring, and complex policies in US history. The picture painted by Jackson, and accepted by most,1 was a white society whose industrious nature made its expansion both inevitable and necessary; by contrast, Jackson classified the indigenous peoples of America in a single bloc without regard for cultural differences between the tribes. As if this blanket generalization were not dehumanizing enough, he utilized the symbol of the savage hunter to paint them as uncivilized and uninteresting people, yet not so thoroughly base as to be beyond pity and the protection of the federal government. In this regard, Jackson both shared and pandered to the prevailing sentiments among many settlers that North...

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