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Through a Lens Darkly

Films of Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing

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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The Armenian Genocide: History and Turkish Government Denial: Dikran M. Kaligian


Dikran M. Kaligian

In the early morning of 24 April 1915, Ottoman police went from home to home in the capital city of Constantinople and arrested 235 of the leading Armenian intellectuals, politicians, educators and professionals. The leadership of the Armenian community was exiled into the interior of Anatolia, and was, with a handful of exceptions, murdered. Thus began the Armenian Genocide, the only genocide that today has a national government spending tens of millions of dollars conducting an international campaign denying that it ever occurred.

The Armenians were an ethnically, linguistically, and religiously distinct population whose historical homeland was divided between the Ottoman and Russian Empires. With the rise of nationalism in the late nineteenth century, the Armenians began demanding reforms and greater rights under Ottoman rule because they were clearly second-class subjects. In response, Sultan Abdul-Hamid initiated a series of massacres between 1894 and 1896 that killed hundreds of thousands and served as a warning that demands for reforms that would diminish the superiority of Muslims, and particularly ethnic Turks, would be dealt with severely.

The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP, also known as the Young Turks) overthrew the Sultan in the 1908 Constitutional Revolution. Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and the other non-Turks in the Empire greeted the revolution with joy because, under the Constitution, they would legally be equal citizens, independent of their religion or ethnicity. The leading Armenian political party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), even became an ally of...

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