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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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Atom Egoyan’s Ararat (2002) and the Critique of Diplomatic Reason: Devin O. Pendas


Devin O. Pendas

It has become something of a cliché to argue that the Holocaust is “unrepresentable,” or, at least, in Saul Friedlander’s words, that it constitutes “an event which tests our traditional conceptual and representational categories, an ‘event at the limits.’”1 It is an open question whether the challenges of representing such “limit events” is a difference in kind, or merely a difference of degrees, from representations of other more “mundane” events.2 Because a representation is, by definition, never the thing represented, there is always some level of an epistemological gap. The problem with representing “limit events” is, therefore, not mainly an epistemological one; it is a problem of ethics. “Adequate” representations are ones which meaningfully incorporate the moral dimensions of whatever is represented. In the case of “limit events,” the argument is that no representation can possibly fully address the moral problems raised by violence committed on such a scale and with such a totalizing intent. There is no prima facie reason to presume this would be any less true for genocides other than the Holocaust.

While the issue of representability pertains to virtually all areas of cultural production—visual art, literature, historiography, philosophy—it is perhaps nowhere more acute than in film. More than virtually any other medium, film tends to lay claim to a mimetic verisimilitude, to re-present events “as they really were.”3 As a result, film also offers a particularly enticing medium for eliciting audience identification and staging desire....

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