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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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Everyone’s Not Here (1987): Families of the Armenian Genocide: Paul Bookbinder

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Paul Bookbinder

In the 1930s, the memory of the Armenian massacres during WWI compelled Raphael Lemkin to begin his campaign to have the mass murder of ethnic groups declared a crime under international law. Lemkin’s coining of the word “genocide” thus has its origins in the fate that Armenians suffered at the hands of the Turks during WWI. Knowledge of this crime, though widespread as it was happening, did not lead to rescue actions or an attempt to redress the wrongs or to punish the offenders. Gone from the historical memories of almost all but the victims and their descendants until after WWII, this memory has been presented to a larger public through film.

The documentary Everyone’s Not Here uses the testimony of Armenian families to humanize the genocide of 1915; before focusing on these personal stories, however, the filmmakers describe the genocide through graphic photographs, maps, narration, and testimony. The images of piles of corpses and victims whose skeletal thin bodies with obvious signs of beatings and torture are reminiscent of films about the Holocaust and more recently the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign against Bosnian Muslims. Brief survivor testimony is interspersed with this narration as survivors describe horrifying scenes of rape, body parts being hacked off, children being buried alive, and churches, filled with fleeing Armenians, being burned to the ground.

The narrator reiterates that the Armenians were targeted for annihilation, and therefore, the survivors encountered in the film represent the millions whom...

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