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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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City of Life and Death (Nanjing! Nanjing! 2009) and the Silenced Nanjing Native: Rebecca Nedostup


Rebecca Nedostup

Lu Chuan’s 2009 feature film, City of Life and Death (Nanjing! Nanjing!), embodies in cinematic form a central historiographic problem surrounding the Nanjing Massacre: the muting of the voices of the victims themselves amid the postwar clash of nation-state politics and the resulting clamor for international authentication. In many ways, the film represents a significant artistic and philosophical step forward from the “numbers games” that played out in the late twentieth century, and from a destructive, self-generating dynamic whereby the extremes of crass denialism and a-historic nationalism came to dominate public discussions of the history of Japan’s war in China, despite the best efforts of historians.1 Lu Chuan’s film is notable for centering on the character of a hapless, though not blameless Japanese soldier; Kadokawa Masao is the person whose story the audience follows for the longest portion of running time, and in essence he is the moral core and moral question mark of the film. Interwoven with his experience are the figures of Chinese military men and a group of civilians based in the International Safety Zone. Notably, none of these featured characters are explicitly identified as Nanjing natives, and several are characterized as people from outside the city, or, indeed, the country. Thus, City of Life and Death, filmed in authenticity-lending black-and-white and often with a handheld camera for additional verisimilitude, inadvertently raises serious questions about victimhood and voice.

In this regard, Lu Chuan, who wrote the screenplay in addition to directing,...

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