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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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A Jewish Mother in the Ghetto in the Shadow of Genocide: Fred Wiseman’s The Last Letter (La Dernière Lettre, 2002): Diana Elise Araujo


Diana Elise Araujo

There comes a time in every documentary filmmaker’s life when the question of life imitating art is raised. Does form follow function or does art imitate life? In the case of Fred Wiseman’s film, The Last Letter, the more appropriate question should be: is it possible for a director to make a film that has many of the critical elements of a documentary while not considering it as such? While Wiseman’s films are not concrete buildings, edifices requiring critique as the phrase “form following function” would suggest, his body of work over the years has maintained a similar architectural structure from one film to the next, beckoning us to ask the question and weigh the answers. In The Last Letter, a cinematic re-creation of a Jewish mother in a Nazi-occupied Ukrainian town as she writes a soulful farewell to her son while awaiting deportation to a concentration camp, the answer is not so black and white.1 Reenactment of archival footage in documentaries and scenes of ghettoes, concentration camps and deportations in a film like Amen. (2002) or Schindler’s List (1993) are impersonal and abstract in a sense. The Last Letter, stripped of those images, brings us to the core of the Holocaust experience: personal loss. Anna Semyonovna’s ultimate fate is pending as she awaits transport from the ghetto.2

Two schools of thought converge neatly in The Last Letter. Viewing the masterfully choreographed film provides a respite from the archival footage both prevalent and...

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