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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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Cambodia: The Bones Cry Out!: John J. Michalczyk

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John J. Michalczyk

Bones. A fragment of a fractured skull, a sliced tibia, a severed hand. Heaps and heaps of bones remain as a testament to the genocide in the “killing fields” of Cambodia that the world said would happen “never again” after the Holocaust. Raphael Lemkin’s terminology of “genocide” fit to a tee the massacre of approximately 1.7 million innocent civilians, yet three decades following the catastrophe of the Shoah, many stood by, stubbornly denying that this could be considered genocide. Only a few lone voices crying out in the wilderness confronted the harsh reality of a Cambodia forever scarred by the events of the early seventies.1

In the late sixties and early seventies, the Vietnam conflict engulfed not only the former French colony of Indochina, but Laos and Cambodia as well. In April 1970, President Richard Nixon announced on television that the US was expanding its military operation from Vietnam into Cambodia. His rationale: “to win the just peace that we desire.”2 Nixon and Henry Kissinger, without the approval of Congress and without the knowledge of the public, escalated the bombing in Cambodia (witnessed at the opening scene of The Killing Fields) with a reported 600,000 civilian dead from the 3,500 sorties starting in 1969. The mission aimed to curtail the North Vietnamese in their establishing of bases around the Cambodian border, with little or no concern for the impoverished Cambodians who still tilled the land by hand. The US and...

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