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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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Epic Genocide: Roland Joffé’s Killing Fields (1984): John J. Michalczyk


John J. Michalczyk

The Vietnam War bitterly divided America, as students demonstrated on campuses, Buddhist monks immolated themselves, and social conscious clergymen like Rev. William Sloane Coffin and Rev. Daniel Berrigan, SJ assisted conscientious objectors and engaged in nonviolent protest. Some considered the US responsible for a genocide of the Vietnamese people, and images from the anti-war documentary Hearts and Minds (1974) would certainly reinforce that sentiment.1 In this film the perpetrator is the US with its destructive military force laying waste to tiny hamlets and destroying innocent civilian lives.

In Roland Joffé’s Killing Fields the viewer senses the political chaos of the Vietnam War and the 1973 Watergate era as the background. The strategic bombing of Cambodia looms heavily in the foreground, as The New York Times journalist Sydney Shanberg (Sam Waterson) arrives in Phnom Penh to meet up with his aide and translator Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor). Sydney hopes to uncover the true story about the raging civil war in Cambodia to which the world remains blind. Photographer Alan “Al” Rockoff (John Malkovich) documents their findings. Taking immense risks, Sydney and Dith Pran first encounter the US bombing of a rural village, discovering the lethal effects on the civilian population. This, however, becomes overshadowed by the invasion of the capital by Khmer Rouge, as described in the preceding essay in the words of Samantha Power. The American Embassy, believing that the city is in danger, evacuates the American citizens. Journalists, first taking...

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