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Through a Lens Darkly

Films of Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing

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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Ethnic Cleansing: Raymond G. Helmick, SJ


Raymond G. Helmick, SJ

Analyzing the course of genocide in the twentieth century with the appearance of a new term in the discussion—ethnic cleansing, in the 1990s—calls for explanation.

Precedents abounded. Stalin had “purged” the Soviet Union—of dissidents, for political reasons, but of the whole class of Kulaks in the 1930s. “Cleansing” had been a standard part of Nazi language as they conducted their murder campaigns, first against the mentally disabled and homosexuals, then against Jews and other “inferior” peoples. Americans also had spoken much of “cleansing” the Western plains of the Indian tribes during the years of frontier expansion.

Removal of populations, with more or less killing involved, was a long established custom. The Carnegie Foundation for International Peace, reporting on the largely forgotten Balkan Wars of 1912–1913, takes it for granted that when territories changed hands the people would have to go.1

But the term “ethnic cleansing,” as such, gained popularity, with governments and with the international media, basically as a convenient diversion from having to define an action as genocide during the crises of Bosnia and Rwanda. Genocide, according to the UN’s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, had been defined so broadly that it covered actions that did not look like Auschwitz, and it provided sanctions. The High Contracting Parties to the Convention bound themselves (once they actually ratified the Convention) to prevent genocide, making a breach in the...

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