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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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Snow (Snijeg, 2008): So That a Trace Remains: Cynthia Simmons


Cynthia Simmons

In its treatment of an easily forgotten or ignored segment of Bosnian society—rural women survivors of ethnic cleansing—Aida Begić’s award-winning Snow (Snijeg, 2008) qualifies as what Dina Iordanova terms “hushed histories.”1 These she defines as “stories evolving at the peripheries of a peripheral region, narratives of patriarchal dominance and subplots of suppression that do not quite line up to fit into the rough outline but remain hidden, forgotten, relegated to oblivion.”2 She considers such hushed histories a characteristic of women directors in Southeastern Europe. Beyond these characteristics (evident as well in the films of other Bosnian women filmmakers, such as the likewise awarded Jasmila Žbanić),3 films such as Snow have contributed to postwar recovery, helping to break the silence that often surrounds the victims of wartime rape and the survivors of genocidal ethnic cleansing, addressing the postwar generation that in many cases is being raised in ignorance of the events of the 1990s in Bosnia and Herzegovina.4

The village of Slavno (in Bosnian, the name means “famous” or “marvelous”) represents the isolated Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) enclaves of eastern Bosnia that were “ethnically cleansed” in the Bosnian war of 1992–1995, and where women and children remain, not knowing the fate of their male loved ones. Theirs is now a woman’s world, where women must find a way forward to support themselves and their families. They must also preserve memory and maintain hope, all the while coming to terms...

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