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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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Saviors and Survivors: Western Passivity, African Resistance, and the Politics of Genocide in Hotel Rwanda (2004): Zine Magubane

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Zine Magubane

The notion that the West has a unique responsibility to civilize and “save” Africa has its genesis in the slave trade, colonialism, and the “scramble” for Africa. The “White Man’s Burden” is an enduring trope in cinematic and political life. Political scientist Mahmood Mamdani has speculated that American interest in “saving Africa” is motivated partly by the fact “Americans can feel themselves to be…powerful saviors” there.1 This fact has both political and cinematic consequences. According to Terry George, co-author of the Hotel Rwanda screenplay, “Hollywood has no interest in African topics. Such films don’t get made.”2 The reluctance that George describes, combined with the “White Man’s Burden” mentality, has resulted in many films dealing with Africa and/or African Americans featuring White protagonists cast as heroes whose lives move plot lines (and history) forward. Notable examples of this include Cry Freedom (1987), which was ostensibly about South African freedom fighter Steve Biko (played by Denzel Washington) but actually centered on the White journalist Donald Wood (played by Kevin Kline), and Mississippi Burning (1988), which purported to be about the Civil Rights movement, but focused on two White fictional FBI agents (played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) and portrayed Black Americans as passive victims.

In making Hotel Rwanda, George deliberately set out to reverse this trend by portraying Africans as active agents in resisting genocide and the West as passive onlookers who stood callously watching the violence unfold. The film dramatizes the experience...

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