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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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Village Justice: In the Tall Grass (2006): John J. Michalczyk


John J. Michalczyk

How does a society transition from genocidal violence to tolerance, then to mutual respect? This is a question challenging Rwandans in the wake of one of the worst massacres of the second half of the twentieth century, while governments and institutions remained silent. The meting out of justice now falls on the shoulders of the International Criminal Court, the local government’s judicial system, and presently, the age-old resurrected form of village justice referred to as gacaca, meaning “sweet grass” or “a place where one gathers.” It is precisely in this calmness of village life where community justice is arbitrated painstakingly, where victim confronts perpetrator in order to arrive at justice and reconciliation. In J. Coll Metcalfe’s insightful documentary In the Tall Grass the viewer watches unfold in the remote countryside of Megara the drama of a woman’s search for justice and inner peace. To set the stage, the producer conveys the spark that caused the explosive behavior of the Hutus, the plane crash of Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana on 6 April 1994. He then lays out the bloody images of mutilated bodies and scores of skulls to indicate the vast extent of the murdering spree during this collective madness. The narrator reminds the viewer that the killings took place on such a massive scale that the Hutus had a difficult time finding Tutsis to kill. A traumatized Joanita Mukausanga asks that the old ritual gacaca now bring before the community the accused Antanese Butera,...

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