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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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Eyewitness to Genocide in Darfur: The Devil Came on Horseback (2007): John J. Michalczyk


John J. Michalczyk

In a two-decade struggle in Sudan, more than 400,000 people died and 2.5 million were displaced. In a country with a population of 40 million and rich resources, it was an ugly civil war that pitted the Northern Arab segment of the country against the Southern Black African segment of the population. For some like Colin Powell and President George W. Bush the atrocities witnessed here amounted to genocide, but others considered it ethnic cleansing, civil war or tribal rivalry and believed that the situation did not warrant armed intervention. In any case, the world did little to implement more than 17 UN resolutions to halt the bloodshed. Despite its well-intentioned desire to not repeat its failure to act during the Rwanda genocide of 1994, the international community remained for the most part a bystander. History was offering the world a second chance to respond to genocide, but it failed to act.

Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern’s documentary The Devil Came on Horseback (2007) recounts the personal crusade of a former Marine Captain, Brian Steidle, to awaken the international community of an ongoing genocide in Sudan. In 2004, a ceasefire had ended the civil war, but the conflict surrounding Darfur continued. For six months, Brian Steidle entered into the inferno of Western Darfur as part of the African Mission to monitor the deteriorating situation. With his camera to document and his conscience to guide him, Steidle entered the fray to witness what...

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