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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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A Reign of Terror in the Congo Free State: Congo: White King, Red Rubber, and Black Death (2004): David Northrup

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David Northrup

The European “Scramble for Africa” in the last decades of the 1800s was both rapid and underfunded. Sometimes, imperialists made use of superior firearms to gain control; often, they exploited fragmented African politics; everywhere they made use of African auxiliaries in establishing and maintaining control. In a surprisingly large number of cases private companies organized the imperial takeover in hopes of profiting from trade and resources. The Congo Free State exhibited all of these characteristics and became a notorious example of the worst failings of the European takeover.

Congo: White King, Red Rubber, and Black Death, a BBC documentary written and directed by Peter Bate, recounts the horrific events associated with the Congo Free State’s attempt to generate revenue from its giant colony. The king mentioned in the title is Leopold II of Belgium, who ruled the Free State as his personal possession until he was forced to relinquish control to the Belgian state in 1908. Red rubber was the natural latex that Africans were forced to collect, smoke, and turnover to Free State officials under threat of mutilation or death.

Overall, this is an excellent documentary, which will shock those unfamiliar with these events as deeply as the same revelations shocked contemporaries a century ago. The documentary makes use of early twentieth-century photographs of Africans being beaten and with stumps where hands and feet had been amputated for failure to comply with the Free State’s requisitions. It also includes excerpts from...

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