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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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Introduction: John J. Michalczyk

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Introduction

John J. Michalczyk

Film, both feature and documentary, has the capacity to capture a specific narrative in a graphic and visual manner that is not possible in written form. Although the scenes depicted in a cinematic production cannot be absolutely realistic, they are a vicarious means of entering into the time, place and culture presented in the work. A moving image provides a stepping stone to understanding more fully the depth of the historical moment conveyed in an artistic expression. While offering a human-interest story with engaging characters, a film can enlighten, move, entertain, and at times call to action. Important films about genocide and ethnic cleansing, especially about the Shoah or the Holocaust, have made their way into the media over the past half-century, experiencing a new popularity with Schindler’s List (1993), The Pianist (2002) and Hotel Rwanda (2004). The millions who have come away from viewing these features have a clearer grasp of an historical situation that could promote further interest or study.

The films that have been selected for this collection of essays—some commercial, others lesser known—cover more than a century of genocide starting with the systematic elimination of Native Americans. Visual representation of mass murder bordering on genocide primarily emerged with the invention of lithography and in the early years of photography during the mid to late nineteenth century. One can see early on, for example, a lithograph entitled “People escaping from the Indian massacre of 1862...

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