I try to make sure all of my lectures are up-to-date each year, but this term I’ve added some completely new ones to my course on Cities, space and power. One of them – which I gave last week – is on Paris under Nazi occupation; elsewhere in the course I discuss Cairo under French occupation (1798-1801) and, later in the nineteenth century, Shahjahanabad (Delhi) under British occupation: but working on Paris during the Second World War swept me away for much of the term (when I was supposed to be doing quite other things…).
You can find the raw slides under the TEACHING tab (‘raw’ because I couldn’t possibly use all of them in a single lecture, though I did my best, so this is the unedited version).
I hope the slides will be self-explanatory, but here’s the lecture outline:
1: Before the Occupation [civil defence or défense passive; the mass exodus from Paris; air raids; the departure of the French government; the declaration of Paris as an Open City].
2: The Fall of Paris [the entry of the Wehrmacht into a seemingly empty Paris; the Armistice and the creation of Vichy France; Hitler’s three-hour tour of Paris]
3: Occupation and the right to the city [Occupied Paris as object-space; German re-signing of the city; the cityscape and the administrative apparatus of Occupation; geographies of military tourism (the conceit that an anterior, vibrant Paris of leisure and pleasure can still be found beneath the grid of military occupation)]
4: Everyday life in the ‘City without a Face’ [the uncanny city; ‘Food is power’: rationing, the black market, the grey market and the administration of hunger; the Nazi control of time and space]
5: Paris’s Jews and the Nazi Genocide [registrations, regulations and round-ups; the co-operation and collaboration of the French police; Drancy camp; exclusions from public space; the Vélodrome d’Hiver]
6: The Allied Offensive and the Liberation of Paris [Allied bombing; ‘Is Paris Burning?’; post-Liberation violence]
A treasure trove for imagery, incidentally, is Parisien Imageshere; I’ve long maintained that image research – including a creative use of Google Images – is an absolutely indispensable part of research, since the results often provide insights and take you to places you would never have thought of otherwise. I also recommend Occupation de Paris, a wonderful, eclectic collection of images and commentary here.
A new edition of the ever-interesting Mediatropes is now online (it’s open access), this time on Intelligence and War: you can access the individual essays (or download the whole issue) here. Previous issues are all available here.
The issue opens with an editorial introduction (‘Intelligence and War’ by Stuart J Murray, Jonathan Chau, Twyla Gibson. And here is Stuart’s summary of the rest of the issue:
Michael Dorland’s “The Black Hole of Memory: French Mnemotechniques in the Erasure of the Holocaust” interrogates the role of memory and memorialization in the constitution of post-World War II France. Dorland hones in on the precarity of a France that grapples with its culpability in the Vel’ d’Hiv Round-up, spotlighting the role of the witness and the perpetually problematized function of testimony as key determinants in challenging both the public memory and the historical memory of a nation.
Sara Kendall’s essay, “Unsettling Redemption: The Ethics of Intra-subjectivity in The Act of Killing” navigates the problematic representation of mass atrocity. Employing Joshua Oppenheimer’s investigation of the Indonesian killings of 1965–1966, Kendall unsettles the documentary’s attempts to foreground the practices of healing and redemption, while wilfully sidestepping any acknowledgment of the structural dimensions of violence. To Kendall, the documentary’s focus on the narratives of the perpetrators, who function as proxies for the state, makes visible the aporia of the film, substituting a framework based on affect and empathy in place of critical political analyses of power imbalances.
Kevin Howley is concerned with the spatial ramifications of drone warfare. In “Drone Warfare: Twenty-First Century Empire and Communications,” Howley examines the battlefield deployment of drones through the lens of Harold Innis’s distinction between time-biased and space-biased media. By considering the drone as a space-biased technology that can transmit information across vast distances, yet only remain vital for short periods of time, Howley sees the drone as emblematic of the American impulse to simultaneously and paradoxically collapse geographical distance while expanding cultural differences between America and other nations.
Avital Ronell’s essay, entitled “BIGLY Mistweated: On Civic Grievance,” takes direct aim at the sitting US president, offering a rhetorical analysis of what she calls “Trumpian obscenity.” Ronell exposes the foundations of the current administration, identifying a government bereft of authority, stitched together by audacity, and punctuated by an almost unfathomable degree of absurdity. In her attempt to make sense of the fundamentally nonsensical and nihilistic discourse that Trump represents, Ronell walks alongside Paul Celan, Melanie Klein, and especially Jacques Derrida, concluding with a suggestive, elusive, and allusive possibility for negotiating the contemporary, Trumpian moment.
In “The Diseased ‘Terror Tunnels’ in Gaza: Israeli Surveillance and the Autoimmunization of an Illiberal Democracy,” Marouf Hasian, Jr. explains how Israel’s state-sanctioned use of autoimmunizing rhetorics depict the lives of Israelis as precarious and under threat. Here, the author’s preoccupation is with the Israeli strategy of rhetorically reconfiguring smuggling tunnels as “terror tunnels” that present an existential threat to Israeli citizens. In doing so, he shows how the non-combatant status of Gazan civilians is dissolved through the intervening effects of these media tropes.
Derek Gregory’s essay, “The Territory of the Screen,” offers a different perspective on drone warfare. Gregory leverages Owen Sheers’s novel, I Saw a Man, to explore the ways in which modern combat is contested through a series of mediating layers, a series of screens through which the United States, as Gregory argues, dematerializes the corporeality of human targets. For Gregory, drone warfare’s facilitation of remote killings is predicated on technical practices that reduce the extinguishing of life to technological processes that produce, and then execute, “killable bodies.”
But how is the increasingly unsustainable illusion of intelligence as being centralized and definitive maintained? Julie B. Wiest’s “Entertaining Genius: U.S. Media Representations of Exceptional Intelligence” identifies the media trope of exceptionally intelligent characters across mainstream film and television programs as key to producing and reinforcing popular understandings of intelligence. Through her analysis of such fictional savants, Wiest connects these patterns of representation to the larger social structures that reflect and reinforce narrowly defined notions of intelligence, and those who are permitted to possess it.
We end this issue with a poem from Sanita Fejzić, who offers a perspective on the human costs of war that is framed not by technology, but through poetic language.
My own essay is a reworked version of the penultimate section of “Dirty Dancing” (DOWNLOADS tab) which we had to cut because it really did stretch the length limitations for Life in the Age of Drone Warfare; so, as Stuart notes, I re-worked it, adding an extended riff on Owen Sheers‘ luminous I saw a man and looping towards the arguments I since developed in ‘Meatspace?‘
I commented on Joshua Oppenheimer‘s film about the Indonesian genocide in 1965, The Act of Killing, here and here. There his focus was, unwaveringly, upon the killers.
But his new film, The Look of Silence, takes up the story of the victims. Oppenheimer explains:
The Act of Killing exposed the consequences for all of us when we build our everyday reality on terror and lies. The Look of Silence explores what it is like to be a survivor in such a reality. Making any film about survivors of genocide is to walk into a minefield of clichés, most of which serve to create a heroic (if not saintly) protagonist with whom we can identify, thereby offering the false reassurance that, in the moral catastrophe of atrocity, we are nothing like perpetrators. But presenting survivors as saintly in order to reassure ourselves that we are good is to use survivors to deceive ourselves. It is an insult to survivors’ experience, and does nothing to help us understand what it means to survive atrocity, what it means to live a life shattered by mass violence, and to be silenced by terror. To navigate this minefield of clichés, we have had to explore silence itself.
The result, The Look of Silence, is, I hope, a poem about a silence borne of terror – a poem about the necessity of breaking that silence, but also about the trauma that comes when silence is broken. Maybe the film is a monument to silence – a reminder that although we want to move on, look away and think of other things, nothing will make whole what has been broken. Nothing will wake the dead. We must stop, acknowledge the lives destroyed, strain to listen to the silence that follows.
You can find out more about the production here, and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro interviews Oppenheimer about his general project and The Look of Silence in particular at Harper’s blog here. He describes his focus on interior space in the new film – in contrast to The Act of Killing – like this:
‘I think one of the things that I realized very early on, with The Look of Silence, was that the best way to make the viewer feel what it means to have to build a life in a place that feels wrecked by endless fear, is to feel that in the most intimate way. Because those are very subtle personal things. And to understand something of what that’s really like, I thought, I would need to be incredibly microscopic. You’re entering a space where people are not putting words to what they experienced, where they’re too afraid to talk about it. I felt that I should try to create a kind of poem to a silence borne of fear, a poem to the necessity and trauma that comes with breaking that silence. The idea was to home in on the smallest details—the wrinkles in the ancient skin of Adi’s father, a crease in the brow of Adi’s mother—and to really focus on the silence, listen to that silence, and hear what it has to say.’
And he also glosses the image that appears on the poster above:
In The Look of Silence, we see an optometrist who probes the silence that his family has lived under, and then confronts the killers. If we made that a fiction story, it wouldn’t have at all the same interest. In fact the metaphor of the optometrist would be all too neat. Similarly, a death squad that makes a musical about their killings would be ridiculous as a fiction. But when it’s real, what we’re watching is the transformative effect of the process on the people. And I think that’s why I make film. It’s why I make nonfiction film. And it’s also why, in all of my films, I don’t hide the apparatus of filmmaking by pretending to be a fly on the wall, or by being a transparent interviewer eliciting testimony from the subject. Because I believe that if one is honest, then the genesis of the drama, and the genesis of the transformation, is also the filmmaking process itself.
To mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, there has been widespread interest in a haunting video shot for the BBC using a commercial drone:
For once, the emptiness of the scene – just buildings, fences and railway tracks – is desperately affecting. It’s surely impossible to watch this without thinking of the millions of people whose lives were so brutally effaced by the murderous regime of the Third Reich. The only sign of a human presence in the video is a glimpse over the wall of trucks racing by: a reminder that Auschwitz was (and disconcertingly remains) at the centre of a small town (see also my post on Auschwitz here).
There are at least two other films that ought to be seen too.
The first is a documentary commissioned in 1945 by the Psychological Warfare Film Section of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force to document the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. The producer was Sidney Bernstein, for Britain’s Ministry of Information; Alfred Hitchcock was drafted in as a ‘treatment adviser’. The working title was German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey; it was never shown in its entirety (though Billy Wilder turned the footage into a short, Death Mills), and the Imperial War Museum notes:
From the start of the project, there were a number of problems including the practical difficulties of international co-operation and the realities of post-war shortages. These issues delayed the film long enough to be overtaken by other events including the completion of two other presentations of concentration camp footage to the German people and the evolution of occupation policy, where the authorities no longer considered a one-hour compilation of atrocity material appropriate. The last official action on the film was a screening of an incomplete rough-cut on 29 September 1945, after which the film was shelved, unfinished.
The footage has now been incorporated into a stunning HBO documentary, Night Will Fall, directed by André Singer, who was an Executive Producer forAct of Killing (see my posts here, here and here).
There are all sorts of stories about why the full version was never shown – see the Guardian‘s report here – but the fullest discussions are Kay Gladstone‘s ‘Separate intentions’ in Toby Haggith and Joanna Newman (eds) Holocaust and the moving image (2005) (see also Haggith’s ‘Filming the liberation of Bergen-Belsen here) and her ‘Memory of the Camps: the rescue of an abandoned film’, in Griselda Pollock and Max Silverman (eds) Concentrationary cinema (2011).
The second film returns to the aerial view and to Auschwitz: Harun Farocki’s Images of the world and the Inscription of War. Shockingly and sadly, Farocki died last summer at the age of 70, and Images is widely regarded as his masterpiece (see Thomas Voltzenlogel‘s wide-ranging and appreciative discussion of ‘Dialectics in images’ here). The central motif is an image taken from a series of aerial photographs of Auschwitz shot by the Allies between April 1944 and January 1945 (see also here and here).
This image was taken on 4 April 1944 by Lt Charles Barry flying a Mosquito from 60 Photo Reconnaissance Squadron of the South African Air Force. From the film’s commentary [available in Discourse 5(3) (1993) 78-92]:
American aircraft had taken off in Foggia, Italy, and flown towards targets in Silesia – factories for synthetic petrol and rubber – known as Buna.
On the flightover the IG Farben company factory still under construction, a pilot clicked his camera shutter and took photographs of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
First picture of Auschwitz taken at 7,000 meters altitude.
The pictures taken in April 1944 in Silesia arrived for evaluation in Medmenham, England [the RAF’s Central Intelligence Unit concerned with air photograph interpretation].
The analysts discovered a power station, a carbide factory, a factory under construction for Buna and another for petrol hydrogenation.
They were not under orders to look for the Auschwitz camp, and thus they did not find it.
How close the one is to the other: the industry – the camp.
It was not until 1977 that two employees of the CIA [Dino Brugioni and Robert Poirer: see their detailed report here] went through the archives to find and evaluate the photographs of Auschwitz. It was not until thirty-three years later that the following words were inscribed:
Tower and Commandant’s house and
Registration Building and Headquarters and Administration and
Fence and execution wall and Block 11 and the word “Gas chamber” was inscribed.
Kaja Silvermanadds this gloss [‘What is a camera?’ Discourse 5 (30 (1993) 3-56]:
Not only does the camera here manifestly “apprehend” what the human eye cannot, but the latter seems strikingly handicapped by its historical and institutional placement, as if to suggest that military control attempts to extend beyond behavior, speech, dress,and bodily posture to the very sensory organs themselves. This sequence indicates, in other words,that military discipline and the logic of warfare function to hyperbolize the distance separating look from gaze and to subordinate the former completely to the latter.
These are similar issues that haunt my own discussions of the video feeds from Predators and Reapers over Afghanistan and Iraq. In another commentary, Christa Blüminglerwrites:
The vanishing point of Images of The World is the conceptual image of the ‘blind spot’ of the evaluators of aerial footage of the IG Farben industrial plant taken by the Americans in 1944. Commentaries and notes on the photographs show that it was only decades later that the CIA noticed what the Allies hadn’t wanted to see [my emphasis]: that the Auschwitz concentration camp is depicted next to the industrial bombing target.
The claim that the ‘Allies didn’t want to see’ spirals through an important debate about whether the Allies could or should have bombed Auschwitz (see, in addition to the symposium on the right, here and here). In fact, as Christa observes later,
In … 1944, the allies bombed not Auschwitz, but the IG Farben factory nearby the death camp. Drawing on analyses of these events, how and why the allies didn’t act on their knowledge of the mass destruction of the Jews, Farocki … decodes a host of military images, focusing on two visual dispositives: American pilots in 1944 and CIA agents in 1977 offering two different [readings] of the aerial photographs of Auschwitz.
In this instance, Farocki developed an epistemological field of technological history — measurement and surveillance in a period of rapid automatization. At the end of the film, a blind spot in the photographic act, referring back to the reality of the concentration camp, becomes visible.
The final shots further emphasize details of the American pilots’ aerial photos, which are picked up in the sweep of the film several times, framed and arranged in different ways. At the end of the film, through a permutative movement of cuts, the extreme enlargement of the photographs reminds us once again of their materiality. Farocki shows these images in precisely the spaces where visual thought takes place, and in connection to specific techniques of reproduction and distribution (in albums, archives, institutions). Whenever he used marginal and hard-to-access image materials from specialized archives, he sought to consider these conditions of visibility in his analysis.
What particularly interests me, and the reason I juxtapose these two films, is an interview with Chris Darke in 2003 in which Farocki artfully tracks between the eye-witness and the aerial shot:
Chris Darke: In Images of the World and the Inscription of War there is this repeated phrase: “Beside the real world there is a second world, a world of pure military fiction”. I was very strongly reminded of Colin Powell at the UN Security Council presenting degraded military surveillance images as proof and justification for military action.
HF: Yes, it reminded me so much of the Auschwitz sequences in Images of the World, the way they involved aerial reconnaissance images that you had to be a specialist to read. Who knows what they are telling you? Who knows what happened there? What is so interesting is that the personal witness of two people who had escaped from the camps was so important. It was the way that traditional history was always written. You need an eye-witness, a narrative, otherwise you’ll never believe in it. And it turns out that our imaginative minds are still very old-fashioned. We don’t understand modernist strategies such as those used by the Americans in the first Gulf War. You really want to see these terrible, dirty images of burning streets and wounded people in the same way that psychoanalysis knows that you need dirty thoughts for the imagination, just as for love you need dirty images. The audience is not prepared for this automatically recorded history that more or less happens already, where everything is recorded; so there has to be an old-fashioned drama made out of it.
There are at least two other detailed commentaries on the film that address the question of visuality in depth: Thomas Keenan‘s ‘Light weapons’, in Documents 1/2 (1992) 147-58 and Nora Alter‘s ‘The political im/perceptible in the essay film: Farocki’s Images of the world and the inscription of war‘, in New German Critique 68 (1996). More generally, I also recommend the special issue of e-flux on Farocki’s work here, including a commentary by Trevor Paglen on Farocki’s ‘operative images’, and David Cox‘s brief commentary here.
Note:Belinda Gomez writes (in relation to the commentary for Images of the World):
“Fence and execution wall and Block 11 and the word “Gas chamber” was inscribed….” But that’s not quite accurate. Brugioni and Poirier didn’t write that in 1977. The gas chamber didn’t have a sign. That they were able to locate the gas chamber and crematoria was due to their superior technology and they knew what they were looking for. The pilot/photographers in 1944 took photos of the factory and what was taken as a workers camp. To say that they didn’t see Auschwitz because they weren’t told to look for it is more of a hind-sight interpretation.
We are in the preparatory stages for a new edition of the Dictionary of Human Geography, which I’m co-editing this time with Clive Barnett, Jeremy Crampton, Diana Davis, Geraldine Pratt, Joanne Sharp and Henry Yeung. At the moment, we are making devilishly difficult decisions over headwords (which to cut, which to add) and lengths (which to shorten, which to increase). Of course, none of this is set in stone, and new entries always press themselves forward as the submission deadline draws near. Sometimes they are words you wonder why they weren’t included in the first place.
One such, last time round, was ‘Holocaust’: a glaring omission from previous editions, I belatedly realised. There was, after all, a considerable body of geographical work on it, some of it by geographers, which I did my best to incorporate in the entry I wrote in short order for the last edition. In truth, I suspect I noticed the omission through my interest in Giorgio Agamben‘s Homo sacer and Remnants of Auschwitz; thinking about the geographies of the Holocaust made me realise that the space of the exception, however defined, was not limited by the barbed perimeter of the camp but extended out along the railway tracks to the ghettoes, the round-ups and a host of capillary and diminishing exceptions (see my discussion here). This in turn makes the spatiality of the exception of constitutive significance.
This book explores the geographies of the Holocaust at every scale of human experience, from the European continent to the experiences of individual human bodies. Built on six innovative case studies, it brings together historians and geographers to interrogate the places and spaces of the genocide. The cases encompass the landscapes of particular places (the killing zones in the East, deportations from sites in Italy, the camps of Auschwitz, the ghettos of Budapest) and the intimate spaces of bodies on evacuation marches. Geographies of the Holocaust puts forward models and a research agenda for different ways of visualizing and thinking about the Holocaust by examining the spaces and places where it was enacted and experienced.
1. Geographies of the Holocaust / Alberto Giordano, Anne Kelly Knowles, and Tim Cole
2. Mapping the SS Concentration Camps / Anne Kelly Knowles and Paul B. Jaskot, with Benjamin Perry Blackshear, Michael De Groot, and Alexander Yule
3. Retracing the “Hunt for Jews”: A Spatio-Temporal Analysis of Arrests during the Holocaust in Italy / Alberto Giordano and Anna Holian
4. Killing on the Ground and in the Mind: The Spatialities of Genocide in the East / Waitman W. Beorn, with Anne Kelly Knowles
5. Bringing the Ghetto to the Jew: The Shifting Geography of the Budapest Ghetto / Tim Cole and Alberto Giordano
6. Visualizing the Archive: Building at Auschwitz as a Geographic Problem / Paul B. Jaskot, Anne Kelly Knowles, and Chester Harvey, with Benjamin Perry Blackshear
7. From the Camp to the Road: Representing the Evacuations from Auschwitz, January 1945 / Simone Gigliotti, Marc J. Masurovsky, and Erik Steiner
8. Afterword / Paul B. Jaskot and Tim Cole
Tim Cole is the author of a series of outstanding geographical studies of the Holocaust, including Holocaust City on Budapest; he’s now Professor of Social History at Bristol, but his PhD in Geography at Cambridge was started under the supervision of Graham Smith, one of my dearest friends, who tragically died before the thesis was completed.
Here’s another old Cambridge friend Geoff Eleyon the present collaborative project: ‘As a pioneering call to extend our familiar approaches, Geographies of the Holocaust offers a welcome model of collaborative interdisciplinarity — between historians and geographers, humanities and the social sciences, distinguished specialists and scholars from the outside. The desired purposes are admirably served. Thinking with space delivers not only a new range of challenging methodologies, but brings the well-established findings of the field under strikingly new perspectives too.’
The first issue of the Cambridge journal of postcolonial literary inquiry, edited by Ato Quayson, on ‘New topographies of the postcolonial’, is available as an open access edition here.
The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry is a new peer-review journal that aims to deepen our grasp of postcolonial literary history while enabling us to stay comprehensively informed of all critical developments in the field. The journal will provide a forum for publishing research covering the full spectrum of postcolonial critical readings and approaches, whether these center on established or lesser known postcolonial writers or draw upon fields such as Modernism, Medievalism, Shakespeare and Victorian Studies that have hitherto not been considered central to postcolonial literary studies, yet have generated some of the best insights on postcolonialism. The Journal aims to be critically robust, historically nuanced, and will put the broadly defined areas of literature and aesthetics at the center of postcolonial exploration and critique. Essays of up to 8000 words on any aspect of postcolonial literature, literary history and aesthetics should be sent to The Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The special issue includes a fine essay by Debjani Ganguly, ‘The world novel, mediated wars and exorbitant witnessing‘, which provides close and illuminating readings of Art Spiegelman‘s Maus and In the shadow of no towers and Michael Ondaatje‘s Anil’s Ghost and connects them to what she calls ‘our era of humanitarian wars’ (see p. 16 for her characterization). Here is the abstract:
This essay traces the emergence of a new contemporary novel form at the conjunction of global violence in the wake of the Cold War, digital hyperconnectivity, and a mediated infrastructure of sympathy. Since the first Gulf War, and more so, in the rhetoric presaging the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have come to accept that there is very little difference between the technologies used to wage war and those used to view it. This essay argues that the novels of our time are not contiguous with contemporary cinematic or televisual or new media genres in representing the immediacy of violence, but are rather texts that graph the sedimented and recursive history of such mediation. Their alternative way of documenting “witness”—that is, of abstracting the architectonics of testimonial work—urges us to focus not so much on the question of visibility—and its stock thematics of overexposure and desensitization—as on the legibility of this new mode of witnessing. The distinction between visibility and legibility amounts to calibrating differently the work of witnes- sing in novels, their textual and tropological play with multiple modes of spectatorship and engagement, and their distinctively different braiding of the factual and the evidentiary in comparison with genres of the visual.
I’m sorry for the long silence: the past two weeks have been unusually busy, with a stream of wonderful visitors to the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, including Philippe Descola, Anne-Christine Taylor and Bruno Latour. More on this soon, but during a series of conference presentations – in which, more or less in passing, I mentioned Joshua Oppenheimer‘s The act of killing (2012) (see here and here) – I was told of another, related project that readers will find interesting.
This is Yael Hersonski‘s A Film Unfinished[Shtikat Haarchion] (2010). The centre of the documentary – you can hardly say its ‘heart’ – is an unfinished propaganda film shot by the Nazis in 1942, Das Ghetto, which purported to portray the Warsaw Ghetto. It was found in an archive in East Germany in 1954, but in 1988 two discarded film cans containing 30 minutes of outtakes were discovered – scenes left on the cutting room floor – which radically transformed the interpretation of the film and revealed the elaborate staging of its scenes. You can obtain another overview of the project here, which includes a number of stills from A Film Unfinished.
The parallel with Oppenheimer’s project is drawn by Hersonski’s re-staging of an interview with one of the original cameramen, Willy Wist (he died in 1999 but Hersonski works from a transcript she found by chance in an archive in Ludwigsburg), and by her decision to invite five survivors of the Ghetto to watch the out-takes and to record their reactions.
This is from Jeannette Catsoulis‘s thoughtful review in the New York Times:
“What if I see someone I know?” one woman asks [she does], hardly daring to look. As the flickering atrocities play across the survivors’ faces — one film observing another — Ms. Hersonski silently creates space for memories. More than just valuable reality checks (“When did you ever see a flower? We would have eaten a flower!”), these recollections anchor the past to the present, and the images to human experience, in a way that shifts our perception of the Warsaw film. Whether cringing at the sight of naked men and women being forced at gunpoint into a ritual bath, or contemptuously dismissing the Nazis’ efforts to highlight Jewish privilege (“My mother wore her beautiful coat, and sometimes a hat. So what?”), the survivors seem to speak for those who cannot.
Here is the trailer. The whole film is available on YouTube but I can’t embed it because it has a restricted rating, so you need to confirm you are old enough to watch it: here.
Catsoulis suggests that the film is concerned with the difference between watching and seeing, and in this sense the other obvious parallel is with Giorgio Agamben‘s philosophico-ethical probings of the witness and the camp. Hersonski herself says that her film ‘first emerged out of my theoretical preoccupation with the notion of the “archive”, and the unique nature of the witnessing it bears.’ (She elaborates this in an interview with Max Goldberghere and there is also a really excellent interview with Lalev Melamed, ‘A Film Unraveled’, in the International journal of politics, culture and society 26 (13) 9-19, which includes an interesting comparison between Hersonski and Harun Farocki).
Witnessing is of more than historical significance, of course, and in an extended interview with Clyde Fitch – in which he asks her about complicity and guilt – Hersonski deflects his question from the past to our own present:
I’m asking myself a different question. I’m asking myself: What is my ethical position when I’m sitting very comfortably in my living room and seeing whatever is happening a few kilometers from my city in the occupied territories?…
What can I do? No, it’s not a rhetorical question. I’m seeing this and other events unfold — I’m watching it, I know about it, I know it’s there. I’m not talking about politics right now, by the way, just images of people suffering. And, as the images of people suffering in my own country go, you become a witness. Then what do you do as a witness? It’s a terrible question — it’s a haunting, torturing question. It’s our essential question.
I think that it was also a major reason why I made this film — because the Holocaust not only confronted humanity with an inconceivable horror but it also did mark the very beginning of the systematic implementation on film of that horror. And I think that something changed in our perception — I don’t know even how to define this something — after we saw images from the camps, something that we hadn’t witnessed before. It seems that documentation became more technically advanced, more massive, since then.
Well, as long as this bombardment of images becomes more intense, we will become more and more incapable of really seeing suffering, or war.
Fitch describes the film as ‘an act of anthropology’ – something which our three guests at the Wall would surely recognise too.
Bhakti Shringarpure has a wide-ranging conversation with Mahmood Mamdani over at Warscarpes. It covers a lot of ground, but one of the central threads is Mamdani’s insistence on conducting a ‘history of violence’, which is to say a history of the present (Darfur, Ruanda) in ways that disclose the historical context for today’s horrors.
Hence Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror, in which Mamdani argued that the crisis in Darfur had to be read as a vicious gavotte of insurgency and counterinsurgency rather than genocide (as many commentators in the West insist). Explaining his insistence on a dispersed, situated agency, Mamdani sets himself against what he calls the ‘new’ narrative of human rights:
‘The conventional approach, the approach used by the contemporary human rights movement, has been to document the atrocities, [to take] testimony, to identify perpetrators, to name and shame. The perpetrator is portrayed as someone with all the agency in the world. The victim is someone with no agency. That’s the narrative…. The old human rights movement, which was born with the French revolution – human rights of man, the citizen – it sought to empower the victim and to focus on issues. This new one seeks to empower saviors to salvage this helpless victim.’
He also talks about the politics of writing (and about the part his Harvard room-mate, Michael Ignatieff, played in the development of his own style), about audiences and public intellectuals, about the book through which I first came to know his work, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the roots of terror, the role Edward Said had in its publication, and his own ‘voyage in’, and he ends with this reflection on teaching at Columbia:
The downside of American students is this thing which runs through – seems to run through – the Western experience, but seems particularly crystallized in the American case, which is this notion that you can save the world. And this determination to save the world. This conviction that they know what’s good for the world, and they know what’s good for you, better than you know. So it’s almost like the medieval Christians who burnt people to save their souls.
They can be like the modern counterpart of the missionaries. They are not particularly interested in the problem: They are there to give you the solution. By the time they leave the university, they are imbued with the sense of what should be the solution. I always tell them that, before you get unleashed upon the world, let me have a chance to talk to you. Get them to realize that the real question is not, “What’s the solution?” – it’s “What’s the problem?” And the elements of any sustainable solution have to be found inside the problem.
But it’s not a peculiarly American conceit. One of the characteristic gestures of modern colonialism and imperialism has been, precisely, to insist on its mission to bring ‘order’ from the outside to save those souls who would otherwise be condemned to their own chronic ‘disorder’. This has been on view most recently in Tony Blair’s athletic support for the military intervention in Egypt: ‘Bringing about stability in the Middle East is not somebody else’s job, it’s ours.’ Perhaps it’s time somebody wrote Good Christian, Bad Christian.
I’ve discussed Joshua Oppenheimer‘s The Act of Killing – about paramilitary death-squads in Indonesia in 1965-6 – in an earlier post. Larry Rohter provided a short backgrounder in the New York Times at the end of last week (much more here):
The events initially addressed in “The Act of Killing” are little known in the West: the slaughter of as many as a million people in Indonesia following the military’s seizure of power there in 1965. The victims were labeled Communists but included labor leaders, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals, with paramilitary groups carrying out the killings at the behest of the Indonesian Army and with the support of the United States and its allies, who worried that Indonesia, like Vietnam, would fall into Communist hands.
In Indonesia, the killings were “a kind of open secret, kept discreetly hidden so that if you wanted to, you could pretend it wasn’t happening,” said John Roosa, a scholar of Indonesian history at the University of British Columbia and the author of “Pretext for Mass Murder,” the leading book about the 1965 massacres. “So this film has become a provocation, an impetus for Indonesians to go back to the perpetrators and say, ‘Tell us exactly what happened.’ ”
Guernica now has a new interview (by Emma Myers) with Oppenheimer in which he talks at length about the background to the film and the process of filming itself:
‘I was developing experimental performative documentary methods in London and was asked to make a film [what would become The Globalization Tapes] by the International Union of Food Workers in a place where unions had been previously outlawed. I could have been sent to India, Colombia, Malaysia… but I was sent to Indonesia. I knew nothing about the country, but found myself in a plantation community outside of Medan. The biggest obstacle the workers had in organizing a union, I found, was fear: fear that stemmed from the fact that their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles had had a strong union until 1965, but were accused of being leftists and either killed or put in concentration camps for decades as a result. That was the first I had heard about the 1965-1966 genocide and it was clear to me that it had to be in the film. But even talking about it turned out to be scary for them, because the people who committed atrocities against their relatives were living all around them in this village. So I made the film with the plantation workers but realized I had to come back. I felt very close to this community. They were saying, “Please make a film about the genocide and how it has affected us.” I returned six months later to start working with them and found the process to be unsafe for them; the best way around this was to film the killers—who were much more willing to talk—instead of the victims.’
He talks in particular about the performative force of storytelling, the ethics of staging the killers’ fantasies (they were paid a small per diem sanctioned by the Arts & Humanities Research Council), and ends with a wonderfully sharp remark from Werner Herzog (one of his co-producers) about the political possibilities of art.
There’s now also an extended essay by another of the film’s co-producers, Errol Morris, over at Slate, in which he asks: ‘Is this a story about Indonesia or also a story about us?’ His answer takes that little clause in Rohter’s commentary – ‘Indonesia, like Vietnam‘ – and unpacks it to devastating effect. His journey takes him back to his own film, The Fog of War, to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and to the Vietnam War: the coup in Indonesia, he realises, took place in 1965, the same year that President Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam. It’s a brilliant road-trip – a mix of interviews and scholarly research, of geopolitical critique and cultural sensibility.
You can see some clips from the film, and hear Herzog and Morris discuss it in this video from Vice.
Finally, there’s a commentary on the film by Slavoj Zizek at the New Statesman here. His starting-point is a familiar one:
The protective screen that prevented a deeper moral crisis was the cinematic screen: as in their real killings and torture, the men experienced their role play as a re-enactment of cinematic models: they experienced reality itself as a fiction. During their massacres, the men, all admirers of Hollywood (they started their careers as controllers of the black market in cinema tickets), imitated Hollywood gangsters, cowboys and even a musical dancer.
Here the “big other” enters: what kind of society publicly celebrates a monstrous orgy of torture and killing decades after it took place, not by justifying it as an extraordinary, necessary crime for the public good but as an ordinary, acceptable pleasurable activity? The trap to be avoided here is the easy one of putting the blame on either Hollywood or on the “ethical primitiveness” of Indonesia. The starting point should rather be the dislocating effects of capitalist globalisation which, by undermining the “symbolic efficacy” of traditional ethical structures, creates such a moral vacuum.
But he then spirals off into his own (I almost wrote ‘magical mystery’) tour d’horizon that ultimately brings The Act of Killing into the intimacy of our own, deeply personal spaces and their (non-)relation to an increasingly eviscerated and compromised public space.
For all that, I much prefer Morris’s take – and I greatly admire his method. In the end, he asks a series of questions that are not about celebration or banalisation, important though they are, but about amnesia.