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Posts Tagged ‘torture’

This is the accusation from Naomi Wolf, in an open letter to Zero Dark Thirty‘s director, Kathryn Bigelow:

Your film Zero Dark Thirty is a huge hit here. But in falsely justifying, in scene after scene, the torture of detainees in “the global war on terror”, Zero Dark Thirty is a gorgeously-shot, two-hour ad for keeping intelligence agents who committed crimes against Guantánamo prisoners out of jail. It makes heroes and heroines out of people who committed violent crimes against other people based on their race – something that has historical precedent.

Your film claims, in many scenes, that CIA torture was redeemed by the “information” it “secured”, information that, according to your script, led to Bin Laden’s capture. This narrative is a form of manufacture of innocence to mask a great crime: what your script blithely calls “the detainee program”.

What led to this amoral compromising of your film-making?

This is Bigelow’s defence:

I support every American’s 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.

But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.

Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.

This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist’s ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation.

And this is Slavoj Žižek’s response to Bigelow’s response:

One doesn’t need to be a moralist, or naive about the urgencies of fighting terrorist attacks, to think that torturing a human being is in itself something so profoundly shattering that to depict it neutrally – ie to neutralise this shattering dimension – is already a kind of endorsement.

Imagine a documentary that depicted the Holocaust in a cool, disinterested way as a big industrial-logistic operation, focusing on the technical problems involved (transport, disposal of the bodies, preventing panic among the prisoners to be gassed). Such a film would either embody a deeply immoral fascination with its topic, or it would count on the obscene neutrality of its style to engender dismay and horror in spectators. Where is Bigelow here?

Without a shadow of a doubt, she is on the side of the normalisation of torture.

I saw the film at the weekend, and I think Wolf is right.

It’s not, as Žižek argues, the supposed neutrality of the depiction; some of the most powerful indictments of evil have come about through stark, cool-eyed, non-judgmental descriptions of the reality of what has taken place – bringing the horror into the moral daylight, even without explicit  moral comment.

Nor is it, as Wolf herself writes, the factual question about whether torture was or was not effective in helping the US to locate Bin Laden.

It’s much simpler, and it’s to do with the nature of film and not with arguments about historical truth. It’s the fact that in the dramatic arc of the film, torture is justified; whatever ethical unease we may have as thinkers and moralists, in cinematic terms, we identify emotionally with the protagonist, the heroine, so that the plot device (in this case torture) becomes – whether we like it or not – emotionally justified.

The plot is very simple: men are captured; men are tortured; some of them give information; Maya, the intrepid CIA agent, won’t give up on her hunt for Bin Laden; some of this information, combined with other information, leads Maya to discover the whereabouts of Bin Laden; Bin Laden is killed. Even if your conscience says that torture is always wrong, even if the horrific portrayal of torture in this film actually makes you firmer in your opposition to torture, at an emotional level you can’t help wanting Maya to find him (this is what we do in films, we root for the protagonist, we long to find the ‘MacGuffin‘), and as a viewer caught up in the chase, you can’t help being grateful that the information was finally found – whatever the means.

As a film, it’s gripping and beautifully produced, but still slightly disappointing. There is very little context or background; we never really understand what makes Maya tick; it’s two-dimensional.

Another moral issue, equally important, gets completely ignored in the film: whether it is right to assassinate someone in these circumstances. Everyone in the film, on Maya’s side, wants to find Bin Laden and kill him; no-one asks whether this is justified, morally or legally. I’m surprised and even worried that reviewers don’t seem to have commented on this (but let me know if you have seen a review that has).

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It’s the second year that the Wintershall team has staged the Passion of Jesus in Trafalgar Square on Good Friday. Last year I posted about how powerful it was to see this religious drama unfolding in the secular spaces of central London – the pigeons, the buses, Nelson’s Column towering above, Big Ben in the distance, and the narrative punctuated by the scream of police sirens every few minutes. This is exactly what Jerusalem must have been like in the madness of Holy Week two thousand years ago. Well, take out Nelson and the buses and Big Ben and the sirens…

The play was even better than last year. It wasn’t just the glorious weather – although that certainly helped; or the screen – which made a huge difference. It felt tighter, more focussed. I don’t know if the script had been changed, or if it was just because the staging area seemed more restricted, or because it was the second year.

One or two moments stood out for me. First, when Simon of Cyrene was pulled out of the crowd by the soldiers to carry Jesus’s cross (just like last year) his wife raced after him – I presume it was his wife, sitting beside him in the audience. Or maybe I just missed this last year.

She was terrified that her husband was being dragged into the violence and mayhem of the Jerusalem/London streets – which he was. She circled round the edge of the crowd, desperate to help her husband and spare him this ordeal, not knowing where it would end, terrified that he might be crucified himself if he arrived at the place of execution with the cross on his shoulders. It was a lovely touch.

It reminded me that Simon of Cyrene – and all the others involved – are not just ‘characters’ who exist in some kind of suspended biblical animation, they are people with relatives and friends and colleagues and neighbours. It made me think of the relatives of all those who have even been kidnapped, tortured, murdered and forgotten – those who perhaps live with the agony far longer than those who perpetuate the crime and even those who suffer it. The Gospel narrative is so much more than the people who are actually mentioned by name.

The second moment was unintentional. When Jesus first appeared after his resurrection, and spoke to Mary Magdalene, the audience started clapping! It was so not appropriate – it completely broke the dramatic spell – but at another level it was so beautiful, and so British! Jesus appears; the Son of God comes among us in all his glory; the Risen Saviour is in our midst. We’ve got to do something! We’d like to scream or weep or fall flat on our faces in worship and adoration. But we’re British, and we don’t do these things in public, and the only visible display of approval or mild emotion we are able to make around strangers is to clap, politely, as if we are applauding a boundary at Lord’s or a dull after-dinner speech. It was marvellous. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead – and we clapped!

Last year I wrote about Jesus’s exit at the end of the play:

And right at the end, after the Resurrection, Jesus stepped through the crowd in his white garments as the audience was applauding. He didn’t take a bow. He walked up towards the National Gallery, across the top of Leicester Square, and into the streets beyond. I followed him, while the post-production congratulations were taking place in the square behind us.

That image of Jesus turning the corner into Charing Cross Road is what made the whole play for me: the figure of Christ, walking into the madness of London; without the protection of a director, a cast, a script, an appreciative audience; fading into the blur of billboards and buses and taxis; an unknown man walking into the crowd…

This year, a similar thing happened, but because of the weather the crowd was thicker and in no mood to let Jesus go. When he got to the top of the steps in front of the National Gallery, as Archbishop Vincent was saying thank you to the organisers, dozens of people crowded round him – just happy to see him close up.

And what did they want? Photos! So there was Jesus, smiling for the cameras – holding a child who had been lifted up for him; then with his arms around some friends as they peered into the lens; then standing in the middle of a large group for the camera. He was happy and obliging; in no rush; with a huge grin on his face. Obviously enjoying the people, and enjoying their joy in meeting him.

At first I thought: the play is over, the spell is broken, and the actor is quite rightly taking his bow. But then I thought: No, this is still very real. If Jesus were walking through Trafalgar Square today, would we be taking photos? Of course we would! Or put it the other way round, if people had had cameras back then, ordinary people who loved him and were delighted to catch a glimpse of him, would Jesus have marched away with a frown on his face, telling them to take life more seriously and to let go of these worldly gadgets? I don’t think so. He was, above all, kind. He met people where they were. He loved the ordinary and sometimes stupid things that they loved – as long as they were without sin. He would have stopped for photos.

Seeing this actor smile for the cameras – a warm, genuine, affectionate smile – didn’t create any disjunction in my mind with the Jesus he had just been playing. Quite the opposite – it helped me realise something about the kindness and humanity of this Jesus, and made me wonder even more about what it would be like if he were to walk the streets today.

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