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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