On perpetrators and victims

Stumbled across a fascinating conversation hosted over at Foreign Policy: in discussing victims and perpetrators of genocide, Joshua Oppenheimer and David Rieff touch on film, intervention, kitsch and smugness. [note, the transcript is a reduxed version of the audio]

Joshua Oppenheimer: Most nonfiction films dealing with human rights abuse tend to tell us that things are well in hand because we’re following an activist or an investigator or a judicial process that promises some sort of resolution even if, when the film ends, things are still a mess. The sense of things getting better when we leave allows the viewer to more easily let go of the experience and to feel like it is being dealt with by somebody, somehow. It also serves the viewer to feel that, by having this explained to us as a phenomenon that’s at least at arm’s length from us, it’s something that we can understand from above. The task of cinema in intervening in and exploring these issues is to actually immerse us in these problems, in these phenomena, so that we actually feel something about what is it like as a survivor or, in the case of The Look of Silence, to have to live surrounded by the still-powerful perpetrators and to live in fear for half a century. Most human rights documentaries also replicate that most basic form of narrative escapism, dividing the world into good guys and bad guys. That is reassuring because we inevitably identify with the good guys. But it’s problematic because it makes it difficult to understand — not in the sense to excuse, but to understand how human beings do these sorts of things to each other and the consequences for how we continue to live in the aftermath of atrocity. If we don’t accept the uncomfortable proposition that every perpetrator of virtually every act of evil in our history has been a human being like us, then we actually foreclose the possibility of understanding how we do this to one another and therefore make it impossible to figure out how we might prevent these things.

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