Film, with its tangible relationship to the world it “captures”, can offer us, in flashes of insight, an immediate and unexpected access to historical realities. This article discusses how films evoke the physical sensations and emotions that still adhere to traumatic events from the past.
In writing Unspeakable Histories: Film and the Experience of Catastrophe I was looking for a new way of approaching films about historical events of the tragic 20th century. I had already written a book to defend serious history films against skeptical historians who believe that historical films are inexorably pulled into the orbit of fiction. It is as if some essential defect exists in any discourse made up of images that invalidates it as nonfiction. Images and sounds of the world, as classic anthropology would have it, are data that need to be incorporated into a language-based discourse that at once exploits and dominates them, that is, gives them meaning. Historiography is perhaps even more intent on taking its distance from the sensory experience that films seem to transmit, because historical events are, for historians, defined by their pastness: they are unavailable to perception. Only language, they argue, is authorised to salvage what can still be known about the past.
It struck me as undeniable, nonetheless, that film has a direct connection to the past, due to the character of the medium itself: moving images and sounds that have a tangible relationship to the reality they “capture”, including historical reality. This is the indexical quality of the photographic image that semioticians have been at pains to describe: the image retains something of the reality of the objects it represents. If an object asserts its presence through a cinematic image, can we not assume that some aspect of the past can be directly experienced by the viewer?
Images and sounds of the world, as classic anthropology would have it, are data that need to be incorporated into a language-based discourse that at once exploits and dominates them, that is, gives them meaning.
One text encouraged me to pursue this line of thought: Sublime Historical Experience by the philosopher of history Frank Ankersmit. In this work Ankersmit makes a radical gesture: he sections off the two aspects of historical representation that historians have always considered inseparable. On one side he places historical interpretation – historiography proper – in which the historian, from his or her “objective” perspective, produces finished narratives extracted from bodies of facts. On the other side he exposes what supposedly lies “underneath”: raw experience, that immense domain infused with emotion and mood, historical sensation, to use Johan Huizinga’s concept. In the magnificent opening passages of his Waning of the Middle Ages, now nearly a hundred years old, Huizinga describes what living in fifteenth-century Europe felt like: the darkness of winter, the disparity between sickness and health, the rawness of emotion, the bells that dominated the soundscape of every city and village. Liberated from the constraints of interpretation, Ankersmit suggests, experience can speak its own “language”. Indeed, he asserts that when one is engaged in narrating events, which is what historians do, the whole dimension of experience is suppressed: one cannot, in any given moment, both interpret the world and experience it. Cognition cancels sensation.
In historical experience, as I believe occurs in film, the past and the present come together, often for just fleeting moments. We, in the present, become totally absorbed in the past and see nothing else – we stare at the screen, registering our experiences – while the past remains impassive, unmoved by the encounter it forces on the present. This filmic state of mind corresponds to Ankersmit’s description of the ecstatic quality of historical experience:
Everything surrounding us in the present is pushed aside and the whole of the world is reduced to just ourselves in this specific memory – where the memory sees us, so to say, and we see only it. The past event in question can present itself with such an unusual intensity when it was in one way or another incompletely and not fully experienced when it actually took place: We finish, so to say, in the present a task that we had prematurely laid down in the past itself.¹
It is just such encounters that I seek to describe in Unspeakable Histories. Why do I focus on the catastrophic events of the 20th century? Because those events are still alive! Despite the passage of time, the gradual disappearance of witnesses, and all that historians have written, the Holocaust, Stalinist atrocities in the West and the East, the brutal Pinochet coup d’état, the Cambodian and Indonesian genocides are still massively unresolved. Not only for those who experienced them directly but for the generations that inherit them. Historically speaking, trauma is a social possession.
In A Film Unfinished Yaël Hersonski invites survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto into a screening room to watch footage of mass starvation in the ghetto shot by perverse Nazi propagandists. She thereby exposes them to images that burn away their defences and awaken living memory. The survivors feel both terror and desire, driven as they are to recover an unresolved traumatic past. We are unnerved by the gesture of one Jewish survivor, who covers her face with her hand when the images of the Warsaw of her childhood projected on the screen are not only brutal but entirely too close. Or consider an example of a more direct contact with the past. Hersonski gives us “portraits” in close-up of five Jewish men, painfully emaciated by starvation, photographed by the Nazi film crew as a sequence of mug shots: each face is presented in profile, then turns to stare into the camera. Hersonski intensifies each moment through slow motion cinematography: eyelids fluttering, the faces have a tragic passivity and they hold our gaze insistently. These faces could not have suspected our presence but they engage us: we look at them, they look at us. We in the present suddenly recognise the past.
As W.G. Sebald eloquently suggests, the past is not over and done with; it lies in wait for us. It is enough to enter a courtyard in Paris neglected by time to be struck by objects from the past that protrude into our present – this Sebald gives as an example of a triggering experience. The films I study are full of objects that trigger such uncanny moments: a desacralised monastic church alive with the spiritual yearnings of Polish officers held prisoner there; solitary women combing the Atacama desert for the bones of their massacred loved ones; the desolate walls and the neon lights of a Khmer Rouge prison; the rooftop terrace where Indonesian gangsters murdered countless victims by garrottage.
When evoking the history of mass killings, it is important to make the executioners speak. They often survive in greater numbers than the victims and are therefore key witnesses to genocidal events.
In the space that remains, I would like to discuss the work of two innovative documentary filmmakers whose films focus on genocidal events in the same region of the world: Cambodia and Indonesia. Both filmmakers address catastrophes that formed (and deformed) the history of a nation and remained largely unresolved at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Both horrendous events took place in the context of the Cold War and were impacted by American foreign policy and the War in Vietnam. Both films focus on the perpetrators of mass murder: the Khmer Rouge executioners (1975-1979) in the first, Rithy Panh’s S-21: the Khmer Rouge Killing Machine; and members of President Suharto’s death squads (1965-1966) in the second, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. Both filmmakers were intent upon recovering the experience of genocide from those who participated in committing it.
When evoking the history of mass killings, it is important to make the executioners speak. They often survive in greater numbers than the victims and are therefore key witnesses to genocidal events. It is also important to make the killer face his crime, which is not at all easy to do. Mass murderers in Cambodia, at the time of the filming of S-21, had not been brought to justice, and those in Indonesia continued to operate with impunity because the government cynically honoured them as anti-Communist heroes. But murder will out and guilt, however well repressed, is palpable in the behaviour of certain murderers. They feel compelled to speak about their crimes but they are also recalcitrant, torn as they are between the desire to rid themselves of the guilty symptoms that plague them and their terror at the prospect of reliving moments that their whole being labours to suppress.
Rithy Panh and Joshua Oppenheimer developed techniques for thwarting the perpetrators’ resistance to confession, two variants of what I call psychodramatic mise en scène. In S-21 Panh, the implacable director, invites several willing but nervous executioners to return to the Khmer Rouge prison where they tortured and murdered. The prison, the real setting of their acts, becomes a dramatic space in which the perpetrators rehearse for the camera the routines of their daily lives in the past. Panh doesn’t ask his subjects to act but simply to make the gestures they know so well. Under the pressure he exerts, the “characters” undergo moments of intense emotion in which they slip from the game of the present into the reality of the past.
Consider this brief example. The sequence takes place in the ghostly space of the prison. A young former guard, who as we have seen is particularly suggestible, moves down rows of imaginary prisoners shackled to palettes. He describes how he rattles the padlocks to test them, searches the pockets of prisoners for objects like pens with which they could open their veins or screws they could swallow to kill themselves. Then the guard unexpectedly shifts into direct speech: “‘On your feet! Hands up! You! Taking your shirt off? Without the guard’s permission? To hang yourself by your shirt! Give me that!” The speech may be the simple repetition of phrases the guard spoke in the past, but the violent anger he expresses is real.
Paradoxically, films that talk about the past in terms of emotion and sensation may have significant political objectives. Through an experience of the past, they reopen historical wounds.
To prepare for The Act of Killing Oppenheimer spent eight years in Indonesia. Like an ethnographer he insinuated himself into the life of a group of mass murderers, known as the “movie house gangsters” because they were in love with the Hollywood cinema and used a movie theatre as their headquarters. Oppenheimer approaches the group with an unusual proposal: he asks them to stage for the camera, with his “technical” assistance, the history of their “patriotic” acts. They will write the scripts, assume the principal roles, choose the costumes, lead the rehearsals – in short operate as metteurs en scène. The project clearly feeds into the gangsters’ fantasies: they stage scenes of torture in the manner of film noir, the heroic anticommunist struggle is set in landscapes and costumes that imitate the western, the gangsters’ apotheosis is choreographed and scored as if it were a musical. The result is something like a “making of”: we watch the rehearsals, the gangsters’ discussions of approaches, the interaction between Oppenheimer and his crew with the “first line” directors (the gangsters) as they review the rushes on a video monitor, and scenes of daily life on and off the set. However, enormous cracks begin to appear in the gangsters’ mise en scène, and that is what Oppenheimer is waiting for. He is particularly interested in an old gangster named Anwar Congo in whom he detects a sense of guilt that he maneuvers to bring to the surface. Consider this example: Anwar is seated in a throne-like chair reviewing on a video monitor the rushes of a scene of torture in which he plays the victim – a reversal of roles that Oppenheimer obviously manipulated. He invites his grandsons to sit on his lap to watch the realism of his performance. During the sequence on video Anwar has indeed lost it: his body, trembling with involuntary movement, expresses a sudden empathy for the victim whose place he has taken. We see Anwar, in the present, glance off-screen as he says: “…and then fear comes, right then and there. All the terror suddenly possesses my body.” A voice off-screen tells him: “Actually, the people you tortured felt far worse (Anwar looks stunned) because you know it’s only a film. They knew they were being killed.” Anwar replies: “But I can feel it, Josh (his face contorts and his eyes tear up). Is it all coming back to me? I hope it won’t. I don’t want it to, Josh.”
All the films I study in Unspeakable Histories derive their power from atomised moments when historical experience speaks directly and fleetingly of itself and nothing else. Unlike historical interpretation, these are not closed narratives nor are they openly discursive. Paradoxically, films that talk about the past in terms of emotion and sensation may have significant political objectives. Through an experience of the past, they reopen historical wounds. Speaking about the Holocaust, Frank Ankersmit put it this way: “There are wounds with which we should never cease to suffer, and sometimes, in the life of a civilisation, illness is better than health.”²
Featured image: Cambodia, Phnom Penh. 6/05/2002: Rithy Panh, documentary film director shooting movie on Cambodia memory at Tuol Sleng prison with former Khmer Rouge guards, interrogators and drivers. Photo courtesy: johnvink.com
William Guynn is professor emeritus of Art (Cinema) at Sonoma State University in California. He is the author of several books on nonfiction film, including A Cinema of Nonfiction, Writing History in Film, and Unspeakable Histories: Film and the Experience of Catastrophe, and editor of The Routledge Companion to Film History.
1. Sublime Historical Experience, Stanford: Stanford University 1 Press, 2005, p. 186-187.
2. Historical Representation, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001, p. 190.