From edition

Renate Kahlke, Understanding Genocide?: Western Cinematic Depictions of Rwanda and Bosnia


We must forge an unshakeable oath with all civilized people that never again will the world stand silent, never again will the world fail to act in time to prevent this terrible crime of genocide–Jimmy Carter.

Following the Nazi extermination of Jews before and during the Second World War, the US and other Western superpowers cried out “never again.” However, in Samantha Power’s words, “an epithet more apt in describing recent events than the oft-chanted ‘Never Again’ is in fact ‘Again and Again’” (“Never Again”). Following Jimmy Carter’s call for an “unshakeable oath,” the US has consistently failed to intervene even in the clearest case of genocide. If genocide is viewed as so much a universal evil as to receive a unanimous condemnation from the UN General Assembly (Power A Problem 54), then I wonder how the US and the rest of the West are framing cases of genocide in order to enable this non-interventionism? This question is particularly interesting, I think, in light of the fact that the spaces or nations that genocide takes place in and the national, ethnical, racial or religious groups subjected to and perpetrating genocide are extremely diverse. Despite the UN and Western powers’ claim to a universal global condemnation of genocide, the way in which genocide is approached and portrayed within the West is extremely varied: each case of genocide is represented differently and that representation relies heavily on the West’s historical imagination of race and space.

When Western filmmakers depict the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, occurring virtually at the same time, their films take on very different racially and spatially determined limitations and tropes. These differences, though there might be other factors at play, are activated largely because the genocides occur on opposite ends of the imperial spectrum. In the Bosnian case, the genocide happens within the historically imagined imperial ‘Self’ in that it occurs in Europe and its victims and perpetrators are white (Muslims and Croats are murdered by Orthodox Serb Christians). In the Rwandan case, the genocide takes place on the ground of the historically colonized ‘Other,’ within Africa, against black Tutsi victims and perpetrated by black Hutu genocidaires [1] of the army and militia Interahamwe. Of course, Eastern Europe’s inclusion in the image of the imperial ‘Self’ is only partial. In relation to imperial centers like England or France, Eastern Europe becomes very much the ‘dark’ Other. However, in terms of the larger imperial spectrum, where black Africa seems to constitute the absolute imperial Other, Eastern Europe moves drastically closer to the imperial Self since it is spatially located in Europe and inhabits a whiteness relative to the blackness of Africa. Evidence that these colonially charged spaces and races heavily influence how the West imagines these respective cases of genocide is readily available within Western filmic depictions of them. More specifically, filmmakers appear to be much more comfortable imagining the uncivilized (the necessary oppositional concept to Carter’s “civilized” intervention) and “terrible crime of genocide” (Carter) occurring in Africa than in Europe, where filmmakers often problematically avoid portraying genocide with a too-graphic reality. However, Western filmmakers’ depictions of genocide in both cases – that is, whether the genocide is graphically explicit or thinly veiled – operate in ways that enable, and in a sense forgive, the West’s persistently ‘broken promise’ of “never again” even though the mechanisms for this are very different in each case.

In depicting the Bosnian genocide this “broken promise” is particularly uncomfortable because the promise is to the imperial Self. Because that Self, implicitly and historically, equates to “civilized” in Carter’s statement, Bosnia operates as a “very real embarrassment” (Szeman) in that the ‘uncivilized’ and barbaric crime of genocide takes place within Europe. Thus, although war serves to mask genocide in both Rwanda and Bosnia (Fein 4) – the media often cite “tribal warfare” (Rwanda) or “ethnic/religious conflict” (Bosnia) – the desire to mask genocide by framing it as war is much more pronounced in films on Bosnia. The Bosnian genocide is less often framed as genocide with all of the seriousness that that type of atrocity demands. Instead, the Bosnian genocide is fitted nicely into pre-existing narrative frameworks for war. This type of appropriation of genocide as a plot point is particularly clear in the 2002 blockbuster, Behind Enemy Lines, and Michael Winterbottom’s 1998 Welcome to Sarajevo. However, the representation of the collective trauma of genocide as an exciting but generic action-packed blockbuster is obviously problematic. Though there is clearly no consensus on how a filmmaker should document genocide, that is, “film the unfilmable” (Onstad), it is clear that the Hollywood action film’s hero versus villain format of Behind Enemy Lines and Welcome to Sarajevo serves to violently marginalize and even disavow the Bosnian genocide by overwriting it.

Where individual heroes and villains are juxtaposed in Hollywood’s generic narrative structures like the action film, genocide is violently disavowed in that it disturbingly works only to further the plot and to affirm the hero as hero. As I have suggested, this is particularly the case in Behind Enemy Lines. American Navy pilot Chris Burnett is the clear and unproblematized – but obviously problematic – outside hero whose narrartive is written over the backdrop of the ‘far-away’ genocide in Bosnia. Burnette is shot down over the Bosnian demilitarized zone after taking aerial photos of Serb armed personnel, military vehicles and mass graves in the area. His partner, Stackhouse, is murdered by Serb forces in order to cover up this evidence of the renewed persecution and murder of Bosnian Muslims and Croats. While the Serbs attempt to hunt him down to get rid of the evidence, Burnett incidentally encounters first hand evidence that Bosnian Muslims and Croats are being murdered in the zone. However, the genocide, which is never named as such, operates as a mere plot device that motivates and legitimizes the American’s heroic quest to escape. Moreover, the unnamed genocide is not only secondary to Burnett’s story of escape, it is also secondary to the death of his partner. At the end of the film, Burnett vows to return with evidence of the death of Bosnian Muslims, not because “civilized people” have a global obligation to stop genocide, but as he hands the digital pictures of the genocide to his superiors, he explains his need to expose the genocide: “this is why they killed Stackhouse.” The film does not frame a global commitment to stopping genocide but a valorized and individual American quest for revenge and heroic escape that can end with some unproblematic notion of American success or victory. This way of depicting genocide easily transforms into a war narrative. The American ‘good guys’ are technologically equipped to fight the ‘enemy’ in Behind Enemy Lines. The bravery of the American hero and the war rhetoric at play then serve to simultaneously mask the genocide by making it a backdrop to the hero’s war narrative and to emphasize the American’s heroic victory in, presumably, stopping the genocide. This depiction of genocide serves to legitimize the West’s failure to act on the promise of ‘never again’ by both marginalizing the genocide’s occurrence and overemphasizing America’s belated, very limited and problematic intervention.

Likewise, Welcome to Sarajevo frames genocide in the context of a group of American and British reporters’ valorized journalistic quest. Like the American pilot of Behind Enemy Lines, the journalist-heroes are very much outside of the genocid
taking place. They
are citizens of the US and Britain and, like Burnette, they exist in a privileged position in that they always have a foreign home to which they can escape and a government that will facilitate this escape. Moreover, for the most part they remain within the ‘safe zone’ of Sarajevo. This is not to devalue the hardships of the Sarajevan siege – the constant missile and gunfire attacks, the lack of food and other necessities – but to point out that Sarajevo is one of the few areas in Bosnia that was not directly affected by the genocide. Thus, the presence of a ‘front line’ and the fact that Croats and Muslims in Sarajevo were not direct victims of genocide permit the war-framework to remain in place. Significantly, Welcome to Sarajevo incorporates footage of the genocide in an attempt to depict the gory and traumatic reality of genocide. Original documentary footage of a concentration camp and a massacred village are woven into the film. However, this attempt is undermined by the larger war rhetoric at play. Winterbottom shows the genocide footage, but then refuses to contextualize it: it is not revealed that the men behind the fence are not POWs but innocent Muslim and Croat genocide victims in a concentration camp. Likewise, the murdered villagers are simply gazed upon without examining the context of the massacre: the genocide of Muslims by Serb forces. In fact, the only mention of the potential genocide of Muslims comes as rather off-hand. When a bus full of child refugees is boarded by a Serb officer, the American aid worker tells him: “there are no Muslim children.” Without any other examination of the genocide, this comment, while rather revealing, can do nothing to expose the genocide as genocide. Ironically, the reporters’ quest to reveal the truth of the war to Western audiences serves more to veil the truth of genocide. Just as the reporters seek to capture the story of the ‘war,’ the film as a whole seeks to capture, as the DVDs jacket relates, “a gritty behind-the-scenes look at covering a war”. As in Behind Enemy Lines, the trauma of genocide is made secondary to a rather standard narrative about the heroism of certain American and British expatriates. Once again, genocide is inserted into a narrative about war and then appropriated as a mere backdrop on which Hollywood can play out its standard heroic action storylines: “fighter pilot escapes,” “journalist risks everything to get the story.”

This marginalization of the trauma of genocide through narrativization serves to sustain a political approach to genocide. In “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power reveals that US policy makers’ insistence that, in Bosnia, “there were various parties involved in the fighting; that there were people on all sides … that were doing bad things” (272, author’s emphasis) is part of an attempt to confuse and cover up the genocide so that the US, the UN and NATO could avoid fulfilling their self-proclaimed obligation to intervene in cases of genocide. This type of political avoidance also reveals the Western embarrassment over the fact that genocide can take place between white people and on European soil. Though it may be true that the Rwandan genocide is a clearer case of genocide – in that all Tutsis were targeted for extermination, whereas in Bosnia only Muslim men were systematically murdered and the aim may have been more to remove non-Serbs from the Balkans than to exterminate them completely – the calculated avoidance of even the word genocide in films on Bosnia is too much at odds with the much more graphic depictions of the Rwandan genocide for that to be the sole reason for the difference.

Instead, filmmakers’ approaches to the Rwandan genocide are consistent with the way in which Africa is imagined by the West within colonial and postcolonial discourse. In On the Postcolony, Achille Mbembe’s theories offer insight into both the nature of the West’s imagined Africa and how that imagination might enable filmmakers to take a close look at genocide and name it as such, rather than erasing and reformulating genocide as war. He writes: “it is this elementariness and primitiveness that makes Africa the world par excellence of all that is incomplete, mutilated, and unfinished, its history reduced to a series of setbacks of nature in its quest” (1) and

on the basis of a grotesque dramatization, what political imagination is in Africa is held incomprehensible, pathological, and abnormal. War is seen as all-pervasive. The continent, a great, soft, fantastic body, is seen as powerless, engaged in rampant self-destruction. Human action there is seen as stupid and mad, always proceeding from anything but rational calculation. (8)

Thus, because Africa is already imagined as naturally violent and pathological, it already exists as the perfect container for the Western imagination of genocide. The assumption that atrocities like genocide are somehow innate to Africa and Africans distances genocide enough to make it palatable to Western audiences; Africa is a lens through which atrocities can be viewed and reestablished as the actions of the Other. However, this distancing of atrocities like genocide is a false one. Obviously, violence is not inherent in or exclusive to Africa. This false distancing contributes to the Western discomfort with the Bosnian genocide: intense violence comes too close to a Eurocentered home.

Because Africa is a unique space where genocide can be depicted (and distanced), films on the Rwandan genocide are more often at pains to graphically ‘document’ the reality of genocide. At the end of Hotel Rwanda and the widely available documentary, Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire , the viewer is left with no doubt that the film is about genocide. Hotel Rwanda, takes up the ‘true story’ of Paul Rusesabagina (but, obviously, fictionalizes him) while UN commander in Rwanda Roméo Dallaire’s story makes the very explicit attempt to document his ‘real’ experience. This move toward the documentary mode in the most widely available films on Rwanda and the use of the action narratives in films about Bosnia reveals a larger trend that enables the revelation of genocide in Rwanda, while masking genocide in Bosnia. In the Rwanda films, unlike those about Bosnia, there are bodies, pervasive fear and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of impotence. Samantha Power is quoted by CBC as speculating that “in a way, Hotel Rwanda has both hero and happy ending, which is really historically anomalous” (Onstad). Katrina Onstad adds that “by definition, genocide (defined by the UN as certain acts ‘committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’) is the eradication of self, or selves, and therefore agency; it leaves almost no room for heroism.”   Power’s comment, I think, is extremely interesting when read alongside the feeling of impotence expressed by both Rusesabagina and Dallaire. Rusesabagina’s claim the he is “a fool,” gullible and betrayed by the white world, and Dallaire’s claim that he had failed in his mission in Rwanda, would appear to at least partially undermine Powers’ claim. Both characters claim a serious sense of emasculation and have only a very small amount of agency within the context of the Rwandan genocide. Of course, the heroes’ claims do not fully remove them from the position of ‘hero’ – in fact, such claims can even strengthen heroism through the romantic notion of the humble hero. In this sense, I think that Power is at least partially correct: Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager of Hotel Rwanda, and Roméo Dallaire, the UN commander in Rwanda are heroes, in the sense that they are consistently approached as men who have ‘taken a stand.’

However, I believe that Powers’ reading of Hotel Rwanda as portraying “the hero” (Onstad) doesn]]

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