Humans and Human Rights through Documentary

I have always been a fervent advocate of human rights. During the Armenian Genocide of 1915, my great-grandparents were of the few who survived the terrible atrocities. I’ve read countless first-hand accounts of genocide survivors and actively studied contemporary genocide (Armenian Genocide, Holocaust, Rwandan Genocide, etc) through other means like film. As such, I was particularly captivated by Alain Resnais’ 1995 film “Night and Fog.” What I love most about this showing was its ability to capture so much into a mere 35 minutes. Although I didn’t really like the form of commentary provided, seemed antiquated from today’s perspective, I did think the camera work was brilliant in some focal scenes. For instance, when the camera faces the man on the bunk with his eyes wide open and we, the audience, are told that it is often difficult to discern whether a man is alive or dead the image of the bunk man is disturbing–we wonder whether a hopeless man is staring at us through the lens or whether in fact his body is lifeless.

The film also seemed to flow through the images. The modern footage and old time footage did not confuse me as a viewer. I compare this to “1915”, a 2015 documentary on the Armenian Genocide. In this film, I thought the storyline bounced around so much between possible plots and settings that it was difficult to understand the importance of the story. “Night and Fog” seemed to me concentrated more on the power of emotion–it showed the brutalities of the Holocaust in images and videos that provoked strong feelings of disbelief and shock. We come to understand more about the Holocaust by becoming emotional witnesses to the events.

This contrasts the form of documentation by “Hotel Rwanda” which is a much more fact-focused film and an adaptation of real events. “Hotel Rwanda” is, in my opinion, one of the best documentaries created about genocide. Based on a true story, it creates a plot line that helps the audience identify with the Rwandan struggles and come to a better understanding of the genocide through actual understanding of the events and hardships between the Hutus and Tutsis. “Hotel Rwanda” sentimentally reaches the viewers through developed connection to the characters while “Night and Fog” cuts into emotions more bluntly and straight away through graphic scenes.

In studying genocide, I’m not sure which sort of film creation I would prefer, but I do think both provide crucial perspectives to the study of human rights. Is it better to explore the truth through real footage we have? Or is it better to create an adaptation of the truth through wholistic research of various forms of evidence (using books, journals, audio tapes, etc to develop the film)?

Moreover, I found fascinating Rebecca Solnit’s illustration of freedom through technology in “River of Shadows.” When she spoke of railroads and effects of obscuring the challenges of distance, I thought of my studies in African history where I recently analyzed the role of railways in Africa. In the U.S. the road construction allows for fast, cheap transportation of goods and the connection of vastly different parts of the country into one; however, in Africa railroads drove out indigenous routes of trade and instead replaced them with tracks leading to international, European trading ports. Thus, while expediting trade and facilitating Eur-African relations, railroads actually brought forth the demise of long-withstanding inter-African connections. I think Solnit glorifies railroads and other technologies a bit too hastily without considering their consequences. Yes, much of the world as we know it today wouldn’t have been possible without technological infrastructure, but of course as with most things there are consequences.

I did, however, very much enjoy Solnit’s connection of photography and railroads and especially her note of the paradox: “a technological breakthrough for holding onto the past, a technology always rushing forward, always looking backward” (Solnit 15). I thought this passage in particular was extremely relatable to the documentaries of “Night and Fog” and “Le Joli Mai” (by Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme) in that it preserves the past and our memory of it while allowing us to use it to move forward. In the first, the depiction of the Holocaust demonstrates the necessity of film. For most people around the world, the atrocities experienced during this time cannot be imagined. Thus, simply reading about the Holocaust and studying it through other means isn’t necessarily the best way to completely understand the time.  What I mean to say is that we better understand humans through visualization. This may seem to take away from imagination but it’s not always a bad thing. Our imagination extends itself from our experiences so if we are learning about something we’ve never experienced then we can’t just imagine it. As I discussed before, the way the film captured the moments, the faces of both victims and perpetrators gives us deeper insight on human nature. I think especially the camera work flashing back and forth through time allows us to come back and forth into reality–this gives the film a feel of realness in that we don’t feel like there is a time barrier between us and the events.

In Le Joli Mai, on the other hand, I marveled at how the filmographer carefully constructed and preserved the experiences of the people. From the beginning, the dancing scene puts you right in speaker’s ideas about music and dance. We are thus able to feel his passion through the camera’s angle (in the middle of the dance floor) that makes us feel as if we are too part of the dance. Throughout the film, we encounter various Parisians in their normal settings with the capture of unfiltered thoughts about politics, economics, or just everyday life. The camera, as during the scene where some Frenchmen speak about the electricity strike, focuses on the faces of people in the scene–not just the speaker’s face, that is, but also those around him, allowing us to better feel the emotions around. To me, I found this in some sense similar to Paul Virilio’s depiction of the mass production of aerial photographs. While completely different in context, in both ways, we are able to gain a new logistic of perception. Through film, we gain an understanding of humans and human nature while through aerial photography we can learn not just about war and the “deadly harmony between the functions of eye and weapon” but also further our knowledge on archeology, cartography, movie production, environmental studies, etc (Virilio 83). In this manner, Le Joli Mai and “War and Cinema” come together to teach us something more about the world as we know it.


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