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Thematic Essay: Documentaries and the Genocide Analogy

Thematic Essay Question: Can genocide be used in an analogous way in a documentary film?

There are a few things you’re just not supposed to do in this world. You don’t laugh at a funeral, you don’t take candy from a baby, and you most certainly don’t throw around the word “genocide,” particularly as associated with the Nazi Holocaust. Politicians attempting to make grand statements and emotional appeals have, again and again, landed themselves in hot water for comparing a perceived injustice to genocide or an arch nemesis to Hitler. Just do a Google News search on “genocide analogy” and you discover that Canadian Green Party leader Elizabeth May has been condemned for calling the Prime Minister’s passive policies on global warming to “Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of the Nazis” (Aubry), a national anti-abortion group is under fire for juxtaposing images of aborted fetuses with images from the Holocaust and the Cambodian genocide on the University of New Hampshire campus (Dorgan), and a Second Amendment advocate who argued that the Holocaust occurred because the Jews were not allowed to possess the weapons they required to protect themselves has been confronted with a storm of criticism at his university (Hiller).

This backlash against irresponsible attempts to exploit the intense sentiments evoked by the concept of genocide is certainly valid—it is extremely dangerous to cheapen the meaning of such a volatile word in the public eye when the repercussions of a loose definition in the legal and political realms hold life or death consequences in many corners of the world. It seems that there are two major questions built into the topic of this thematic essay. 1) Can documentaries make an analogy to genocide in a legitimate way that does not simply exploit, and therefore cheapen or denigrate, this protected term? 2) If the analogy is legitimate, is there any point to comparing something that is not genocide with genocide?

Is the documentary different in some way than the media featured in the anecdotes listed above? I would argue yes, most certainly. First of all, a documentary is not a flip or callous remark like the ones I cited. Even Michael Moore films show evidence that some thought and honest reasoning went into the construction of whatever argument they seek to make, whether the argument is valid or not. Genocide comparisons are most offensive when they temporarily seek to exploit the inflammatory nature of the word, but refuse to commit to their analogy in the form of a reasoned argument for their case. These cases look more like a temporary verbal hijacking or cooptation than a real comparison. An image of a dead fetus sitting next to one of a dead Holocaust victim seeks to dramatize and enhance the first image, but it ends up altering and ultimately cheapening the meaning of the second. It makes its point, then disappears from the discussion. What makes this use of the genocide comparison exploitative and illegitimate? I argue that the difference lies in the intention. If the intention is to stifle debate by using the forbidden word and thus casting all intellectual/political enemies under its shadow, then this is an illegitimate use of the genocide analogy. However, if the intention is to provoke discussion and serious thought, then this is a legitimate use of the genocide analogy. Note, I do not argue here that any legitimate use of the genocide analogy is necessarily valuable or relevant, but simply that it is possible.

Additionally, documentaries are inherently manipulative in a way that other media (e.g., non-fictional books and articles) cannot quite achieve and in a way that we do not permit them to be. This is not to say that books with a political aim do not also tell a highly biased narrative, or that they are not also edited to depict only realities conducive to the arguments they advance, but in the simplest terms, political documentaries own their viewers for a couple of hours while books are automatically more distant to their audiences because they do not directly approximate real life in the way that moving images do. We allow ourselves to be taken by the documentary, as it does not demand critique until the show is over. As Alex Gibney made clear in his presentation when addressing the use of reenactments in his documentary on torture, documentaries seek to make a point about certain experiential truths and not just empirical ones. They say “This is what it’s like to be x,” rather than “This is how it is to be x.” If they did not seek do achieve this emotional manipulation on some level, it would be difficult to justify the use of film as the primary medium.

Now what does this have to do with genocide analogies in documentaries? The qualities separating non-fictional film from non-fictional print are key to legitimizing the use of these analogies. Because the documentary is based almost entirely on metaphor and representation—the film itself is only a representation of the story it depicts—it can draw on the genocide parallel in a way that is legitimate in the sense that its purpose is artistic. It is designed to convey a similarity in experience, not necessarily in reality. When politicians utter the word casually or when non-fictional publications use it to illustrate a point that is presented as empirical, the rules against exploitation are a little different.

Now that I have suggested that documentary films can in fact use the genocide analogy in a “legitimate” way, I analyze the value of pursuing this path. In my view, documentaries based on a bad analogy are at least as bad as offensive or exploitative ones. Is there really a point to comparing something that is not genocide with genocide? I think the answer is almost always no. When we say that two things are similar, we rarely qualify what about them is alike (if everything about them were alike, they would be the same and it would be a statement of fact, not an analogy). Once we have identified this, the point on which they converge must be substantial and relevant for the political message at hand for this similarity to be meaningful in any way. To make a meaningful parallel, the film-maker must know his purpose. Not all things that appear similar are actually alike, and so the maker of the analogy must know beforehand exactly what aspects are alike and be certain that these are the most important ones. Genocide means many different things in different contexts, each of which demands a different level of specificity for a valid comparison. If the analogy is meant as legal commentary, it must be able to fit under the UN definition of genocide, which is based on the intentions underlying genocide. If it is meant as social commentary, it must be driven by the same social purposes and group dynamics as genocide. If it is meant as historical commentary, it must share certain driving forces, purposes, and underlying causes with genocide. Fully understanding what about a given subject resembles genocide is vital to making a comparison that is not superficial and therefore irrelevant.

The problem with trying to make the analogy relevant and interesting is that documentaries typically seek to liken social realities with the social purposes of genocide (e.g., the need to define “the other,” which is followed by fear of “the other,” etc.). But unlike historical analyses, which require a common driving force underlying the genocidal process, and unlike legal analyses, which require a common intention behind it, social analyses do not require as strict an adherence to the features we know to define genocide. Therefore, they resemble a lot of other things too. The genocide analogy is a slippery slope once its goal is simply to make people think, or to make them consider the social implications of certain policies, rather than to make a concrete argument stating that the intentions behind these policies are actually like those defining genocide. The argument then seems so unambitious that one has to wonder why the policy or social reality at hand was not compared to something other than genocide. In short, I believe it is very possible to use the genocide analogy in a legitimate way, but much more difficult to use it in a relevant and compelling way.

Although the genocide analogy as social commentary is most likely a dubious undertaking, some of what I have identified as its weaknesses may in fact highlight a much greater and more relevant point about the nature of genocide itself. In other words, the comparison between a social reality familiar to those in the audience and genocide does not seem to strengthen the argument that the social reality is like genocide without meeting standards that are virtually unattainable, but merely juxtaposing the two in a documentary may illustrate something about Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” concept. While thinking about the question at hand for this thematic essay, I came to the realization that my perceptions of genocide, at least in the sense of experiential truth, are largely shaped by documentaries depicting only the most dramatic and in-your-face elements, and not the subtler qualities that uncover some of genocide’s most dangerous and evil dimensions. Seeing a familiar phenomenon depicted with much the same intensity and in the same format as those documentaries centered around genocide may force viewers to consider the more banal and routine aspects of genocide itself. While it does not make the comparison any more relevant to the phenomenon under analysis, simply the use of the documentary as the medium of representation may inadvertently shed some light on the nature of genocide. In short, I believe that the genocide analogy can be legitimately used to depict social phenomena in a documentary, but that this is a tenuous undertaking if the aim is any more ambitious than capturing an experiential truth.

Works Cited:

Aubry, Jack. “May Unrepentant about Criticism.” Ottawa Citizen. May 1, 2007. http://www.canada.com/topics/news/politics/story.html?id=41a9655e-59c2-4ab0-a87a-4d18c0f67c3e&k=17322

Dorgan, Lauren R. The Concord Monitor. “Campus Reacts to Ghastly Images: Activists Compare Abortion, Holocaust.” April 10, 2007. http://www.concordmonitor.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070410/REPOSITORY/704100398/1043/NEWS01.

Hiller, Tim. “7 Degrees to Genocide.” The University of Maryland Diamondback. April 30, 2007. http://media.www.diamondbackonline.com/media/storage/paper873/news/2007/04/30/Opinion/7.Degrees.To.Genocide-2886810.shtml.

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