Film and Media: Through and Beyond the Senses – Editorial

Małgorzata Radkiewicz, Marta Stańczyk

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 1.


Małgorzata Radkiewicz

Jagiellonian University


Marta Stańczyk

Jagiellonian University




Film and Media: Through and Beyond the Senses


The annual NECS conference that took place in June 2017 addressed the topic: Sensibility and the Senses. Media, Bodies, Practices. The program included diverse perspectives and subjects of research, showing different attitudes and exploring various fields of studies. Many of them still need to be explored and examined in detail, which poses a huge challenge for researchers dealing with film and various media.

Both theory and practice of film and media deal with such issues as perception, interaction, and involvement through human body and senses. Contemporary theory has turned toward embodiment as a major “figure of thought” and as the main mode of cognition. However, approaching visual culture and its various devices (analogue, electronic, digital ones) only through senses may not be sufficient in the era of post-humanity and dynamic technological development. Moreover, hybridization and specialization of media bring up questions and challenges that make us go beyond human senses and their limitations.

Preparing the following issue of “TransMissions”, we combined paper that examine various theoretical approaches to sensual perception and sensory experience of film, photography and media. All authors tried to explore either new possibilities of creation and usage of film and media or of analysis and interpretations, in terms of phenomenology, affects, prosthetic memory etc. Each paper, in different ways, shows that the new phenomena of media communication must be followed by both analytical and critical theoretical reflections that will address complex issues of relations between media and (non)human sensual organs.



The body of the viewer and immersive audio-visual art. The somatic character of new Japanese experimental film

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 27-42.


Agnieszka Kiejziewicz
Jagiellonian University




The body of the viewer and immersive audio-visual art. The somatic character of new Japanese experimental film



The author of this article aims at presenting the somatic character of the audiovisual experiments created by the Japanese directors after the year 2000. Focusing on their postulates, stating that the experimental film should “touch the viewer” and can “be felt,” the author analyses the chosen installations, audiovisual performances and screenings to show how the corporeality of the spectator becomes a part of the film. Moreover, the artists discussed in this article employ different methods of creating the somatic character of their works. The author mentions such artists as Takashi Makino, Rei Hayama, Kazuhiro Goshima and Ai Hasegawa, especially emphasizing the techniques they use to contemplate the possibilities of interacting with the body of the viewer. They combine live music and projection of audio-visual materials on several surfaces, edit the filmed sequences during the screening, depending on the reactions of the public, and prepare the viewer to understand the installations by providing them with elaborate technical descriptions or dilemma charts. In the presented article, the author reconsiders the meaning of the appearance of the viewer for the new Japanese experimental filmmakers, wondering why the directors are playing with the boundaries of audience’s understanding and are balancing between offering a comforting audiovisual spectacle and disturbing the viewer’s perception.


Keywords: Japanese audiovisual experiment, new avant-garde, Takashi Makino, Rei Hayama, Kazuhiro Goshima, Ai Hasegawa


The directors of new Japanese experimental film, a phenomenon that has developed rapidly since 2000[1], are primarily focused on the viewer’s perception and their place in the process of “being touched” by the work of art[2]. They wish to influence the observer, initiate changes in their perception (for example, opening them up to new forms of visual art), and underline the significance of “feeling the film.”[3] Here, the main concern of the artists is, using terminology introduced by Luke Hockley in his Somatic Cinema[4], “the body of the viewer.” This means that screenings of their films (or displays of audio-visual installations in galleries), are designed to be perceived by all of the senses, to immerse the viewer into the audio-visual spectacle. They are often accompanied by ‘dilemma charts’, instructions, to-do lists and models that can be touched, or surroundings to be discovered. The corporeality of the observer becomes a part of the performance – one of the elements of the scenography, a lens filtering the picture, or even another screening surface.

The artists discussed in this analysis employ different means of fulfilling these schemes. For example, Takashi Makino combines live music and projection of audio-visual materials on several surfaces with simple 3D technique, called Pulfrich effect. Moreover, Hayama and Makino edit the filmed performances during the screening, depending on the reactions of the public and their personal feelings. Kazuhiro Goshima[5], another artist covered in this article, prepares the viewer to understand his installation by providing them with complex technical descriptions to be learned before the performance/screening. Ai Hasegawa[6], a biologist and computer graphics animator, even invites the viewer to contemplate the possibilities of their body. By offering false biological theories supported by convincing audio-visual material, anatomic models and dilemma charts, Hasegawa invites the viewer to undertake a game of imagining possible future scenarios for humankind. According to the artists, their works – using Hockley’s words to summarize the aims of the new generation of experimental audio-visual directors – are designed to enable the viewer to “experience the immersive qualities that are part of cinematic experience.”[7]

Moreover, the somatic character of the majority of the new Japanese audio-visual experiments can be made even more visible by comparing the directors’ achievements and goals with Hockley’s theory. He points out that experimental film often manifests “the shift from considering ‘viewer, screen’ and instead asserts the primacy of the ‘viewer-screen’ paradigmatic relationship as the key way through which to better understand the cinematic experience.”[8] In the optics of representatives of the new Japanese experimental movement, accepting the leading role of this new relationship allows for focussing on – again using Hockley’s term – “mindfulness.” If understood as “a practice of bringing one’s attention to bear on the present moment,”[9] it situates the process of the viewer gaining awareness (of their body or another aspect chosen by the artist) in the center of the artistic pursuits of the Japanese experimental directors. Writing about the somatic aspects of cinema, Hockley proposes perceiving film as “a type of transitional object”[10] and cinema as a “transitional phenomenon” . This corresponds with the point of view of moving pictures manifested by the directors[11]. For example, Takashi Makino perceives the moment of screening as a “creative collaboration with filmmaker and audience, in which each act of watching gives birth to a new cosmos”[12], and as “an act of true creativity.”[13] In his view, a film screening can initiate the process of transition of the viewer from one mental state to another – designed by, or at last expected, the director.

In considering the boundary-breaking works of this young generation of Japanese directors and their creative approaches to inter-media concepts, as well as their fascination with new technologies, their work can also be classified as “expanded cinema.”[14] Introducing Le Grice’s definition[15], it can be seen that these new Japanese experiments expand the boundaries of film and performance, going further than the experimental artists of Japan’s 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. After the year 2000, the ‘expanded’ character of the new wave of Japanese experimentation is intangibly connected to the emergence of new technologies, such as computer processing of images or the use of 3D. However, although primarily aimed at offering an experience distinct from live-action popular films[16], this expansion is often created with consideration of the position of the viewer.

This article will examine how these award-winning Japanese artists of the new avant-garde movement invite the viewer to immerse themselves in their installations and screenings, to transgress the boundaries of the body, religion and political views, and contemplate “film as a film.”[17] The audio-visual installations described in this article were chosen from different thematic areas, and represent artists with diverse views on the problem of the somatic character of their works. However, they all share the same approach to developing the concept of the new avant-garde movement, agreeing that the need to immerse the viewer should shape their artistic pursuits.

Toward The Tactile Visions

After several solo projects and collaborations with people from outside the world of art[18], members of the Collective [+] group[19] Rei Hayama and Takashi Makino decided to work together. This resulted in an audio-visual performance they call Toward The Tactile Visions[20]. The project, which had two screenings (the first in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on May 12th 2018, and the second in Bangkok on May 15th 2018[21]), workshops and meetings with audiences, was put together with Arnont Nongyao[22] and curated by Pathompong Manakitsomboon. Toward The Tactile Visions was designed to bring together the areas of interests of the artists to create an inter-medial experience for the viewer.

Here, it is worth mentioning the objectives and backgrounds of the artists before we present, later on, the connections between their different styles. Rei Hayama[23] studied at the Department of Moving Images and Performing Arts at Tama Art University,[24] but her films have also been screened abroad, including in the Netherlands, Slovakia, Germany, Belgium, and the USA[25]. Hayama’s films are deeply inspired by her childhood memories of living in a forest with her parents, where she was able to experience close contact with nature and observe the life cycles of particular species. She was inspired by birds the most, so in her films one can find many references to these “mysterious creatures,”[26] as she calls them. Hayama connects the creative process to her moods, describing it in this way: “I’m making films like making a forest. This is what I feel through my creative thought process; the feeling tells me how the fiction and reality is like a house and nature, and how we traverse between these two worlds again and again.”[27] The core concept of Hayama’s pictures is the act of transformation (often into a bird)[28], but she also references other symbolic figures: men, children, memory and nature. The filmmaker uses them to explain the relations between technological development and the longing for the past, when people existed closer to nature[29]. What’s more, the artist claims to take the perspective of “a bird’s-eye view,”[30] which she explains in her manifesto: “[…] I think about the thing that has been lost or neglected from an anthropocentric view of the world. I attempt to fall off from the arbitrary illusion of human’s »height«, transport nature into the space of human’s thought by the temporal art that makes time for thinking about what we are, and what is the relationship between human and others. My works are based on an allegorical plot, and it told by poetic writings and symbolical images such as recorded body action. There are some key factors often appear in work such as bird’s eye viewpoint, forest, pretend (play), the non-human leading character.”[31] In this case, it can be seen that Hayama seeks to avoid the anthropocentric point of view and gives voice to the animals instead, in an attempt to deliberate their gaze upon the human world[32].

In contrast to Rei Hayama, Takashi Makino[33] rejects decipherable visual forms and symbols, focusing on the abstract. He debuted in 2004 with a short film, EVE, which pointed the way ahead for the artist’s further development. As the filmmaker has indicated, he is searching for the best and most intimate way to show the tremendous character of the cosmos and make the liminal experience of ‘touching the void’ as palpable as possible. Makino’s pursuits stem from an accident he suffered when he was young, and a series of visions he then experienced. Subsequently, he found that film works for him as a tool for explaining his feelings, and similarly to Hayama, bring back memories and make them accessible to viewers[34]. To create, as he calls it, the “perfect film,”[35] Makino tests the viewer’s ability to understand his experimental visions of whirling shapes and colours. While explaining his choice of the artistic means, the director observes: “None of the creatures that exist in the world are born of their own volition; when they first achieve awareness, they find themselves adrift in chaos. It is only by creating cosmos that they are able to overcome the fundamental meaningless and fear of existence”[36].

The third member of the Toward The Tactile Visions project, Arnont Nongyao, experiments with the connections between sound and moving pictures, and considers film as an illustration of sound. Nongyao is a debutant, who had his first solo exhibition, entitled Another Sound, at the beginning of 2018[37]. As he describes his own objectives, his main aim is “exploring an approach to communications and the concept of life passing-on through sonic and visual mediations.”[38] Nongyao contributed to Toward The Tactile Visions mostly by adding sound to the filmed footage, using his previous experience of working on Another Sound. On the project, he considered sound samples to be a unique language that helped him communicate with his fellow artists, getting around the Thai/Japanese language barrier that forced them to communicate through experimental compositions[39]. It’s worth indicating that Nongyao’s performances are very similar to Makino’s: he shows films, mostly of whirling shapes and colours, on surfaces other than normal screens, accompanied by live music. The artist also works with scripts that can be modified on the fly during the screenings, based on live observation of the audience’s reactions.

The pictures and sounds included in the final version of Toward The Tactile Visions clearly bear a resemblance to previous works by Hayama, Makino and Nongyao individually. As the artists indicate on the event’s Facebook page[40], they aim to show the relationship between the medium and the emergence of “the consciousness and awareness of cinema as the real cinematic event.”[41] They also emphasise that contact with experimental/expanded cinema “contaminates”[42] the viewer – creating the ability to connect his body to the sound and image he experiences. Toward The Tactile Visions was designed with the purpose of teaching audiences about the diversity of possible cinematic forms that differ from narrative cinema. In their description, the artists also use the term “to touch” experimental cinema, and this idea underlines the somatic character of their work.

The first screening took place at Chiang Mai University Art Center, with the venue being a giant white cube that allowed the artists to project the films on every wall in the room. Later, the group discussed how the location significantly influenced the way they modified the event, and how the screening itself went totally differently than the second one in Bangkok. Apart from the displays of cameras and musical instruments placed around the venue, other items related to the film were set out. Among these were branches without leaves, specially prepared by Hayama to underline the theme of nature in the film. Moreover, the artists used their bodies as parts of the scenography, freely moving around the white cube and casting shadows on the screens. Some of the images in the film are Makino’s ‘noisy supernovas’ – colourful collages, changing from deep rose to blue, or light dots moving down the screen. Between the whirling abstractions, various distorted, enlarged shapes of recognisable items emerge, such as parts of plants, tools, animals and even people recorded during their daily routines. It is significant here that the artists are visible to the viewers throughout the screening, sometimes even stepping in front of the screen, continuously engaged in the process of creating the performance. It is worth noting that because of the shape of the venue, the second screening at the Alliance Française center in Bangkok was restrained to one big screen, with some additional effects projected onto the walls closest to the screen. Explaining the differences between two venues and their influence on the project, Hayama observed:

“At Alliance Française center, we did perform at the normal cinema. It was a very interesting contrast to our previous performance at Chiang Mai University. At Alliance Française center, we felt sort of limitation of the space for our performance because the space is well designed for screening cinema. In the end, we decided to add two small stand screens on both sides of the main screen. I put one guitar in front of the main screen, and the long strip of clear 16mm film was going through the string. The film strip was run through the middle of the audience to where the projector set and kept making a sound of the guitar. (At Chiang Mai University, I set the black film strip went through the tree branch instead of the audience. And the tree gradually made a scratch on the film during the performance.) Their audience could hear the image and see the sound. It also made the audience noticed the film and the situation of cinematic space.”[43]

The postulate of allowing the viewer to ‘touch’ the film was also fulfilled in another significant way. A projector was pointed at the audience, displaying images on the backs of the viewers’ heads and faces, making another screen out of their skin. As such, observers were also able to follow the images on their bodies and the bodies of the other audience members. The immersive character of the screening was reinforced by this attempt to make the viewer the center of the picture, liberating the picture from the confines of screens. The colours and movements of the projected images let the audience feel as though they were floating in a sea of pictures.

In Toward The Tactile Visions, these three artists came together to merge the styles and objectives known from their previous works. The visual collages of Makino, the focus on the environment and living creatures of Hayama, and the search for experimental sounds by Nongyao, were all brought together to fulfil the postulates of haptic cinema.

This May not be a Movie

Kazuhiro Goshima[44] began his film experiments slightly before the increase in popularity of this kind of artistic activity that occurred in 2000[45]. This visual creator debuted as a freelance media content designer in the mid-1990s, but soon gave up the commercial market and devoted himself to new forms of expression as an experimental filmmaker[46]. In his work, Goshima is mostly focused on the role of light and shadow, which in his hands shape not only recognizable images but also have the power to make their surroundings come alive. For example, in his 2013 Shadowland, the shadows are the “breath of the city” that gives the metropolis its unique identity[47]. From early on, Goshima has also been interested in playing with viewer’s perceptions. Using sudden close-ups and sudden disappearances of objects[48], experimenting with movement and the viewer’s position[49], or connecting sounds with blurry pictures, he makes audiences guess the final shape of the presented scene[50]. However, even though Goshima has been busy deliberating on the position of the viewer from the beginning, his first work engaging the viewer’s body could be said to have a somatic character, and appeared in his portfolio in 2014. This is an audio-visual installation entitled This May not be a Movie.

Analysing Goshima’s film, it is worth starting with Le Grice’s article Problematising the Spectator’s Placement in Film[51], which launched a polemic against Christian Metz’s paper The Imaginary Signifier[52]. Le Grice comments on the theoretical approach Metz manifests toward the role and condition of the viewer of experimental film. Following Metz’s findings, Le Grice focuses on the mechanisms of identifying viewers, while encountering (using Metz’s terminology) “inhuman sequences” in avant-garde films that “eliminate the portrayed character or even eliminate all photo-recording.”[53] He makes the observation (which could be useful when analysing Goshima’s films), that viewers might “identify with the camera.”[54] He says that this means identification with the mechanism, as well as the “authority behind the narrative order.”[55] Nevertheless, Le Grice tries to explain the place (and situation of the body) of the viewer trying to understand experimental films in which there are no narrative patterns visible. He concludes that “[…] it is necessary to assume that the spectator must produce an auditory and specular construction for the film which is not directly that of the film presented – the spectator must be expelled from the film text in order to produce the conceptual construct as an act of the symbolic.”[56]

The situation of the viewer explained above seems to describe the shape of the projection and the viewer’s identification process, as designed by Goshima in This May not be a Movie. Here, Goshima raises the question of what a film is, and at which point the viewer starts perceiving the sequence of moving pictures as a consistent film production[57]. As he pointed out in an interview for The Japan Times[58], he used the Japanese term dōga, translated into English as ‘movie’, ‘film’, ‘motion picture’, or even ‘cinema’. However, in the Japanese language dōga is comparable to the term eiga (which also translates as ‘film’). It is thus perceived as meaning ‘motion picture’ – expressing different content and emphasising that the work, as Goshima sees it, is “composited from still frames.”[59] Explaining the reasoning behind his work, the author says: “When you think about the fuzziness of meaning of the wider application of eiga in its broad conceptual sense, you realize that it is the product of multiple mechanisms. I created one mechanism that pushes it to its limit in one direction, and by doing so I hoped to expand the breadth of its conceptualization. That’s why although the title is »This May Not Be a Movie«, its real message is »It’s possible to alter the meaning of ‘movie’ any number of times«.”[60]

This May not be a Movie is in fact an audio-visual installation, built out of screens, fibre-optic cables, a lattice, am image sensor and a movie camera, situated in the center of a small room. For their first glimpse, it gives viewers no hints about its purpose or the meaning of the images displayed. The blurry, colourful images on the screen are pictures of several hundred lines of light that appear after changes in the brightness of each pixel on a piece of 4×5 inch film[61]. This is accompanied by an explanatory movie[62], from which the viewer can learn that behind the displayed images are the simple sequences of a Japanese man waving two white flags, running or riding a bicycle, as well as three people walking. This technical addendum explains the technological process and allows viewers to better understand the concept. However, it is impossible to fully experience the installation, as well as depict its meaning, without engaging with these additional materials. Here, Goshima seeks to show the viewer how the optical illusion of seeing a film works, stating that the amount of information the observer receives “exceeds the reality.” The director states that such experimental art can power the imagination and leave room for new interpretations of the objects so viewed. In this case, he re-examines the relationship between the viewer’s perception and the medium, focusing on the lack of identification of the observer with the presented pictures. Instead, he offers a pure description of the technological process, which reveals the boundaries of the viewer’s perceptions and its constraints. It can be stated that the center of Goshima’s installation is not the process itself, but the observer, whose body receives a new position – an imperfect lens that distorts the original picture.

The Mother of species

The last project described in this article was designed by Ai Hasegawa, a biologist and visual creator, who speculates on possible future scenarios and combines audio-visual art with her scientific background. So far, Hasegawa has presented such installations as the widely-discussed (Im)possible Baby[63], and The Extreme Environmental Love Hotel[64], in which she tackles socially important topics such as biotechnological modifications to human genomes, and environmental issues. Similar themes also appear in her 2013 installation I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin[65].

The artist approaches issues of overcrowding, overdevelopment, and environmental crisis through presentation of an alternative, even grotesque form of human reproduction – delivery of  endangered species[66]. Giving birth to animals (such as a dolphin, tuna or shark) could, according to Hasegawa’s speculation, satisfy humankind’s need to reproduce, as well as its need for nutrition[67]. The idea for her I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin audio-visual installation emerged when the artist turned thirty and she started thinking about having her own children. In an interview for an online magazine, Shift, she said that “I had turned 30, and was at an age when I would have to seriously think about having children. At the same time, there was a lot of news coverage surrounding environmental issues. Such news reports made me think about overpopulation and the food problem, and I thought, »are more humans necessary? Would children be happy being forced into this deteriorating world?«” In this case, it can be pointed out that I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin was a result of the author’s consciousness of her bodily changes, and a need for sharing that awareness with a broader audience.

As an example of an ideal species for becoming a human baby, the artist chose the Maui’s dolphin, which has the right size to be grown in a human placenta. Combining a highly suggestive fragment of film showing the birth of a dolphin and its first moments, with footage of a human mother and a model of a placenta displayed next to the screen, Hasegawa tricks the viewer into considering the possibility of the depicted situation. The scientific descriptions that accompany the screening seem to suggest the possibility of the process, further legitimized by technical details[68]. What’s more, the author presents a ‘dilemma chart’ and invites the viewer to consider whether they would like to deliver an endangered species. It’s worth pointing out that the project asks the question from a non-western, non-male perspective, which fact was especially praised by the jury of the 2014 Core 77 Design Awards[69]. The dilemma chart that accompanies the film is designed for female viewers to follow,[70] and in doing so imagine themselves in the situation presented on the screen. Here, the observer, tricked by the mock technical details designed to convince viewers of the truth presented on-screen, is invited to reconsider the abilities of their body. Moreover, the artist questions the motivation and morality of the viewer in imagining the possibility of giving birth to an endangered species, only to eat it for its unique, luxury meat. It is significant that while approaching the installation in the exhibition space, the viewer is not informed that the dolphin is a robot (and that the whole birthing process is simulated by an actress). The simulation is also enhanced with various graphic details, such as blood filling the birthing pool.

Following the primary aim of expanded cinema, Hasegawa pushes the boundaries of the relationship between audiences and audio-visual material, as well as encouraging immersion in the projection and a response to questions of a moral and even religious character. Here, the body of the viewer is a transmitter of meanings, which seems to be perfectly illustrated by a quotation from Vivian Sobchack’s Carnal Thoughts: “the film experience is meaningful not to the side of our bodies, but because of our bodies. Which is to say that movies provoke in us the »carnal thoughts« that ground and inform more conscious analysis.”[71]


The appearance of the body of the viewer – exposed to a cacophony of sounds, colours and the insecurity resulting from seeing controversial or thought-provoking content – becomes the reason for creating such encounters in moving pictures as those presented by the Japanese experimental directors discussed in this article. They are checking the boundaries of audiences’ understanding, continuously balancing between shocking and comforting them. What’s more, the artists are often genuinely interested in receiving feedback from their audiences, and they collect opinions on the emotional states the viewers reached during the screenings – becoming something like researchers on human perception. The somatic character of these new Japanese audio-visual experiments could be a subject of further interest, as these three directors at least are not stopping pursuing new methods of fulfilling their postulates. As such, it can be assumed that in the next few years the list of experiments, following their achievements presented in this article, will be expanded.



これは映画ではないらしい THIS MAY NOT BE A MOVIE, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4i-3Pc6nCE&feature=youtu.be, date accessed 17 June 2018 [Kazuhiro Goshima’s technical details explanation film].

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Arnont Nongyao, http://www.arnontnongyao.com/arnontnongyao.com/Another_Sound.html, date accessed 15 June 2018.

C77DA, http://designawards.core77.com/Speculative-Concept/48066/Im-possible-Baby, date accessed 14 June 2018.

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Kiejziewicz Agnieszka, „Wybrane aspekty rozwoju nowego japońskiego kina eksperymentalnego po 2000 roku na przykładzie twórczości Kazuhiro Goshimy”, Zeszyty Naukowe Towarzystwa Doktorantów Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego. Nauki Humanistyczne 17:2 (2017), pp. 7-19.

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[1] The new Japanese experimental film movement first emerged in 2000 as a continuation of the artistic attempts of previous generations of Japanese independent filmmakers. Artists such as Rei Hayama, Takashi Makino, Shinkan Tamaki, Kazuhiro Goshima and others not mentioned in this article, all wanted to revive the artistic means that seemed to have long disappeared since the video revolution of the 1980s, and the development of multiplex cinema in Japan in the 1990s. For more on the subject, see for example: Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, “The technologies of experimental Japanese filmmakers in the digital era”, Transmissions: the Journal of Film and Media Studies 1:1 (2016), pp. 99-114.

[2] See: Takashi Makino (ed.) Plus Documents 2009-2013, (Tokyo: Engine Books) (2014), pp. 4-7, 14. In a manifesto published by Collective [+], together with a short lexicon of their works, the artists underline the importance of influencing the viewer and inviting them to contemplate experimental and expanded works. Explaining the purposes of their artistic pursuits, the artists often use the phrase “to touch the viewer” – relating the act of communication between the creator and the observer to senses other than sight.

[3] See: Marianne Shaneen, “Takashi Makino’s 2012”, BOMB – Artist in Conversation Magazine 130 (2015), http://bombmagazine.org/article/2000042/takashi-makino-s-em-2012-em, date of access 13 June 2018. Summarizing Makino’s aims and achievements, Marianne Shaneen observes that Makino describes the screenings as “creative collaboration with filmmaker and audience”. Also, she points out that his art is “[…] an embodied, perceptual engagement with the continually transforming materiality […]” which generates “sensations of sublime transcendence—an inspiring model for experiencing everyday realities, as well as cinematic ones”.

[4] Luke Hockley, Somatic Cinema: The relationship between body and screen – a Jungian perspective, (New York: Routledge) (2014), p. 1.

[5] The artist’s website, see: Kazuhiro Goshima, http://www.goshiman.com/hp/04profile_e.html, date accessed 28.03.2016.

[6] The artist’s website, see: Ai Hasegawa, http://aihasegawa.info/, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[7] Luke Hockley, p. 6.

[8] Luke Hockley, p. 7.

[9] Luke Hockley, p. 7.

[10] Luke Hockley, p. 7.

[11] In the optics of the Japanese experimental artists discussed herein, the transitional character of cinema is related to the postulate that a film screening should change the viewer – develop their perception, initiate metaphysical reflection upon reality and teach them to read the meaning behind the experimental forms. As Takashi Makino points out: “While the audience experiences the film’s visual and sonic display, nonetheless, they are free to dwell into their own imagination. What fascinates me most about film expression is the potential for what is presented on the screen to collide with each individual viewer’s emotional landscape, and the new ‘image’ created inside the viewer’s mind resulting from this collision.” More, see: Makino Takashi, http://makinokino.exblog.jp/, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[12] Marianne Shaneen.

[13] Marianne Shaneen.

[14] Malcolm Le Grice, Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age, (London: Palgrave) (2001), p. 273.

[15] Malcolm Le Grice, pp. 273-274. Le Grice offers the following definition of expanded cinema: “The concept of Expanded Cinema was part of this [during the 1960s – author] general move by artists to break old artistic boundaries, explore cross-media fusions, and experiment with new technologies but, most importantly, to challenge the constraints of existing art discourses.”

[16] Makino states that Hollywood films predetermine certain images should be perceived – for example, those rendered in 3D. According to him, experimental cinema can offer an individual approach to the viewer that doesn’t determine the patterns of their reception; therefore it stands against mainstream cinema. For more, see: Ross Julian, “Interview: Takashi Makino”, Filmcomment (2014), http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-takashi-makino/, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[17]See: Malcolm Le Grice, p. 275.

[18] For example, Takashi Makino has worked with musicians and composers, such as Jim O’Rourke. Moreover, Hayama was often accompanied by her sister, who helped with filming natural landscapes (for example, in the film Their Bird [2010-2012, 8 mm film and video, 13 min]).

[19] Currently, [+] is working more as a screening organizer group, not a group of artists pursuing the similar aesthetic objectives. For the project Toward The Tactile Visions, Hayama and Makino collaborated as individual artists, not the members of [+], what seems to be significant from the point of view of the mentioned directors. That decision of creating an independent project had not only the financial implications, but also allowed inviting Arnont Nongyao to the joint project.

[20] The only public information about the project was published on the Facebook event’s site. See: Toward the Tactile Visions, https://web.facebook.com/events/2087048401511185/, date accessed 10 June 2018 [event’s webpage].

[21] Excerpts from video recordings of the performances can be checked out on the Internet, see: Toward the Tactile Visions, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcglLozI4B7M0IZS81hDj1g, date accessed 15 June 2018 [performance video recording, excerpt].

[22] See: IFFR, https://iffr.com/en/persons/arnont-nongyao, date accessed 17 June 2018. Arnont Nongyao (1979) is an experimental filmmaker from Thailand. He is mostly focused on searching for experimental sounds and vibrations – which he then incorporates into his films. So far, he has directed such films as: Mr. Weirdo and Anomalous Space (2003, short), A Perfect Disaster (2004, co-director), All the Chapter of the Song You Ate Me (2006, short), Anonymous (2013, documentary), Drink Sky On Rabbit’s Field (2014, short), Sound Inventing & Inside Inventor (2015, short), and Ghost Rabbit & The Casket Sales (2015, short).

[23] Biographical information and the Rei Hayama’s objectives were also presented in the author’s article, “Literary inspirations in Japanese audiovisual experiment. Rei Hayama’s film art”, Problems of Literary Genres 61:1 (2018) [in print].

[24] Light Cone, https://lightcone.org/en/filmmaker-2639-rei-hayama, date accessed 14 June 2018.

[25] Rei Hayama, http://reihayama.net/, date accessed 14 June 2018.

[26] Monica Delgado, José S. Hinojosa, “Interview: Rei Hayama”, desistfilm, http://desistfilm.com/interview-rei-hayama/ (2014).

[27] Monica Delgado, José S. Hinojosa. The quotation is presented in its original form.

[28] Hayama Rei, Private conversations with Rei Hayama (2017-2018), [interviews in the author’s own archive].

[29] Hayama Rei.

[30] Monica Delgado, José S. Hinojosa.

[31] Rei Hayama.

[32] However, it should be pointed out that the artists also take inspiration from western literature (for example, the poetry of Paul Valéry), films such as Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (Werckmeister harmóniák, 2000), and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s works, as well as the performative art of Ana Mendieta.

[33] Fore more about Takashi Makino, see: Kiejziewicz Agnieszka, “Enter the metaphysical cosmos: the visualizations of the universe in Japanese experimental cinema”, Maska. Anthropology Sociology Culture 29 (2016), pp. 147-156.

[34] Marianne Shaneen.

[35] Marianne Shaneen.

[36] Light Cone, Makino Takashi. Still in Cosmos, http://lightcone.org/en/film-7445-still-in-cosmos, date accessed 17 June 2018.

[37] Arnont Nongyao, http://www.arnontnongyao.com/arnontnongyao.com/Another_Sound.html, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[38] Arnont Nongyao.

[39] Arnont Nongyao.

[40] Toward the Tactile Visions, https://web.facebook.com/events/2087048401511185/, date accessed 10 June 2018 [event’s webpage].

[41] Toward the Tactile Visions.

[42] Toward the Tactile Visions.

[43] Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, Conversations with Rei Hayama (2018), [the interview with Rei Hayama, the material in the author’s archive].

[44] I wrote about the role of the technologies used by Goshima in his films between the 1990s and 2016 in an article: Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, “The technologies of experimental Japanese filmmakers in the digital era”, Transmissions: the Journal of Film and Media Studies 1:1 (2016), pp. 102-104.

[45] Kazuhiro Goshima, http://www.goshiman.com/hp/04profile_e.html, date accessed 28.03.2016.

[46] Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, “The technologies…”, pp. 102-104.

[47] Agnieszka Kiejziewicz, “The technologies…”, pp. 102-104.

[48] For example, in such films as Uncertain camera (2009), or In the forest of shadows (2008).

[49] For example, in Relative position (2012).

[50] For example, in Looking and listening (2014).

[51] Malcolm Le Grice, pp. 172-183.

[52] Metz Christian, “The Imaginary Signifier”, Screen 16:2 (1975), pp. 14-76.

[53] Malcolm Le Grice, p. 177.

[54] Malcolm Le Grice, p. 179.

[55] Malcolm Le Grice, pp.179-181.

[56] Malcolm Le Grice, p. 183.

[57] Kazuhiro Goshima, http://www.goshiman.com/hp/04profile_e.html, date accessed 28.03.2016.

[58] The Japan Times, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2015/02/05/arts/kazuhiro-goshima-sheer-amount-information-4k-exceeds-reality/#.VvmZ4kcoN8h, date accessed 28.03.2016.

[59] The Japan Times.

[60] The Japan Times.

[61] Kazuhiro Goshima.

[62] The explanatory movie was also posted on YouTube, see:  これは映画ではないらしい THIS MAY NOT BE A MOVIE, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4i-3Pc6nCE&feature=youtu.be, date accessed 17 June 2018 [Kazuhiro Goshima’s technical details explanation film].

[63] Ai Hasegawa, http://aihasegawa.info/, date accessed 15 June 2018.

[64] See: Shift. Japan-based international online magazine features creative culture, http://www.shift.jp.org/en/archives/2016/02/ai-hasegawa.html, date accessed 11 June 2018. The (Im)possible baby project is another example of Hasegawa’s speculative design. It was created to “stimulate discussions about the social, cultural and ethical implications of emerging biotechnologies that could enable same-sex couple to have their own, genetically related children.” The artist analyzed the DNA data of a lesbian couple, and comparing their genotypes, visualized the look of their potential children (two girls). Hasegawa used these simulation models to create a set of fictional photos, showing the unique moments that could have happened (for example, family meals and celebrations). The results were presented around the world as photo exhibitions, as well as in a 30-minute documentary, made with the help of the Japanese national television, NHK.

[65] I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin was also exhibited in Poland, thanks to the artist’s cooperation with the Wro Art Center in Wrocław. See: Wro Art Center, http://wrocenter.pl/pl/ai-hasegawa-jp-i-wanna-deliver-a-dolphin/, date accessed 18 June 2018.

[66] Ai Hasegawa.

[67] Ai Hasegawa.

[68] See: Ai Hasegawa. The technical details, presented together with the film and model, are as follows: “To make it possible for a human mother to deliver a dolphin from her womb, there is a need to synthesize »The Dolp-human Placenta«. The usual human placenta interacts to pass from mother to baby oxygen, carbon dioxide, nutrients, hormones, antibodies (Immunoglobulin Gamma, IgG) and so on. The Dolp-human placenta blocks the delivery of IgG to the baby. The placenta originates from the baby’s side, which in this case is a dolphin, and not from the human side. This avoids the ethical and legal difficulties associated with reproductive research involving human eggs. The decidua is formed by implantation of the egg. Usually, foreign cells in the body (for example from other individuals) are attacked by the immune system, but inside the decidua they are tolerated. However, even though the decidua accepts cells from other individuals, non-human cells would still be attacked. In the dolp-human placenta’s case, it has been modified to distinguish mammal from non-mammal cells, making it even more tolerant” [excerpt].

[69] Ai Hasegawa. The Core 77 Design Awards are awarded annually to the best practitioners of such areas of design as open design, interaction, design concepts, consumer products, visual communication, and so on.

[70] Reading the provided dilemma chart, viewers can find questions such as: Can you take responsibility for another person’s life? How about an animal child? Do you think your child is going to have a happy life in this world?

[71] Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (2004), p. 60.

Historical insight into The Danube Exodus cinematic installation by Péter Forgács

Kamil Lipiński

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 43-58.


Kamil Lipiński
Adam Mickiewicz University




Historical insight into The Danube Exodus cinematic installation by Péter Forgács




The article examines the wide-screen installation The Danube Exodus: Rippling Currents of the River (2002-2006) by Péter Forgács. Forgács designed it in collaboration with the Getty Team and the Labyrinth Project in heterotopic terms that revert events in time and space using various mutual juxtapositions, generated by viewers on a tactile interface. The expansion of cinema into museum spaces from the 1990s is understood as an open, work-in-progress mode of exhibition that entangles spatial arrangement. The film at the heart of the installation begins by placing two heterotopic journeys of exile in comparative context: Slovakian Jews being ferried along the Danube to Jerusalem, and the resettlement of Bessarabia Germans to Polish territory, also via the Danube. This comparative study of migratory aesthetics reflects the contemporary drive to fill the white spaces on the map of Europe. This article retraces the contexts of the immersion of this haunting journey from the past in new intersections that move from a description of the specificity of found footage to wide-screen panorama.


Keywords: found footage, heterotopia, spacing, wide-screen panorama, comparative study, exhibition



In an article entitled Beyond the White Cube, Peter Weibel outlined the need for a “colonial remix” seen from the point of view of global culture, to demonstrate alternative ways of remapping visual culture


[1]. In discussing spatial analysis, we shall present various ways of reading The Danube Exodus: Rippling Currents of the River as an example of relocating the cinematic experience to an expanded environment, enriched with a haptic experience via user interface. To begin with, my interest is in conceptually nailing down the concept of heterotopia introduced by Michel Foucault, and to propose it as a new perspective of interpretation, building upon the writings of Victor Burgin and Gertrud Koch. Foucault’s concept could contribute to demonstrating how film fragments are interspersed within complex installations, derived from various times, as a mirror reflection of society. Having discussed the philosophical framework of heterotopia, I would then like to focus on the historical events outlined by The Danube Exodus: Rippling Currents of the River, to reveal how the juxtaposition of vision inscribed in the visual horizon of the fragmentation of images can be understood in terms of cinematographic heterotopy. Analysing the philosophical premises, let us investigate how the heterotopic journey introduces the history of the Eastern European region and situates its concerns within the broader, more current European high-cultural revival of amateur chronicles.

The second part of this essay offers an insight into the parallel timelines employed in The Danube Exodus to examine the similarities and differences between them. Insight into the archival found footage used in the film enables us to observe several overlapping narratives, derived from various periods, to build up a powerful wide-screen vision of Eastern Europe across the centuries. The installation provides heterotopic insights into the emerging interactive display used in The Danube Exodus project. Using various angles, this wide-screen panorama shows the ways in which we contest the primacy of monocular vision in the era of “polycentric vision”, restored by media archivists in numerous forms[2]. This installation presents the imaginative potential of various historical pieces of evidence that open up the circulatory, fragmentary horizon of contemporary aesthetics.

The concluding section presents a brief analysis of the ways in which we could interpret the immersive mode of The Danube Exodus’s historical storytelling, as inscribed in the manifold visual documentation. This visual journey, in situ, provides an insight into the visual testimonies of the past and lets us rethink the differences between ‘exile’ and ‘resettlement’ as two different strategies of movement, or displacement, in the era of genocide. The installation unfolds different modes of using “interactive memory strategy”, composed of moving images and stable documents, to mirror the wider circulation of “diversified representation“ in galleries at the beginning of the 21st century[3].

A heterotopic grid

Before we discuss The Danube Exodus, a glimpse at cinematic transformations will provide some useful aesthetic premises for the inscription of cinema in the art gallery, because – as Raymond Bellour famously observed – “cinema can also be reinvented, an another cinema, by other means.”[4] The principal drive of the media landscape emphasizes excessive concern on placing the viewer in new spaces that enrich the wider discourse with the conceptual collage of historical narratives. Since the 1990s, Victor Misiano has stressed the emergence of the role of the “curator-mediator”, which is marked by curatorial cooperation. This contributes to the drawing of a new face for museums, which “…opens up into its network of trustees, their affiliations with multinational corporations, and finally the global system of late capitalism proper, such that what used to be the limited and Kantian of a restricted conceptual art expands into the very ambition of its reach and is transformed into a cognitive mapping itself (with all its specific representational contradictions)”[5]. This modus operandi shifts the insistent promotion of the artist as designer, contemplation over function and the openness of the aesthetic resolution. In this respect, one could map out capitalism and adopt DJs and computer programmers as forms leading towards direct physical experience, relying upon the recombination of works with other pre-existing products that themselves rely upon re-appropriation, quotation, and parasitism. Therefore, one could argue, as Jean-Christophe Royaux did, that “…we can find cinema after cinema in most of the works of the post-minimalist generation”[6]. In developing his arguments, Royaux uses his concept of the “cinema of exhibition” to outline the ways in which one can “designate the particular forms of syntax of the exhibition”[7]. In tracing the transformations of moving images in gallery art and museums, Victor Burgin sought also to reaffirm that “the concept of heterotopia to real external places, he nevertheless arrives at his discussion of heterotopias via a reference to utopias – places with no other substance than that of representation: material signifiers, psychic reality and fantasia”[8]. Bringing forth this point of view, bear in mind that Michel Foucault laid out the premises of heterotopia in Des espaces autres in his lecture at the Cercle d’études architecturales, wherein he situated this perspective at the intersection of what’s real and what’s imaginary. In Foucault’s view, there are six relations between discursive, heterogenic spaces of heterotopia, with two of them being particularly worth applying as a method and form of interpretative explanation. In particular, Gertrud Koch lists the third and fourth principle of building a “heterotopic grid” that spans both painting, sculpture, architecture and photography[9]. Foucault’s concept defines the extension of the idea of the dispersion of knowledge and implies “juxtaposition in one single, real place, several places that are themselves incompatible”[10]. Among notable examples of these concepts, Foucault lists theatres, cinemas and gardens. In turn, according to the fourth principle of heterotopy, there is the possibility of making temporal juxtapositions, of “layers of time” – epochs called ‘heterochrony’ by Foucault. Inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of nihilism, Foucault pointed out the necessity of death in every culture (the end of life, decay and disappearance). These interspersed cultural lines present the ways in which “…our experience of the world is less that of the long life developing through time than that of the network that connects points and intersects with its own skin”[11]. In this sense, this heterotopic grid can be conceived as a spatiotemporal framework to demonstrate the evolutionary course of historical events, and the need for thinking in terms of a ‘set of relations’ that ‘delineate sites’ and co-create our presence as a ‘configuration’. Oscillating primarily between utopian and dystopian qualities, heterotopia aims at “indefinitely accumulating time” in museums and galleries[12]. These spaces build “…the counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality”[13]. In this respect, social reality reflects an inverted society. Although it never becomes a real space, it does, however, have its roots in real spaces. This dimension of signifiers embodies ‘distorting mirrors’, and discovers the space of the ‘other’ as a space illusion that encapsulates “the dreams and desires of society”[14]. Inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of perspectivism and parallel interpretations of history, Foucault argued that heterotopia entails “…in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation in an immobile place, this whole idea belongs to our modernity. The museum and the library are heterotopias that are proper to western culture of the nineteenth century”[15]. Heterotopia considered as an atlas of singularities is an archive that, as a mobile ship, has all of these traits. Georges Didi-Huberman suggested that it can be adopted in various contexts on the epistemological, aesthetic and political levels.

Inspired by Foucauldian thinking, Victor Burgin argued that this concept could be extended in many ways to a nascent “cinematographic heterotopia” as a utopian society – “out of time”. In Burgin’s discussion, this concept is extended by reference to Félix Guattari’s post-media aesthetics to describe “media-based imagery”, which relies upon the ‘ecology of mind’ (écologie de l’esprit) and infiltration of subjectivity by the media. This immersion in manifold representations explains the ‘recycling’ desire for exploration and the re-use of existing aesthetic forms. Specifically, these works can be used as a figure of parataxis derived from rhetoric to describe situations “…in which the relations are not given, but deduced”[16].

Expanded space

Further insight can be gained by examining the tactile interface used in the installation that allows viewers to navigate the found footage journeys of the refugees escaping the heterotopic ship. In The Danube Exodus, two timelines can be found, as well as additional historical context that acts as an information carrier under the influence of contact with the body’s surface. When viewing the installation, audiences can choose between three main narrative threads: the boat captain, the Jewish exodus, and the German exodus. In this circular environment, touch determines the selection of images on the screens. Through this tactile mapping of the stories, we can select particular variants of the stories that demonstrate the experience of spatiality, and the flows of moments and memories presented in the context of new configurations. Visitors can select one of eighteen three or five-minute sequences from different ethnic areas, enriched with interviews. The four-and-a-half hour film-strip, composed of five ninety-minutes films, that is used in The Danube Exodus is understood as a metaphor of relativism seen in five split-screens, which emphasizes the incongruence of two reconstructions. This impression of an ‘enlarged’ installation relies upon entering into the dialogue between the recipient and the represented subject, which represents the three main threads (the captain, the Jewish exodus, and the German exodus). The use of an immersive interactive menu system draws attention to the travel experience, directed and dictated by touch displays. These histories, displayed on a five-screen panoramic display, reflect the specific configuration of the mobile camera and present the way that cinema inherits the concept of the mobile eye (l’oeil mobile) from modern painting. “Polyvision” exceeds the frontality of one of several different screen, while continuing to bring dramas and scripted places into play”[17]. Putting in motion specific segments allows the viewers to immerse themselves between two realms of overlapping historical narratives in a heterotopic fashion: the journey between Slovakia and Haifa, and in parallel, the journey of the deported Germans to Poland.

These two journeys provide an interesting account of two possible ways of thinking about migration and re-settlement in historical narratives with multiple points of view. The two main historical narratives receive additional context sourced from the special collection of the Luigi Ferdinando Marsili Research Library – an early eighteenth century six-volume encyclopaedia about the Danube. In explaining the origins of the encyclopaedia, Zaia Alexander and Marsha Kinder stated that it was executed “On the commission of Holy Roman (Hapsburg) Emperor Leopold I, an Italian military engineer prepared a map of the country recaptured from the Turks – Hungary. In addition, there were three huge leather-bound albums in each volume concerning different aspects of the region, especially the richness of the flora and fauna of the Danube river and the breadth of Marsili’s interests”[18]. This web-like narrative encompasses not only a hyphological narrative, but also two forms of scores interpreted in terms of the span of the river itself, and some if it is included as complementary audio-visual material for the two main journeys.

An archival journey

Briefly introducing the aesthetic context in which The Danube Exodus project emerged, let’s note that Forgács primarily initiated his research by collecting and reconstructing private, archival and visual diaries derived from various sources. Forgács mainly collected this footage by publishing an announcement in certain journals, and on the basis of the responses, assembled “…pre-existing images, regrouped and overworked by artists engaging the viewer in reflection […] on the history and film of occidental clichés”[19]. Some of these conceptual solutions for restoring sound and images date back to the late 1970s, drawing inspiration from the film Private History by Gabor Bódy and Peter Timar.

Forgács began his work in the neo-avant-garde environment, where he experimented with multifarious audio-visual forms with sound effects, commentaries and montage. Later, he was invited to edit the fourth themed issue of the Infermental international video journal. From the late 1970s onwards, Forgács also worked with Group 180 as a recitativo, in which he created commentaries on juxtaposing sound and image. Inspired by Sándor Kardos’s Horus archive, in 1983 Forgács then began – with the help of the Budapest Photo & Film Archives Foundation – collecting found footage from the 20th century. After gathering materials and interviewing the families of the survivors, Forgács juxtaposed a variety of visual documents, such as family photos and official diaries.  In 1998 he built a story shedding new light on the paths of resettlement caused by the Holocaust. The Danube Exodus presents two separate spaces in its story, located in two crucial sequences in the various configurations of its 40 hours of material controllable through the tactile interface. The film gives interesting insight into the 60-minutes of 8 mm film made by the boat’s captain, Nandor Andrásovits. The film was lent to Forgács by the captain’s widow, who documented his travels around Europe. Forgács and the Labyrinth Project used the film as “found footage for a newly-edited narrative that incorporates resonances and ironies within these historic encounters”, collected together at the Cultural Research Institute in Budapest. This narrative was navigated by the touch-screen interface to revive them during art exhibitions. This work includes forty-nine minutes of outtakes from the Jewish voyage that Forgács received from historian-archivist Janos Varga, who originally inherited the material from Andrásovits’ close friend Zelan Pathanazy[20]. In brief, Forgács presented a vision of a Jewish-German exodus based on two separate stories, both, however, being connected.

The escape project for fear of anti-Semitism was implemented by the president of the orthodox community in Bratislava Aron Grünhut on two borrowed ships to Palestine. The first of the two journeys shown in the film presents the vicissitudes  of 608 Slovak Orthodox Jews escaping from Bratislava in 1939, on an extraordinary, epic journey along the Danube to the Black Sea towards Palestine. This amateur documentary provides insight into the on-board life of refugees on their two-month journey, and it could be interpreted as the embodiment of a heterotopia set on a spaceship. The focus is primarily on Noemi Julia , a steamship previously used by holidaymakers cruising the Danube. The journey of the Slovak and Hungarian Jews from Bratislava through Central Europe along the Danube River, via Romania and Bulgaria to Palestine, included several hundred people from a large community which had been assigned to extermination by the Nazis. This migration presents the spatial displacements aboard the Queen Elizabeth as it travelled along the river Danube from Slovakia to the Black Sea, with the ultimate goal of Haifa in Palestine. The total length of its journey was 1446 km Given the British restrictions on Jewish emigration and entry to Palestine, each of the refugees was restricted to taking a fifty-kilometer bag for the Danube cruise of 1446 kilometers.  In the beginning, their route led on the Danube waters crossed the territory of Bulgaria. Despite the British protests, a group of refugees managed to enter the vessel Noemi Julia in the port of Sulima on the Black Sea and sail to Haifa after eighty-three days. Most of the presented scenes abound with a positive resolution. We observe scenes showing the wedding on the ship and, to a large extent, the rather joyful atmosphere of everyday customs and prayers. However, some scenes are accompanied by moments of fear when drinking water is lacking. Each passenger was assigned two glasses of water daily, and all passengers suffered from sea sickness during a storm. The documentary of Nándor Andrásovits presents in an intimate light the journey by ship across the Black Sea and then towards Palestine. In the final part, we can observe how the Jewish group, when finally arriving in Haifa on the ship Noemi Julia, is arrested by the British government in order to clarify the matter. Fortunately, after a month they are released and can enjoy freedom in Palestine. Thus they became a part of 500,000 Jewish settlers living under the British Mandate. Based on the reconstruction of archival materials, Forgács asks in this documentary work about the fate of a select group of history of the Chosen People returning to their spiritual capital. . In Forgács’s vision, this collision of narratives demonstrates a microhistory of fleeing Jews reminiscent of the history of repatriation of the Chosen People to the Promised Land. It is worth noting that, in general, during World War II, seventy-seven thousand people escaped from the Third Reich through the Danube. . This exilic movement reflects the Jewish return to the promised land as a fortunate escape from the phantom of genocide that was spreading across Europe.

The German resettlement   

The second of the two journeys of inquiry presented by Forgács was filmed by captain Andrásovitz the following year, in 1940. The narrative illustrates the voyage of natives of the Bessarabia Germans who tried to escape their resettlement by the Red Army to Third Reich. Accepting the proposition to be resettled in occupied Poland in accordance with the agreement between Hitler and Stalin, the refugees decided to abandon their homeland themselves. Andrásovitz’s ship was then chartered to resettle the Bessarabia Germans displaced from Romania at the turn of October and November 1940 resulting in the Soviet Annexation of Bessarabia. As a part of the wider narrative of the Holocaust, this footage is a record of the seven-week repatriation  of 93,000 German farmers (Volksdeutsche), escaping along the Danube by boat. The Soviets paid the Third Reich in wheat and coal, and promised to pay compensation to the displaced upon arrival. Initially, the Germans were transported by carts to the river jetties, where the Erzsébet Királyne ship, led by Commander Nandor Andrásovits, and one of the twenty seven transport vessels waited for them. Erzsébet Királyne took 600 passengers during each trip. . The cruise began at Reni and led to Semlin, where the Germans were examined. Then they were transported to Galati and then to Russe. From there, they were transported by train to Prague and to camps in the Third Reich. The action ended on November 16, 1940. Some of the Bessarabian Germans were later settled in the lands of Poles expropriated by the Nazis. In the final part of the history, Forgács introduces a micro-narrative about one anonymous relocated family in 1942 to Kościan, near Poznań. At some point, Polish owners appear there, asking for the return of the precious violin, probably the Stradivarius brand, left there because of a rush when leaving the house. However, they leave without the violin. The Bessarabian Germans in 1945 left the territory of Greater Poland and went to the West towards Frankfurt.

The difference between these two journeys lies in the emotional approach that Forgács takes, given that the deportation of the Jews and Germans are separate, albeit related stories. In the first story, the Jews enjoyed the journey, dancing, and singing, as they had saved their lives from the threat of extermination. In contrast, the Germans Exodus is shown in a nostalgic light, with the farmers mourning the loss of their homes and estates in exchange for unsure promises of abandoned territory. In contrast to the Jewish happiness, the Bessarabia Germans regretted leaving their homes and estates. These remote stories can be seen in terms of “intensities”, according to which “stupefaction, terror, anger, hatred, pleasure and all the intense emotions are always displacements within a place”, and present “the term emotion into motion that leads to its own exhaustion, an immobilizing motion, an immobilized mobilization”[21]. According to Forgács, this story builds an intimate insight into their lives and differences in their motives not only at the historical level, but also in the assigned fate of exile to which they were condemned and had to conform.

The dual nature of the installation

Let us return to the question of how The Danube Exodus can attempt to answer questions about the nature of cinematographic heterotopia, showing the dual nature of the installation between the real and imaginary spaces, which create a space for “openness inaugurating dialogue”[22]. Let us also note that heterotopia can be used as a starting point for thinking about this complex installation, which spans film, interactivity and use of a website designed by the Getty’s Design Team and the Labyrinth Group. The installation can be perceived in terms of “constellation” as the “horizontal textual organization of objects which brings into play a different definition of cinema, one that is minimal but sufficient, as a set of ways of passing from one (any) element to another”[23]. It should be emphasized that along with the emergence of the forms of “expanded cinema”, this extended narrative (traceable from the 1960s) characterises both “emancipation or extension within the field of exhibition, and they also reflect a collective need to imagine other kinds of relationship with the spectator (a tunnel, a ‘touch screen’)”[24]. Moreover, interactivity has enriched mental activity with, in this case, the ability to touch and play with the film, making it possible to shape the images projected in the installation. In a similar manner, this form of “haptic perception is usually defined by psychologists as the combination of tactical, kinaesthetic and proprioceptive functions, the way we experience touch both on the surface of an inside our bodies”[25]. Some insight into the theoretical articulation of touch aesthetics is given in Walter Benjamin’s writings, in which he stresses the relationship between optics and tactility assigned to the realm of copies (Abbild), which thereby demand contemplation, absorbed attention and a fixed gaze that sees into the distance and demands to be looked at. The installation’s value is brought about through the dominance of the copy, which brings the masses closer to the reality in exchange for losing the aura, the cult value associated with the original, optical image (Bild). This double recounting and documenting of reality engages in an interplay between the context of art and the language of science, as well as demonstrating how “techniques and practices come and go from the laboratory to the atelier and vice-versa”[26]. In other words, the interface designed by the Getty Team and the Labyrinth Group presents a transmedia journey that covers five screens (each of which is two meters high and three meters wide), creating a fifteen-meter-wide panorama. Perceptually immersed in this panoramic view, “the audience is immediately surrounded on all sides by a three-dimensional interior, the faux terrain, which is imperceptibly connected to the two-dimensional visual action and often makes the visual frontier untraceable”[27]. Interestingly, panorama considered as a form of “popular entertainment lost their importance after 1900, however, their principles have survived the cinematic camera’s pan and static shot movements”[28]. The Danube Exodus’s expanded view demonstrates that “an entire world is in the flux as if one is inside a train, where the fragments of the outside view are “seen through the window”[29]. More specifically, the Getty Team and the Labyrinth Project have designed a wide-screen panorama that covers both a “circular” environment and “panoramic” cinema.

This polycentric vision of narrative visual culture permits entry into dialogue and stimulates the movement of circular panoramas, hovering on the edge of the many visual shreds of evidence. Note that the multi-layered, non-linear storyline designed by Labyrinth for the interface could be compared to a hyper-textual rhizome, vaguely inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths. In particular, the Jewish Exodus of refugees can be used as an illustration of the return home of the ‘chosen ones’, while the journey of the Bessarabia Germans presents a vision of homesickness and a feeling of permanent loss. This spatial decoupage of two different historical stories shows the mutual similarities and differences between them. In this installation’s circulation, the images in-between the screens could be compared to Bruno Latour’s concept of “circulative reference”, as a method of “drawing things together”. Building on the principle of sustainability and formal changeability, the kinaesthetic nature of the work makes an impact on the status of stable artefacts in the dynamic and liquid architecture of work-events. Through selection of maps and variants of the presented history, viewers can manoeuvre between the paths of history, primarily between movement and Taoist no-movement . This interplay between photography and cinematic movement enables us to juxtapose images in different spaces and times, interpreted as a potential process under construction, an ‘any space’, fundamental to Deleuzian time-images. One can see in this interactive installation how “the digital and visual interface is at the same time divided between aesthetics and operability”[30]. More specifically, Laura Mulvey suggested that the audio-visual universe could now be “halted or slowed down or fragmented”[31]. Therefore, Raymond Bellour probably argued that these kinds of installations “may seem to be the effect of so-called ‘crisis’ within cinema and the difficulties of contemporary art of which installations are probably the most vivid manifestation”[32]. From this angle, the juxtaposition of images can be perceived as “one of the effects of the games of visible figures. The efficiency of the cinema out of is that “the works make speak, and make speeches about them”[33]. In other words, this sensual formation arises from the fact of the interlacing fragments of micro-narrative inscribed in the context of dialogical inter-spaces of the refugees’ flight, which allows for a meandering within the audio-visual journey. The soundtrack to The Danube Exodus can be described as heterotopic, as it combines different musical traditions that owe much of their power to the hypnotic, mesmerizing score by Tibor Szemzö, which draw on the composition of the rhythm of the narrative and solemn music, “in harmonic tones”, with bells, the rhythm of marching soldiers, “occasional voices and the sound of water”[34]. These musical noises are combined with natural ambient river and waterfront sounds by McKee of Earwan Productions, the mechanical rhythms of the ship’s engines, regional music, the songs and prayers of the refugees, and the voices of the Captain and his crew. The virtual space of the interface entangled in the visual dimension of the film’s projection contributes to the production of an environment in which we can encounter displaced pieces of film (the internet, the media and so on), but also the psychical space of a spectating subject that Baudelaire first identified as “a kaleidoscope equipped with a consciousness”[35]. Significantly, kaleidoscopic circulation of images “hinges on fragmentary, circular and repetitive short sequences in response to which the viewing subject as a subject of signifier may come into being on Mobius band of impressions and imaginations”[36]. This perspective particularly represents the specific orientation towards a post-medium condition resulting in the emergence of “expanded space beyond the confines of the movie theatre” within the gallery and museum. To explain this drive to recycling games with representations, Victor Burgin argued that being immersed in a spatial environment, “visitors of art galleries have encountered a wide range of works that make more or less direct reference to the cinema – from works by artists that manipulate existing footage from mainstream films in order to isolate and explore cinematographic conventions”[37]. The Danube Exodus interactive project creates a situation in which “moving image work relies on loop and reprise, on para-tactical elements rather than on continuous temporal progress”[38]. This specific narrative proceeds in a different order, in accordance with the touch-screen images immersed in the “spaces and moments of the story” to present a wandering “new spatiotemporal structure of difference constructed by new telecommunication techniques”[39]. Visitors can easily decide which parts of the story will be seen and in what order, as we become not only visitor and witness, but also creator. This dialogue, even if highly illusive and insufficient, seems to provide an insight in to the archival footage used, that could be used as a function of experimental, laboratory study in order to revive fragments of moving pictures reconstructed in the more accessible way for a contemporary perceptual needs of the viewer. In Robert Simanowski’s view, “the mapping is a perfect symbolic form of our time, not primarily for its realization to the database paradigm of the endless and unstructured collection of data records, but for its modus to turn the data to us to explore”[40].  Thus, in The Danube Exodus one can enter into a dialogue with works based on navigation, dictated by an interactive menu created by the viewer via the touchscreen interface. More specifically, the sequencing and composition of the narrative permit forward movement without the possibility of returning to the previous sequence. This passing between the spaces of history enables viewers to enter into narrative passages and navigate between them in a one-way direction. And according to Heraclitus, this “irreversibility of history” shows that no one can enter the same river twice…


Let me note very briefly that the importance of The Danube Exodus lies rather in the questions and difficulties that emerge from spatial, non-linear, deconstructed stories in the light kinaesthetic juxtapositions aboard the ship. Observing the vicissitudes of the refugees seen in the film footage lets us reiterate Hannah Arendt’s long-lasting diagnosis “that the symbol of the twentieth century of the people deprived of their rights and refugees deprived of the homeland, confirms it with amazing accuracy”[41]. If we accept this remark, we can open up a renewed dialogue with representations of migratory aesthetics derived from the past, and point out the role of the relocation processes in order to rethink art cinema. This perspective seeks application of Foucault’s claims, conceived in terms of the heterotopic grid, as a way of perceiving a manifold visual interpretation of the archives as a fruitful tool for historical research. The Danube Exodus project provides an interesting account of the perspectives of interpretation of “Holocaust-effects” as ways of seeing an experience by means of “repetition and obscuration”[42]. An audience immersed in this installation can embark on a metaphorical journey within the imaginary geography of historical Eastern Europe, as seen through the prism of “immersive strategies of panoramic installation”[43]. Through this “fusion of horizons”, one can see a curatorial drive to recombining and reading interdiscursive areas because, as Gregor Stemmerich puts it, “the basic idea of a work of art should be an integrated part of a situation, place or location – not in order to harmonize the relationship between the artwork and its surroundings and evoke complex issues, possibly interconnecting various discourses related to it that would normally be barred from consciousness”[44]. The importance of found footage archives lies in the how the combination of signifiers of Western and Eastern cultures produces a vision of found footage heterotopia. This provides insight into the way we think about the juxtaposition of story immersed within a wide-screen narrative, rediscovered post-mortem. In particular, this mapping of specific elements of spatial graphics allows us to immerse ourselves in an unexplored atmosphere of forgotten history, viewed through the prism of “integrated humanities”. The use of amateur chronicles is a particular method by which we can understand found-footage heterotopia, comprehending it as a place in which the history of Eastern and Western technology, amateur filmmaking and the professional model of curatorship intermingle, not being ideologically invisible. However, found footage re-entangled in an art installation partially loosens the narrative, to rediscover overlapping ontologies and the way in a “material form in which they are presented as archives in the form of installation”[45]. The question is, however, whether this project preserves the principle of aesthetic historicity, which relies upon the premise of correspondence and metamorphosis defined by Jacques Rancière as having three features. Primarily, the sentence, the episode, the image is isolated to express its nature and the tonality of the collection. Furthermore, it provides the possibility of correspondence, through which all manner of signs of nature come into resonance or dissonance. This “combination of characters coincides vaguely with the object or develops in the form of significant living”[46]. If we accept these premises, the migration of peoples looking for recognition by inscription in their situation are placed in a context “making it possible to transform the artificial into something living, and the repetitive into something unique”[47]. The installation’s multi-screen projection, connected with the interface of this heterotopic installation, reflects The Danube Exodus’s formal complexity and mobilizes the imagination. More specifically, circulation of images increases the role of amateur, private archives in reviving the collective memory. The Danube Exodus panoramic installation can be read plurally, comparatively challenging us to play, however vertiginously, within the screens. Art cinema considered as “ghost visions” could provide a direction toward thinking about alternative ways of returning to the historical event by filling the ‘white space’ in the history of refugees’ journeys across the map of Europe.


Alexander Zara, Kinder Marsha, The Danube Exodus: The Rippling currents of the River, (Budapest: Ludwig Museum) (2006).

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Blümlinger Christa, “Culture de remploi- questions du cinema”, Trafic 50 (2004).

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Burgin Victor, “Interactive Cinema and Uncinematic”, in Screen Dynamics. Mapping the borders of the cinema, ed. Gertrud Koch, Volker Pantenburg, Simon Rothohler, (Vienna: Österreichisches Filmmuseum) (2012).

Burgin Victor, “The Time of Panorama”, in Situational Aesthetics. Selected Writings by Victor Burgin, ed. Alexander Streitberger, (Leuven, Leuven University Press) (2009).

Dénis Sébastien, “Esthétique de l’archive”, in Arts plastique et Cinéma, CinémAction 122 (2007).

Derrida Jacques, “Malabou Christine”, in Counter-Path. Travelling with Jacques Derrida, trans. David Wills (Stanford: Stanford University Press) (2004).

Feigelson Kristian, “The Labyrinth. The Strategy of Sensitive Experimentation. A Filmmaker of Anonymous”, in Kinokultura http://www.kinokultura.com/specials/7/feigelson.shtml (date accessed: 20 May 2016).

Foucault Michel, “Of other spaces”, trans. Jan Miskoviec, Diacritics 16:1 (1986).

Fourmentraux Jean-Pierre, “Introduction”, in Images interactives. Art Contemporain. Recherche et création numérique, (Paris: La Lettre Volée) (2016).

Grau Oliver, “Into the Belly of an Image. Historical aspects of Virtual Reality”, Leonardo 32:5 (1999).

Groys Boris, “Art in the Age of Biopolitics. From Artwork to Art Documentation”, in Art Power, (Cambridge & London: MIT Press) (2008).

Habermas Jürgen, Staatsbürgerschaft und nationale Identität: Überlegungen zur europäischen Zukunft, (St. Gallen: Erker) (1991).

Jameson Fredric, Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism, (Durnham: Duke University Press) (1991).

Koch Gertrud, Die Verkehr der Illusion. Der Film und die Kunst, der Gegenwart, (Berlin: Suhrkamp) (2016).

Koch Gertrud, “Introduction”, in Screen Dynamics. Mapping the borders of the cinema, eds. Gertrud Koch, Volker Pantenburg, (Vienna: Österreichisches Filmmuseum) (2012).

Latour Bruno, “Instituting of the artworks”, Residents, (Paris: PUF) (2007).

Latour Bruno, “L’art de faire science”, Movements 62 (2012).

Lyotard Jean-François, “L’acinéma”, in Cinéma: théorie, lectures, ed. Dominique Nogeuz (Klincksieck: Paris) (1973).

Lyotard Jean-François, “Petites ruminations sur le commmentaire d’art”, in Opus International 70/71 (1979).

Magagnoli Paolo, Documents of Utopia. The Politics of experimental documentary, (New York: Wallflower Press) (2015).

Marks Laura U, The Skin of the Film. Intercultural cinema, embodiment and the senses, (Durnham/London: Duke University Press) (2000).

Mulvey Laura, The Pensive Spectator in The Death in 24th Second. Stillness and the Moving Image, (London: Reaktion Books) (2006).

Ollmann Leah, The Danube Exodus: The Rippling Currents of the River, (Budapest: Ludwig Museum) (2002).

Rancière Jacques, “L’historicité de cinema”, in De l’histoire au cinéma, ed. Antoine de Baecque, Christian Delage, (Bruxelles & Éditions Complexe) (1998).

Royaux Jean-Christophe, “Towards a Post-Cinematic Space-Time”, in Brillo Box Illuminated, ed. Sarra Arrhenius, Magdalena Malm, Christophe Ricupero,  (Stockholm: IASPIS) (2003)

Van Alphen Ernst, Caught by History: Holocaust Effects in Contemporary Art, Literature, and Theory, (Stanford: Stanford University Press) (1997)

Simanowski Robert, Digital art and meaning. Reading Kinetic Poetry, Text Machines, Mapping Art, and Interactive Installations, (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press) (2011)

Shohat Ella, Stam Robert, Narrativizing Visual Culture, Towards a Polycentric Aesthetics in Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, (London & New York: Routledge) (1998)

Stemmerich Gregor, White Cubes, Black Box and Grey Areas: venues and values, in Art and the Moving Image, ed. Tanya Leighton, (London: Tate Publishing) (2005)

Weibel Peter, “Beyond the White Cube”, in Contemporary Art and the Museum. A Global Perspective, ed. Peter Weibel, Andrea Budensieg, (Ostfidern: Hatje Cantz Verlag) (2007)

Trembley Stephanie Moisdon, “Time as Activity”, in Brillo Box Illuminated, ed. Sarra Arrhenius, Magdalena Malm, Christophe Ricupero, (Stockholm: IASPIS) (2003)


[1] Peter Weibel, “Beyond the White Cube”, in: Contemporary Art and the Museum. A Global Perspective, ed. Peter Weibel, Andrea Budensieg, (Ostfidern: Hatje Cantz Verlag) (2007), p. 143.

[2] Ella Shohat, Robert Stam, “Narrativizing Visual Culture, Towards a Polycentric Aesthetics”, in: Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, (London & New York: Routledge) (1998), p. 46.

[3] Kristian Feigelson, “The Labyrinth. The Strategy of Sensitive Experimentation. A Filmmaker of Anonymous”. in: Kinokultura, http://www.kinokultura.com/specials/7/feigelson.shtml (date accessed 20.05.2018).

[4] Raymond Bellour, “D’un autre cinema”, in: La Querelle des dispositifs: cinéma, installations, expositions, (Paris: P.O.L.) (2012), p. 168.

[5] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism, (Durnham: Duke University Press) (1991), p. 157.

[6] Jean-Christophe Royaux, “Towards a Post-Cinematic Space-Time”, in: Brillo Box Illuminated, ed. Sarra Arrhenius, Magdalena Malm, Christophe Ricupero, (Stockholm: IASPIS) (2003), p. 110.

[7] Jean-Christophe Royaux, p. 110.

[8] Victor Burgin, Possessive, Pensive and Possessed, in The Cinematic, (London & Cambridge, Whitechapel) (2006), p. 199.

[9] Gertrud Koch, Die Verkehr der Illusion. Der Film und die Kunst, der Gegenwart, (Berlin: Suhrkamp) (2016), p. 224.

[10] Michel Foucault, Of other spaces, trans. Jan Miskoviec, “Diacritics” 16:11 (1986), p. 24.

[11] Michel Foucault, p. 22.

[12] Michel Foucault, p. 13.

[13] Michel Foucault, p. 14.

[14] Paolo Magagnoli, Documents of Utopia. The Politics of experimental documentary, (New York: Wallflower Press) (2015), p. 28.

[15] Michel Foucault, p. 13.

[16] Victor Burgin, “Interactive Cinema and Uncinematic”, in Screen Dynamics. Mapping the borders of the cinema, ed. Gertrud Koch, Volker Pantenburg, Simon Rothohler, (Vienna: Österreichisches Filmmuseum) (2012), p. 102.

[17] Raymond Bellour, “D’un autre cinema”, in: La Querelle des dispositifs: cinéma, installations, expositions, (Paris: P.O.L.) (2012). p. 166.

[18] Zara Alexander, Marsha Kinder, The Danube Exodus: The Rippling currents of the River, (Budapest: Ludwig Museum) (2006), p. 13.

[19] Sébastien Dénis, “Esthétique de l’archive”, in: Arts plastique et Cinéma, CinémAction, 122 (2007), p. 266.

[20] Zara Alexander, Marsha Kinder, p. 13.

[21] JeanFrançois Lyotard, “L’acinéma”, in: Cinéma: théorie, lectures, Textes réunis et présentés par Dominique Noguez, Revue d’Esthétique (Klincksieck: Paris) (1973), p. 365.

[22] Robert Simanowski, Digital art and meaning. Reading Kinetic Poetry, Text Machines, Mapping Art, and Interactive Installations, (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press) (2011), p. 128.

[23] Jean-Christophe Royaux, p. 110.

[24] Stephanie Moisdon Trembley, “Time as Activity”, in: Brillo Box Illuminated, ed. Sarra Arrhenius, Magdalena Malm, Christophe Ricupero, (Stockholm: IASPIS) (2003), p. 84.

[25] Laura U Marks, The Skin of the Film. Intercultural cinema, embodiment and the senses, (Durnham/London: Duke University Press) (2000), p. 162.

[26] Bruno Latour, “L’art. de faire science”, Movements 62 (2012), p. 92.

[27] Oliver Grau, “Into the Belly of an Image. Historical aspects of Virtual Reality”, Leonardo 32:5 (1999), p. 167.

[28] Victor Burgin, “The Time of Panorama”, in: Situational Aesthetics. Selected Writings by Victor Burgin, ed. Alexander Streitberger, (Leuven, Leuven University Press) (2009), p. 295.

[29] Victor Burgin, p. 295.

[30] Jean-Pierre Fourmentraux, “Introduction”, in: Images interactives. Art Contemporain. Recherche et création numérique, (Paris: La Lettre Volée) (2016), p. 6.

[31] Laura Mulvey, “The Pensive Spectator”, in: The Death in 24th Second. Stillness and the Moving Image, (London: Reaktion Books) (2006), p. 181

[32] Raymond Bellour, D’un autre cinema, op. cit.. p. 41.

[33] JeanFrançois Lyotard, “Petites ruminations sur le commentaire d’art”, Opus International, 70/71 (1979), p. 17.

[34] Leah Ollmann, The Danube Exodus: The Rippling Currents of the River, (Budapest: Ludwig Museum) (2002), p. 20.

[35] Victor Burgin, “Possessive, Pensive and Possessed”, in: The Cinematic (London & Cambridge, Whitechapel) (2006), p. 220.

[36] Gertrud Koch, “Introduction”, in: Screen Dynamics. Mapping the borders of the cinema, ed. Gertrud Koch, Volker Pantenburg, (Vienna: Österreichisches Filmmuseum) (2012), p. 104.

[37] Gertrud Koch, p. 102.

[38] Gertrud Koch, p. 107.

[39] Jacques Derrida, Christine Malabou, Counter-Path. Travelling with Jacques Derrida, trans. David Wills, (Stanford: Stanford University Press) (2004), p. 18.

[40] Robert Simanowski, p. 181.

[41]Jürgen Habermas, Staatsbürgerschaft und nationale Identität: Überlegungen zur europäischen Zukunft, (St. Gallen: Erker) (1991), p. 25.

[42] Ernst Van Alphen, Caught by History: Holocaust Effects in Contemporary Art, Literature, and Theory, (Stanford: Stanford University Press) (1997), p. 106.

[43] Ernst Van Alphen, p. 203.

[44] Gregor Stemmerich,White Cubes, Black Box and Grey Areas: venues and values”, in: Art and the Moving Image, ed. Tanya Leighton, (London: Tate Publishing) (2005), p. 64.

[45] Christa Blümlinger, Culture de remploi- questions du cinéma, Trafic, 50 (2004), p. 350.

[46] Jacques Rancière, “L’historicité de cinema”, in: De l’histoire au cinéma, ed. Antoine de Baecque, Christian Delage, (Bruxelles & Éditions Complexe) (1998), p. 49.

[47] Boris Groys, “Art in the Age of Biopolitics. From Artwork to Art documentation”, in: Art Power, (Cambridge & London: MIT Press) (2008), p. 64.


Tactile epistemology: sensoria and the postcolonial

Marta Stańczyk

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1, pp. 89-99.


Marta Stańczyk

Jagiellonian University



Tactile epistemology: sensoria and the postcolonial



In this article the author focuses on the so called “tactile epistemology” in postolonial studies – different cognitive and representational modes that enable create subversive narrations negotiating new relations between centre and margins. Affective, multisensory, synaesthetic body is an archive of power relations, an experience of colonization and – most of all – a discoursive transgression, reversing ideology based on the Western eye. The main goal of this article is to present three most influential theoretical stances connecting sensoria with the Other. The concepts of Laura U. Marks, Milena Marinkova, and Sara Ahmed are illustrated with the examples form Claire Denis’ and Urszula Antoniak’s oeuvre.


Keywords: tactile epistemology, senses, embodiment, Laura U. Marks, Sara Ahmed, Milena Marinkova




The distance from this sentence to your eye is my sculpture.

(Ken Friedman, Fluxus score, 1971)



Will Higbee coined the term “cinema of transvergence” in order to enable film scholars to “better appreciate how postcolonial and diasporic cinemas engage, function and produce meaning within and across national and transnational positionings.”[1] Through this notion he tries to ephasize the possible inversion between centre and margin, the dynamics of differences, and the negotiation of meanings and power relations. Furthermore, the concept alters cinematic experience by changing the form of storytelling. Its focus on minorities renarrates traditional relations in movies and its deconstruction of the cinematic form constitutes the apology of différance. One of the most important methods of deploying it is, as Laura U. Marks calls it, a tactile epistemology.[2]

Affective and sensuous incentives improve subversive narrations in postcolonial prism. Body language helps in coping with dominant discourses and in expressing the experience of the other – the experience of physical and mental colonization. Marks introduced term “haptic visuality”, which highlights the meaning of defiance and a fact that receiving input is influenced by the experience of migration, exile, dispersion, eradication, etc. Such scholars as Marks, Milena Marinkova or Sara Ahmed, in their critique of the Western discourse of the other, confide in a multisensory experience and memory of senses. They link this discourse to ocularcentrism and – taking Foucauldian approach to depict mastering and objectification of others – reject gaze as a form of wielding power. We can find a cinematic depiction of this formula in Black Venus’ (2010, Abdellatif Kechiche) opening scene where the body of an enslaved heroine is being objectified by scientifical (and, therefore, disciplinary) discourse. Another cinematic example is Yes (2004, Sally Potter) – a love affair between Irish-American biologist and Lebanese chef (medic doctor before imigration) is conflicted by stereotypical views and cultural prejudices. Their bodies „remember” uneven relations between centre and margin.

For this reason scholars like Marks and Marinkowa focus on the body. The issue of embodiment is not only an individual matter, but also a map of cultural differences and power relations. Moreover, a multisenory perspective enables disrupting dominant discourses and creates a new language entangled in the postcolonial discourse. As Marinkova writes, “the tangible (in reality and in representation) becomes an uneasy witness to the impossibility of narrating incommensurable languages and experiences.”[3] Tactile epistemology provides an alternative; it supports subversion.


Laura U. Marks: the skin of the other


In The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses Laura U. Marks writes about a “turn to the nonvisual senses [which] has been in part a response to the perceived imperialism of vision, the alignment of visual information with knowledge and control.”[4] American researcher finds a negotiating potential in haptic visuality – an embodied experience can be a very useful term for describing movies and their reception in the context of dispersion: “Haptic visuality implies making oneself vulnerable to the image, reversing the relation of mastery that characterizes optical viewing.”[5] Marks reckons that this type of visuality is connected with discrediting viewing habits, enabling different level of involvement, suggesting the shift of meaning, and even giving the impression of seeing someting for the first time. This perceptive renewal is not only a matter of aesthetics, but also ethics. The body might be a foundation for the redefinition of representational system. Based-on-body encounter with the other rejects a negative tendency to annex margins which is typical for the Western ocularcentrism. It emphasizes the incompatibility of some languages and experiences rather than the illusion of the possible identification.

In Touch. Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media Marks writes about the hapticity as founded not on touch itself, but on body – viewers should stay on the image’s surface, contemplate it texture, shape, colour, etc. and feel affective resonance through them.[6] Intercultural cinema is shaped by cultural memory, fingerprints left not by the disgraced, ideological and orientalistic eye but an ambivalent sense of touch, which recalls aggresion and enables emancipation through different bodily discourses. Marks seems to agree with Jennifer Fisher who contradicts Elizabeth Grosz’s statement that touch has no memory: “touch implicates what is most clearly the performative present of æsthetic experience.”[7] It invokes memory so “[t]o describe the effects of such video [or, in general, cinematic – M.S.] works  requires paying attention to the viewer’s body, specifically what happens when the video image dissolves out toward the viewer and invites the viewer to invest all his or her senses in the act of seeing.”[8] Viewers open themselves for the experience of the other.

Haptic visuality and sensuous aesthetics create counter-memory in spite of the discourse of “empowered eye.” Marks writes about the Western type of visuality which objectifies others, and separates and masters external and internal words.[9] One cannot trust visual information and traditional techniques used in postcolonial statements as they are made of oppressive material. In a spirit of Edward Said: eyes are tools of imperialistic inclinations. Do not believe what you see – it is only an ideological discourse. It is possible to gain knowledge through physical contact,[10] but one should remember that visceral, haptic or tactile epistemology can be used arbitrally. And this is the case of Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005) where Powatan Native American tribe’s communication – or tactile epistemology – is depicted as simpler and harmonious but primitive, unsufficient and limited. John teaches Pocahontas how to speak – through knowledge he reaffirms his authority as male and “civlised” (an already ideologically and eurocentrically inflicted term).

This example shows possible limitations of haptic poetics but simultaneously it legitimizes this aesthetics by underlining the cultural and political dimension of the sensorium. Returning to Marks, “[u]ltimately phenomenology can account for how the body encodes power relations somatically. It can acknowledge that embodiment is a matter of individual lifemaps as well as cultural difference. These matters are important for understanding intercultural experience, where traumas and more ordinary histories become encoded in the body. When intercultural films and videos appeal to the different power relations involved in looking and in touching, they remind us that these power relations are built into cultural organizations of perception.”[11] Therefore tactile epistemology enables dialogue between an image and its viewer – through his or her body. Marks makes a list of possible aesthetic means – for example blurred, grained image and decaying film.[12] Phenomenological intentionality and activisation of the viewer though, is what interests her most in subversive potential of haptic visuality. Marks states that “[t]he ideal relationship between viewer and image in optical visuality tends to be one of mastery, in which the viewer isolates and comprehends the objects of vision. The ideal relationship between viewer and image in haptic visuality is one of mutuality, in which the viewer is more likely to lose herself in the image, to lose her sense of proportion.”[13] Tactility is constructed around dialogue – oscillation between identificaton and immersion, dialectical movement between surface and depth. Interaction supersedes cinematic illusion, while making place for alternative narrations or simply for the story of the other.

Claire Denis’ oeuvre helps embody theoretical approaches to sensoria and the postcolonial. The French director narrates postcolonial relations using mostly multisensory aesthetic. Films such as Chocolate (1988) show how an embodied vision develops engaged spectatorship. Denis is known for rejecting classical film conventions, using static and extended shots without many dialogues, being sensitive to the form of an image, and creating poetic, sensual atmosphere. These distinctive traits place her in the middle of haptic cinema’s concepts. The director focuses on her characters’ bodies and their relations with space. Her trade marks converge with her autobiography and political views too – raised in West Africa in few French colonies, Denis shows engagement in postcolonial issues which is perfectly depicted in her debut film.

Chocolate tells a story of a young woman, France, who comes back to Cameroon where she lived as a child. She reminisces her childhood and her family’s houseboy, named Protée. Names of these characters are significant as they unveil power relations in French colony. As a girl, France was fascinated with him who seemed to be very different from her family and other employers and simultaneously she was humiliating him transferring her elders’ condescension. Nonetheless, their proximity was starting to dissolve borders between center and margins embodied in these characters. This is a work in progress, searching – or building – an intimate relations which was not easy. There is also a counterexample – France’s mother feeling sexual tension towards Protée and, after being rejected (because of her master attitude mostly), forcing her husband to post the houseboy to outdoor duties.

In one of the sequences the father explaines France what the horizon line is: a line which does not exist in physical sense but is still recognized by everyone. It is not only a symbol of racial boundaries – the definition shows how the figure of the other operates as an embodied entity as long as the horizon line is something that is embed in space. The hapticity of Denis’ film can be shown in three short scenes. First one represents the mutual fascination and blures seemingly natural lines. Protée, France and her mother visit Nansen, a fanatical missionary – an artificial dialogue between the priest and the young woman is being intersected with strange rite de passage: Protée and France watching dead, bitten house animals when the houseboy puts a crow’s tarsus near girl’s hand and smears her arm with the bird’s blood. The director emphasises skin and touch in a close-up. Hapticity is hightened through cross-cutting with a theatrical scene (in long shot) in which, main representatives of colonial power are involved. An oscillation between optical and haptical visuality confers a texture to moving image. Viscerality of this sequence shows that real dialogue is not necessary lingual and colour of skin can be hidden. Although the second mentioned sequence presents an over-exposure of the skin of the other. In his free time Protée was trying to have a shower when he was peeped by France and her mother coming back from a stroll. This event causes a breakdown – Protée starts crying as he feels abused  and objectified by the (white) gaze. His subjectivity and embodiment are limited to the level of the skin and its colour causing internalization of being not-a-norm. There is no balance between embodiment and image in the imperial eye paradigm.

The last scene I chose to explain tactility of power relations in Chocolate is near the movie’s finale:Denis shows her deliberate use of tactile epistemology and haptic aesthetics in her films since she believes in skin as a medium of cultural memory and traumatic encounters. During the night France comes to visit Protée who is now assigned to backyard worshop. They are staring at each other silently while he grabbes a pipe and suggests her to do so too, ignoring the fact that it was hot and could burn their palms. After that he leaves and disappears in the dark. It is another example of cancelling borders between races, but also of leaving a trace; the memory makes Protée France’s eternal companion but associates it with pain. This connotation reappears in Denis’ cinema. She came back to West Africa with White Material (2009) in which the interference of bodily boundaries is shown as a ferocious, but essential attempt to break the power relations. Rape is inflicted on viewers affectively: “[w]hen vision is like touch, the object’s touch back may be like a caress, though it may also be violent, as Steven Shaviro argues – a violence not toward the image but toward the viewer.”[14] Viewers are touched and forced to ethically driven reception, in spite of a pleasurable identification.


Milena Marinkova: micropolitical filming


Marks’ theses are very influential and not only among film studies scholars. Amongst her followers, Milena Marinkova, who is known rather for her research on the ground of Canadian literature, uses the term „haptic visuality” to describe postcolonial entanglement and transnational issues in her book Michael Ondaatje: Haptic Aesthetics and Micropolitical Writing she used “haptic visuality” to desribe postcolonial entanglement and transnational issues. She argues – after Marks and Merleau-Ponty – that touch cannot be reduced to skin, but it is rather connected with embodiment. We should not locate it in one organ; it is dispersed, permeable and not isolated from the rest of sensorium. So “embodied haptic acts of proximity” transverse “the personal by social and political structures,”[15] and blur boundaries between art and reality, representation and body. Furthermore the body, being under the influence of dominant regimes, can provide a ground for redefinition of these regimes with their discourses. Marinkova notices that the embodiment of Western gaze dislocates the main direction of perception process – viewers get their attention directed to their viewing practices. For Canadian scholar, it is a matter of style: multisensory, fluid and open to non-normative connections. “Such an aesthetic forges an intimately embodied and ethically responsible relationship among audience, author, and text”[16] and it has an empowering micropolitical potential. Haptic aesthetics and embodiment are individual and collective issues, subjective and social simultaneously. Personal is political. Bodies are political. Haptic cinema can rejoice “in the exploration of the intimate space of the bodily and the microsocial space of the interpersonal.”[17]

Marinkova reconsiders an identification referring to Dominick LaCapra’s concept:

He has argued that art should invite „empathic unsettlement” by relying on the reader’s/viewer’s affective response to another but also recognizing the differences between them. This formulation is premised on the intersubjective power of affect to move and be moved, and thus transcend the boundaries of the self and encounter difference. The encounter, however, is not followed by a return to sameness through crude identification — recognizing oneself in the other and thus sympathize with them — but by the ethical recognition of the opacity and unassimilability of alterity.[18]

Canadian scholar puts an emphasis on rejecting identification as a psychological relationship with characters. Being founded on gaze, it is not neutral, and the impression of being natural is strictly ideological. Eye, contemplation, perception – those are tools of knowledge which can be a form of aggression and wielding power. Gaze colonizes others and produces subalterns; its mechanisms and intents are obscured by film grammar. Therefore, cinema requires a new language. Marinkova thinks that there is a solution from cultural usurpation of the other – the ocularcentrism and its mastering inclinations can be relinquished. “Instead of supplementing the already available knowledge, however, the tangible (in reality and in representation) becomes an uneasy witness to the impossibility of narrating incommensurable languages and experiences, and an unsettling trace of proximity that disrupts dominant discourses.”[19]

The power–knowledge dynamics can be exposed by a subversive alternation from gaze to skin, from center to margin and from imperial discourse to “Philomela’s tapestry” – new ways of expressing stories of misery and experienced cruelty. Nude Area (2014, Urszula Antoniak) can be a cinematic example of these thesis. The film starts with a quotation from Roland Barthes’ Fragments d’un discours amoureux, yet the main topic is not love but rather seduction understood as a war. The main tool in this battle is the eye – it tracks, peeps, scans, leers, ogles, scrutinizes; it imposes conditions and demands mutuality. Moreover, gaze can be accepted or rejected by the body. Seducing is violent – people try to enforce their will upon each other. In Antoniak’s film the impression of fighting for dominant position is emphasized by different cultural and ethnic background of two lovers: European, rich, liberal Naomi and Arabic, working class, conservative Fama. Naomi provokes other girl, seduces her and gets control over her using both her gaze and language. Fama is more humble, submissive – she surrenders and protects only one intimate part: her hair.

The first sequence, in which we can see  body parts washed over under the shower, is a key to the aesthetics of the film. The skin is shown in close-ups, revealed in its very tactility, and the entire scene is suggestive, erotic and sensual. Next ones are, on the contrary, very static. First we see Fama’s face in a portrait-like close-up. It appears three times anticipating three movie parts. Next we can see Naomi in a tram or rather her reflection – she is an observer, maybe even a predator. She initiates their meeting and subordinates Fama initially. In the restaurant, where Muslim girl works as a waitress, Naomi humiliates her only to prepare a spectacle of apology later. After, she dresses up like her lover, putting a wig on her head even. Naomi is avid, voracious and simply fascinated by Fama’s sensual beauty and ethnically-founded mysteriousness. During her first visit in her lover’s room Naomi touches and smells everything. The scene resembles an act of appropriation in which girl’s gaze was only a prelude to total enthrallment. Fama surrenders and open up for Naomi’s sensuous insatiability, letting her touch and smell also her hair, a tactile proof of being the other. At some point roles are changing – Fama distances herself from Naomi. She gives her a handful of hair she cut in the process of emancipation from a colonizer. The other learns how to gain empowerment – through the reversal of gaze and the exploitation of touch.

As Nude Area shows, touch and hapticity can be very ambivalent, and Marinkova evokes skeptical voices in her monography. Claude Gandelman “points at the (ab)use of hapticity in ideological discourse”[20] – marxist critics reproach haptic paradigm as an aesthetisation of political discourse. Ernst Gombrich alerts to embracing hapticity “for compromised historicist discourses”[21] and Constantina Papoulias and Felicity Callard completely reject an emancipating potential of the affect. David Howes notices that affects, tactility and multisensory apparatus advocate the “sensual” logic of the late capitalism.[22] But it is Sara Ahmed who actually presents more balanced but still very productive theses.


Sara Ahmed: (e)strange(d) encounters


One of scholars Marinkova mentions as example of having a skeptical attitude to haptic cinema is Sara Ahmed. The author of Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality focuses on a subaltern treated as a stranger by many techniques of differentiation. Her book introduces an interesting approach to the other – being a stranger is not an ontological issue, but epistemological one. It is a matter of recognizing others and oneself in an environmental network. Ahmed – not especially interested in art works – creates a critical standpoint for “sensual postcolonialism.”

Ahmed writes that “there are some-bodies who simply are strangers, and who pose danger in their very co-presence in a given street,”[23] but she also points out at an opposing worldview, where we can find the illusion of an ultimate appropriation. Both stances develop “the fetishism of figures”[24] in which case a stranger becomes an abstraction deprived of political meaning and the particularity of an embodiment. He or she is needed only to finalize the process of an individuation. “The journey towards the stranger becomes a form of self-discovery, in which the stranger functions yet again to establish and define the ‘I’.”[25] This is not only the case of  “eye-to-eye” meetings, but also, “skin-to-skin” encounters. This “meeting is not between two subjects who are equal and in harmony; the meeting is antagonistic.”[26] Ahmed refers in the same way to colonialists’ discourse: it is “not only the territorial domination of one culture by another, but also forms of discursive appropriation: other cultures become appropriated into the imaginary globality of the colonizing nation.”[27] And thus the status of proximity – and tactility – appears ambivalent being entangled in “regimes of difference,”[28] and we should remember that “the strange encounter is played out on the body, and is played out with the emotions.”[29] To sum up, affective and sensuous apparatus may not always be a perfect method(ology), but it is essential for giving back the other his or her voice and body.

Ahmed emphasizes that viewer or reader has a “close” bond with the body of text which “demands a more responsible reading, a reading which admits to its limits, its partiality and its fragility.”[30] The impression of “being touched” reinforces not only aesthetic reactions, but also ethical ones. There is a shift of meanings and boundaries, bodily and subjective borders. As Elisabeth Grosz mentions, “It is in no sense a natural body, for it is as culturally, racially, sexually, possibly even as class distinctive, as it would be clothed”[31] – and although Ahmed writes about it as an example of a theory avoiding analysis, she agrees with the necessity of approaching bodies in their culturally inflicted matter, not only representations. It is not the surface, but the very “effect of the surface”[32] which interests her most. Skin can be a visual mark of difference and “a moment of undecidability”[33] – a gate or leakage, where the subject risks its interiority and its integrity. This thesis echoes Laura U. Marks’ statement about hapticity as a form of dissolving oneself in a contact with image. The difference is placed between antagonism and eroticism which, according to Marks, drives haptical and optical visuality, whereas for Ahmed it is all about conflict. Adding affects to haptic theories, she treats skin as a canvas “where the intensity of emotions such as shame are registered (…) the skin registers how bodies are touched by others.”[34] Touch, a “fleshy metonymym,”[35] expresses a tension between particular bodies and social space.

Although the main phenomenological reference for multisensory and haptic theories is Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Ahmed’s book correlates with Bernhard Waldenfels’ Phenomenology of the Alien.[36] German philosopher reconsiders alien-experience as a phenomenon that permeates our everyday experiences with immediate implications for the social, political, and ethical life. He draws boundaries between human beings in process of perception, bending xenological phenomenology with material one. We tend to identify ourselves through a separation from milieu – other things, people, places, etc. Our own boundaries are tantamount to the boundaries of the alien, so our relations with the other are a relation of proximity, embodied and haptic. Sara Ahmed’s writes that “to withdraw from a relation of physical proximity to bodies recognised as strange is precisely to be touched by those bodies, in such a way that the subject is moved from its place. In this sense, the stranger is always in proximity: a body that is out of place because it has come too close.”[37] The mechanism is a foundation for such semi-sociological, semi-cinematic structures as exclusion through inclusion. The concept was coined by Giorgio Agamben but Thomas Elsaesser implemented it in film studies describing one scene in Hidden (2005, Michael Haneke).[38] During dinner in Laurents’ house there is a black woman who is physically present but poignantly erased from the rest of company by her total silence. Her presence is ephasized by her skin colour as long as the film’s main topic deals with racial and postcolonial issues, and that is why she is exposed and marginalized at the same time. Her alienation is embodied and sensed by the viewers.

For Ahmed and other above mentioned scholars, thinking of skin as always exposed and touchable is paradigmatic – as in the example of Protée, Fama or Saartje. Sensuous, tactile aesthetics emphasizes the oppression of the eye as an organ of domination. Their bodies are colonized but they can find their subjectivity in the embodiment. It can have a therapeutic meaning for the previous “other,” shifts his or her cultural position, neutralizes stereotypes and creates a subversive language of transgression. It implicates a non-normative way of viewing engagement with an image – an identification is replaced by an interaction. This tactile epistemology forms a “sculpture” – an almost physical encounter. Haptic or multisensory cinema creates proximity that imposes new ways of contact with the other without usurpating rights to his or her identity.



Ahmed Sara, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality, (London and New York: Routledge) (2000).

Elsaesser Thomas, „Performative Self-Contradictions. Michael Haneke’s Mind Games”, in A companion to Michael Haneke, ed. Roy Grundmann, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing) (2010).

Fisher Jennifer, Relational Sense: Towards A Haptic Æsthetics, http://www.david-howes.com/senses/Fisher.htm, date accessed 20 September 2016.

Grosz Elizabeth, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, (Sydney: Allen & Unwin) (1994).

Higbee Will, „Beyond the (trans)national: toward a cinema of transvergence in postcolonial and diasporic francophone cinema(s)”, Studies in French Cinema 7:2 (2007).

Marinkova Milena, Michael Ondaatje: Haptic Aesthetics and Micropolitical Writing, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group) (2011).

Marks Laura U., The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2004).

Marks Laura U., Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press) (2002).

Waldenfels Bernhard, Podstawowe motyy fenomenologii obcego, (Warszawa: Oficyna Naukowa) (2009).


[1] Higbee Will, „Beyond the (trans)national: toward a cinema of transvergence in postcolonial and diasporic francophone cinema(s)”, Studies in French Cinema, 7:2, p. 80.

[2] See: Marks Laura U., The Skin of Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham and London: Duke University Press) (2004).

[3] Marinkova Milena, Michael Ondaatje: Haptic Aesthetics and Micropolitical Writing, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group) (2011), p. 17.

[4] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 194.

[5] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 185.

[6] Marks Laura U., Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press) (2002), p. 13.

[7] Fisher Jennifer, Relational Sense: Towards A Haptic Æsthetics, http://www.david-howes.com/senses/Fisher.htm, date accessed 20 September 2016.

[8] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 189.

[9] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 133.

[10] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 138.

[11] Marks Laura U. (2004), pp. 152-153.

[12] See: Marks Laura U. (2004), pp. 171-176.

[13] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 184.

[14] Marks Laura U. (2004), p. 184.

[15] Marinkova Milena, p. 4.

[16] Marinkova Milena, p. 4.

[17] Marinkova Milena, p. 4.

[18] Marinkova Milena, p. 16.

[19] Marinkova Milena, p. 17.

[20] Marinkova Milena, p. 21.

[21] Marinkova Milena, p. 21.

[22] Marinkova Milena, p. 21.

[23] Ahmed Sara, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality, (London and New York: Routledge) (2000), p. 3.

[24] Ahmed Sara, p. 4.

[25] Ahmed Sara, p. 6.

[26] Ahmed Sara, p. 8.

[27] Ahmed Sara, p. 11.

[28] Ahmed Sara, p. 13.

[29] Ahmed Sara, p. 39.

[30] Ahmed Sara, p. 40.

[31] Grosz Elizabeth, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, (Sydney: Allen & Unwin) (1994), p. 142.

[32] Ahmed Sara, pp. 42-43.

[33] Ahmed Sara, p. 45.

[34] Ahmed Sara, p. 45.

[35] Ahmed Sara, p. 49

[36] See: Waldenfels Bernhard, Podstawowe motyy fenomenologii obcego, (Warszawa: Oficyna Naukowa) (2009).

[37] Ahmed Sara, p. 49.

[38] Elsaesser Thomas, „Performative Self-Contradictions. Michael Haneke’s Mind Games”, in A companion to Michael Haneke, ed. Roy Grundmann, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing) (2010), p. 72.

War&Technology (Editorial)

Joanna Walewska

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 2, pp. 1-4.

Joanna Walewska

Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń



War&Technology (Editorial)


Jacques Derrida (2008), when asked if the attacks of 9/11 would become one of the major events of the last century, answered that it is symptomatic that we refer to this event by means of its date: 11 September, 9/11. He concluded that it was a “thing” which probably has the status of an event for which we do not have yet a proper name. Referring to Derrida’s words, W.J.T. Mitchell wrote (2011) that every history in fact consists of two histories, one focused on what actually happened, the other on the ways of interpreting and describing the events. The first type of historical narrative is focused on facts and figures, while the other is focused on images and words that enable understanding of past events. Narratives about the past are no longer a domain reserved only for historians, because more frequently they are created in real time by official and independent media (e.g. the attacks on the WTC, when the emergency services learned about the plane that had crashed into the WTC towers from a television broadcast), millions of social media users around the world (Cottle 2006; Monahan 2010; Grusin 2010, Huff M. et al 2013), and the narration of movie directors and video game developers.

A number of social scientists, journalists, scholars, and philosophers have observed that the outcome of the attacks was a radical shift in political discourse and social practices—explained by the necessity of applying new security measures and justified by the “state of exception” (Agamben 2008; Sidel 2007; Sottiaux 2008; Neal 2010). As a result, the notions of terms such as terrorism, bioterrorism, torture, and enemy combatants were redefined in the context of 9/11 (Peters 2004; Meisels 2008; Nathanson 2010; Miller 2013; Stampnitzky 2013). This semantic operation and the introduction of the policy of fear allowed the authorities to make the “state of exception” a permanent state, which caused long-lasting effects and changed the social processes of interpretation of historical events—not only those directly related to the 9/11 attacks, but also those of earlier events from the history of the U.S. military.

These semantic operations were brilliantly identified and described by Peter Singer, who observed that many addresses delivered by George W. Bush during the “War on Terror” are based on the vision of clear binary scheme which allows a clear differentiation between Good and Evil. Singer noted that Bush’s Evil was almost a substantial entity which acts independently of human actions (Singer 2004). According to Bush, those who attacked the WTC were “enemies of freedom” or “enemies of democracy”, and the prerogative of their actions was “to plot Evil”.

Taking into consideration the long-lasting and significant effects of these cultural changes in the social perception of international military conflicts and the threat of domestic terrorism, it is no wonder that most of the authors who responded to our call for papers devoted to the relations between war and technology have dedicated their papers to topics related to the 9/11 attacks.

Most of these texts are devoted to critical analysis of how those post-9/11 phenomena have been reflected in the sphere of pop culture. Thus, in his text about American gaming industry, Filip Jankowski shows how the majority of the shooting games released between 2001and 2008 created a heroic depiction of American soldiers’ WWII effort by using national stereotypes, erasing civilians from the theatre of war, and reinforcing the U.S. government’s position as the primary guardian of global order in the face of the threat of international terrorism. It seems that a highly polarized depiction of military battles during WWII was the equivalent of President Bush’s “Axes of Evil” speech and, in retrospect, it can be seen as a propaganda tool aimed to strengthen public support for US military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The author also analyses the games that have emerged since 2008, when the gruesome acts of torture committed by American personnel in Abu Ghraib prison were revealed and Barack Obama was elected president. Since then, game producers have created a more realistic reflection of military conflicts, abandoning the binary description of ours as good and enemies as evil and presenting the player with moral dilemmas.

In the current issue of TransMissions, we also include a block of papers devoted to critical examination of the interrelations between the current military complex and the moving image industry. In her paper, based on the analysis of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2013) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Bethany Crowford shows how the film industry has reinforced neoliberal political agendas and military incentives by creating filmic endorsement glorifying the U.S. government’s military campaigns. In her paper, Kaja Łuczyńska presents military technologies as a precise and effective tool for managing conflicts. She shows that along with the post-2008 politics of of “no boots on the ground”, such an image of military technologies led to the erasing of the image of casual victims (on both sides of the conflict) in the social perception of contemporary conflicts.

Based on the considerations of philosophers and critics of post-9/11 politics such as Noam Chomsky and Jean Baudrillard (among others), she shows the influence of the Western taboo of death on the perception of military interventions in the Middle East. The same line of inquiry is presented in the paper by Tatiana Prorokova, who, while analysing the moving image industry, shows how unconditional belief in the power of technology has changed American society and ensured its confidence in “superiority and dominance of its possessors”.

In the first months after the attacks, the fear of being considered an “enemy of freedom” stopped numerous U.S. intellectuals and scholars from asking questions about the actual causes of the events of 9/11. Also, the “war on terror” declared by George W. Bush led to the international military campaign against Al-Qaeda and other militant organizations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (from 2004), as well as to the introduction of a number of legal measures such as the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act, which was based on the unclear and arbitrary category of “domestic terrorism”, which enabled the limitation of civic rights for the sake of security. The researchers point out that this Act resulted in noticeable loss of privacy as well as the reduction of transparency in public life. Both these phenomena are the subject of the papers by Marta Stańczyk, who analyses Hollywood productions concerning WikiLeaks and Hackers, and by Ivory Mills, who assesses the impact of technologies used to wage war in cyberspace. On the other hand, the paper by Sandra Trappen assesses the consequences of the engagement of anthropologists in the so-called Human Terrain System, a phenomenon which is referred to as “a cultural turn in military”. It seems that all three texts correspond to each other, because while the milieus of anthropologists and psychologists have rejected this type of cooperation as an unethical and undesirable breach of independence in the area of knowledge they are pursuing, it has become evident that the Human Terrain System is a key concept that applies not only to anti-insurgency military actions, but also to the frontiers of cyberwar. The concept appears one more time in the documents leaked by Edward Snowden 2013, concerning on-line actions developed by the American National Security Agency (NSA) and the British intelligence bureau, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) against supporters of WikiLeaks, The Pirate Bay portal, and hacktivist groups such as Anonymous.

The last two texts in the current issue of TransMissions are devoted to more general topics concerning the image of war and technology in contemporary culture, but they can still be read in the same context as the other texts in this volume. In her paper about the return of the nuclear technology debate, Agnieszka Kiejziewicz analyses post-Fukushima movies (both fiction and documentary), accurately pointing to the fact that in some way the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011 plays a similar role to 9/11 in that it invigorated historical debates on the country’s nuclear past. Meanwhile, the paper by Magdalena Podsiadło also addresses the problem of heroic narrative, albeit based on the image of rape in Polish contemporary cinema.




Agamben Giorgio, Stan wyjątkowy, (Warszawa: Korporacja Ha! Art) (2009).

Cottle Simon, Mediatized Conflicts. Issues in Cultural and Media Studies, (New York: Open University Press) (2006).

Derrida Jacques, Filozofia w czasach terroru. Rozmowy z Jürgenem Habermasem oraz Jacques’em Derridą (Warszawa: WAiP) (2008).

Grusin Richard, Premediation. Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2010).

Huff Mickey S., Rea Paul W., Deconstructing Deceit: 9/11, the Media, and Myth Information, http://www.projectcensored.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/DeconstructingDeceitOnlineEd.pdf (date accessed 10.11.2013)

Meisels Tamar, The Trouble with Terror. Liberty, Security, and the Rispons to Terrorism (Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press) (2008).

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New American Patriotism in Games: WWII-Themed Military Shooters in the Shadow of Post-9/11 Politics

Filip Jankowski

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 5-20.


Filip Jankowski

Jagiellonian University



New American Patriotism in Games:

WWII-Themed Military Shooters in the Shadow of Post-9/11 Politics


In the 1980s, American popular culture started to restore its reputation as a dominant political power—weakened after the Vietnam War—by recalling the success of World War II and constructing its mythology. The following cinematic tendency, which Frank Wetta and Martin Novelli label as New Patriotism, disseminated triumphalist views on the U.S. presence during the earlier conflict. This study aims to examine the similar trend in the American gaming industry between 1999 and 2008, when a considerable number of first-person shooter games with a World War II setting were released. The author later argues that this wave responded to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, when the George Bush government started a crusade against the so-called “axis of evil”. This political background affected the American gaming industry, as shown with examples of several shooters constituting three important game series: Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Brothers in Arms. Those franchises used the specific setting and stylized antagonists, thus recalling the contemporary events in the Middle East. The main problems with New Patriotism are also raised, including the demonization of enemies and the simultaneous absence of civilians during in-game military actions. Further analysis discusses the hyperrealism of World War II-themed shooters produced in the United States. Products such as Call of Duty resembled cinematic narratives not only in terms of ideological message, but they also recreated scenes from films as such Saving Private Ryan and employed documentary-like cinematic techniques. Finally, the reasons for the natural atrophy of the movement are explained. This explanation includes increasing cathartic violence, the declining credibility of the ideological message provided by New Patriotism, and overutilization of episodes from World War II that are too well-known. The results of the research allow diagnosis of new possible reincarnations of New Patriotism.

Key words: 9/11, digital games, hyperreality, ludology, World War II




The United States has one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world. From Hollywood motion pictures to television stations, this industry plays a vital role in shaping the global political discourse. One of the most important forms of U.S. cultural expansion to foreign countries has become digital games, which are not free of the “discursive, political and ideological meanings” associated with an American point of view on politics, the economy, and history.[1] As Nick Dyer-Whiteford and Greig De Peuter remind us, digital games as a form of media were created for the purposes of the “U.S. military-entertainment complex”, contributing to national imperialist politics.[2] Numerous publications describe digital games as media which support aggressive politics towards other countries (especially Middle Eastern) on the same footing as motion pictures; America’s Army (2003, U.S. Army) serves here as an important example of explicit military propaganda.[3]

However, digital games shape not only discourse about the present, they also influence current views of the past. This article examines a certain tendency in American digital games which coincided with the appearance of military shooters set in the Middle East while using another historical setting and serving similar militainment purposes. Between 1998 and 2008, the movement included an explosion of numerous American first-person shooters[4] devoted to the main events of World War II. Although World War II had already been a theme for several digital games like Panzer General (1994, Strategic Simulations) and Steel Panthers (1995, Strategic Simulations), such productions paid attention to the strategic abilities of the player, therefore appealing to a limited number of board game enthusiasts. Hence, they were overtaken in popularity by action-oriented fantasy games such as Duke Nukem 3D (1996, 3D Realms) and Quake (1996, id Software).[5] The appearance of Medal of Honor (1998, DreamWorks Interactive) changed many things, as this game succeeded at merging the reality of World War II with the conventions of the increasingly popular first-person shooter genre. The choice of this ludic genre was no coincidence because the convention of first-person shooters had a greater potential to immerse players in the game world than strategy games. This article explores the causes of that further expansion of American WWII-themed shooters, their characteristics, and political background.

The aforementioned tendency can be termed “New American Patriotism”, with reference to the name suggested by Frank Wetta and Martin Novelli to describe a movement encompassing American motion pictures with “sentimental and ideological concepts that put the nation and cause ahead of individual survival”.[6] The New American Patriotism, according to Wetta and Novelli, is a celebration of “loyalty to one’s comrades in battle, the ability to survive the horrific face of modern hyper-lethal weaponry and warfare, and the shared experience of battle”.[7] Although both researchers count numerous films from different historical settings as examples of the movement,[8] they claim that an important influence on the message of such motion pictures was remembrance of World War II, which will be further discussed below. Then, because of similarities in their depiction of combat and suffering between both American WWII-themed shooters and films, I will restrict the definition of the New Patriotism to include only the World War II setting.

The following analysis of game characteristics excluded the subversive, parodist reinterpretations of World War II such as Wolfenstein 3D (1992, 3D Realms) and Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001, Raven Software), as well as the games of non-American developers, merely published by American enterprises, like Battlefield 1942 (2002, Digital Illusions CE). Instead, several installments in three gaming franchises (Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Brothers in Arms) were chosen because of their prestige among players and non-parodist approach to the war. Because of their highly cinematic form, this analysis intends to indicate the specific narrative form rather than the gameplay. The former ludology vs. narratology debate has lost its significance and some ludologists acknowledge that the narrative can also be the object of research.[9] Espen Aarseth, for example, indicates that modern first-person shooters are linearly designed. The presence of fixed kernels, which Aarseth defines as “events that define a particular story”,[10] makes linear games immune to the randomness of gameplay, as the kernels are repeatable and foreseeable during each play.[11] The American WWII-themed shooters are chained to fixed kernels, which makes them useful for the analysis of storytelling.


From “New Patriotism” to Digital Games


According to Wetta and Novelli, New American Patriotism was formed as an ideological response to national trauma after the failure of the Vietnam War.[12] During the 1970s and 1980s, American cinema encountered numerous films criticizing national involvement in the Vietnamese conflict and citing several war crimes committed by the U.S. Army. Motion pictures such as Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola), Platoon (1986, Oliver Stone) and Full Metal Jacket (1987, Stanley Kubrick) reflected an absence of faith in optimistic narration about modern conflict. In contrast to this traumatic imagination, the American government sought to replace the feeling of guilt with a revived militaristic discourse (identified with the term “Reaganomatography”) shaped by both the Ronald Reagan administration and the Republican Party.[13] The flood of action heroes like Rambo helped to reinvent the heroism of individual soldiers and therefore allowed an anxious American society to be reassured that right was on their side.

A key role in redefining the official patriotic discourse was played by the remembrance of World War II. A new historical approach, comparing the conflict in Vietnam with more prestigious successes in World War II, reshaped the U.S. attitude to patriotism. World War II became the “Good War”,[14] a conflict which did not shame the nation and could instead help re-establish the common view of soldiers as patriots. The main supporter of this new movement was Stephen Ambrose, a historian who often portrayed combatants from the 1940s as common heroes or “citizen soldiers”. Ambrose’s vision of World War II was embraced by the director Steven Spielberg, who suggested a redefined approach to the spectacle of war. The New Patriotism, combining suffering and explicit violence with moral characters having a deep faith in the legitimacy of war, could give more credibility to such a discourse.[15]

In 1998, Spielberg directed Saving Private Ryan, which would serve as inspiration for the subsequent digital games. The film suggested a new, hyperrealistic approach to the representation of the effects of war on soldiers. The opening sequence of the Omaha Beach assault during the invasion of Normandy staged with attention to violent details and the frequent point-of-view camera shots, condensed the day-long attack into several minutes. Therefore, it fell within Nicholas Mirzoeff’s definition of a “visual event”, which in this example became a prototype of subsequent reconstructions of combat assaults in popular culture.[16] At the same time, it helped reconstruct the triumphalist vision of subsequent conflicts in which the United States took part; the Americans are depicted as the only liberators of Nazi-occupied France, and although “they commit atrocities in the fog of war […], this is the exception rather than the rule”.[17] Albert Auster notes that World War II, thanks to films like Saving Private Ryan, “has become for Americans that mythic, Edenic moment when the entire nation bent itself to victory over evil and barbarism”.[18]

In the same year, Spielberg produced a digital game called Medal of Honor (1998, DreamWorks Interactive), which served the same triumphalist purpose, but the adaptation of World War II reality to the first-person shooter genre was intended for younger recipients. Spielberg, fascinated with digital games, planned to popularize the “Good War” amongst a new generation raised with new forms of media. Knowing that Private Ryan’s violence would be potentially damaging to children, he commissioned a war game with a different plot, without blood and suffering.[19] The result was an adventurous shooter with the player directing a serviceman at the Office of Strategic Services. Tasks involved diverse covert actions behind enemy lines, such as stealing important documents and sabotaging military objectives. In contrast to previous strategic games about World War II, Medal of Honor did not intend to realistically imitate the historical battles themselves, and it employed the point of view of an individual soldier only; its arcade-like gameplay seemed to imitate the spy shooting game GoldenEye 007 (Rage, 1997).[20] However, there was no specific story which shaped the Rage game; intersections during the main game included briefings with tasks to complete, and nothing more.

Nevertheless, Medal of Honor received positive reviews and encouraged its publisher, Electronic Arts, to develop a series of games within a World War II setting. The sequel to Medal of Honor, subtitled Underground (2000, DreamWorks Interactive), maintained a similar tone while providing the fresh perspective of a French female underground activist.


The Influence of 9/11


Medal of Honor’s adventurous tone changed after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. According to Jean Baudrillard, the psychological damage it caused to the American nation led to a globalized cultural expansion of the United States (resulting in such events as the First Gulf War, where the United States led military action against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq), with such symbolic violence questioning the global domination of this North American military power.[21] However, the terrorist attack did not lead to any reflections about the U.S. militarized national diplomacy. Instead, it became an excuse for President George W. Bush to order military intervention in Afghanistan in the same year, where the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda responsible for the attack was based. In 2003, the Bush government invaded Iraq for the second time, citing Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction as a reason. Both invasions were legitimized by Bush’s speech of 23 January 2002, during which the President branded Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan as sponsors of international terrorism, the so-called “axis of evil”. A comparison to the political alliance between Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan (Axis Powers) during World War II was evident,[22] and was not without reason, as further World War II games would allude at the same time to both “axes of evil”, both historical and current.

In the post-9/11 period, the number of military first-person shooters alluding to the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq became much more visible. Popular culture, steered by the connection between military forces and various kinds of entertainment, was involved in the popularization of “justified” violence against other nations, as it had been during the previous events.[23] The role of military shooters cannot, therefore, be diminished, as this ludic genre reflected the enduring cult of guns and violence in the United States.[24] First-person shooters, as one of the most popular ludic genres, reflected this attitude to violence. On the one hand, there was a vast array of digital shooting games directly supported by the American government, such as America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior (2004, Pandemic Studios). Their role as persuasive games with an explicit political message, whose intention was to convince players to support U.S. military interventions, became a topic of comprehensive research.[25] However, it is harder to explain the simultaneous wave of American WWII-themed shooters, which lasted until 2008.

Following Medal of Honor’s success, Electronic Arts continued the series with such games as Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (2002, 2015 Inc.), Medal of Honor: Rising Sun (2003, EA Los Angeles), Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault (2004, EA Los Angeles), and Medal of Honor: Airborne (2007, EA Los Angeles). Meanwhile, another publishing company, Activision, decided to jump on the bandwagon and launched another gaming franchise with Call of Duty (2003, Infinity Ward), Call of Duty 2 (2005, Infinity Ward), Call of Duty 3 (2007, Treyarch), and Call of Duty: World at War (2008, Treyarch). An independent gaming studio, Gearbox Software, also joined the trend, producing a trilogy named Brothers in Arms, consisting of three games: Road to Hill 30 (2005), Earned in Blood (2005), and Hell’s Highway (2008). Whereas the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series employed various perspectives of soldiers from different fronts, and featured run-and-gun mechanics restricted to shooting at enemies and destroying enemy installations, Brothers in Arms established a coherent narrative about a squad from the 101st Airborne Division during the Normandy invasion and the Operation Market Garden in 1944, with more monotonous and slow-paced gameplay involving the ability to command the whole infantry squad from a first-person perspective. Although the games were cloaked under a specific historical setting, scholars such as Marc Ouellette[26] and Trent Cruz[27] claim that the World War II-themed military shooters were used to account for military interventions both in Afghanistan and Iraq, assumptions we shall now consider.

Firstly, it is noteworthy that WWII-themed games, while not explicitly showing the influence of the war in Afghanistan and the Gulf War, tended to re-locate to Middle East settings in time and space. For example, Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, set in the Pacific Theatre, begins with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, which became a convenient excuse for the United States to engage in the world conflict. The Japanese invasion has been frequently compared to American public opinion concerning the devastation of the Twin Towers. Although there are claims that such a comparison has been lax and based on simplification,[28] the memory of Pearl Harbor within the context of the 9/11 crisis functioned as a persuasive emotional response to human misfortune and suffering.[29] This metaphorical outlook on recent events as a reiteration of the past permeated Rising Sun along with Pacific Assault. In both games, Pearl Harbor develops into a turning point of the main story. While playing Rising Sun, the player confronts kamikaze planes while defending the USS Oklahoma destroyer; in Pacific Assault, the Japanese bombers devastate the base while the defenseless player sees the other people suffering from below. Ouellette observes that the fumes of burning Pearl Harbor seen from the distance in a cut-screen resemble the smoke from the Twin Towers after the 9/11 attack.[30]

Conversely, the references are sometimes subtler. For example, the beginning of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault is a covert operation taking place in Arzew, Algeria, where a group of OSS servicemen prepare for Operation Torch, an invasion of the Allied military forces on Morocco and Algeria, where the Axis forces are stationed. One of the campaigns featured in Call of Duty 2 also includes levels depicting the British offensive against German forces in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Although both games feature protagonists of different nationalities (the reasons for establishing different national viewpoints will be discussed later), the allusion to current events in the Middle East is mediated via Arab urban landscapes. In such scenarios, the Germans—the like Japanese in Rising Sun and Pacific Assault—serve as the equivalent of Middle Eastern terrorists. If the Japanese soldiers attack the player with bayonets and sword by surprise, the German soldiers organize a violent resistance against Allied forces, performing ambushes with grenade launchers—just like the guerrilla forces in Iraq.[31]

The Germans and the Japanese in these games are both portrayed as fanatics: they repeat conventional cries like “Banzai” and “Amerikaner”, and their role is restricted to those of targets at a shooting range. They are cruel to their captives, and their brutality becomes highlighted in Call of Duty: World at War. Each campaign of the game opens with similar scenes: in the American campaign, the player observes an enemy officer burning a prisoner with a cigar, then cutting his throat; the Soviet campaign begins with the player witnessing a massacre of his comrades by German forces. The unfolding narrative suggests the following message: the enemy shows no mercy, so we cannot show it to them either.[32]

Of course, the situation is different when it comes to portraying the Allies. Activision’s Call of Duty series, marked initially with the slogan “No one fights alone”, involves the diverse perspectives of nations fighting against the Axis. The Call of Duty game series, in contrast to homogenized American meta-narratives about their involvement in the war, features varying viewpoints of American, British, Soviet, and other Allied soldiers. All the gaming franchises also include naturalized Americans from ethnic minorities such as Italians and Mexicans (African Americans are not featured, though, due to racial segregation in the American military forces). What linked the meta-narration of the New American Patriotism in games was the accentuation of an international alliance against common enemies.[33] The national and ethnic diversity of fighting characters suggested that they united against a serious threat to their existence. The inclusion of selected Allied nations was affected by the contemporary balance of power, for example the Soviet presence in the Call of Duty series can be attributed rather to the intermittent collaboration between the United States and Russia during the invasion of Afghanistan than to the historical alliance between the Soviet Union and the United States during World War II.

By contrast, the perspectives of the defeated nations are not included. Tanine Allison notes that while in many strategy games the player can control German and Japanese forces, the narration of American WWII-themed shooters stays highly vectorized, and the Allies constitute the only playable side of the conflict.[34] The civilian perspective is also reduced from the main narration, as the New Patriotism in games would lose attractiveness if the player confronted the real suffering of defenseless people murdered during military action. According to Holger Pötzsch, such a tendency is typical for first-person shooters in general:

If civilian deaths are presented, their fates are disconnected from player involvement and usually presented as the consequence of the opponents’ actions and decisions. The only violence that is enabled is strictly battle related and targeted at opposing soldiers or paramilitary forces this way excluding such documented war-related abuses as rape, the killing of children, or the unintended targeting of non-combatants with heavy weapons.[35]

The only WWII-themed shooter which included civilians as refined characters is Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. The game, set in The Netherlands during Operation Market Garden in 1944, features several Dutch people who interact with an American unit while residing in the city of Eindhoven; a shoemaker offers the main protagonist Matt Baker some information about the enemies’ position, and a secondary character falls in love with a local girl. However, two motives—resistance and love—are dramatically curtailed with the brutal deaths of the shoemaker’s son and the girl. Their sacrifice, however, is used pretextually to illustrate enemy atrocities, and the narration still defines the American servicemen as people determined to prevent the civilians from suffering.


Cinematic Imagery


These factors—relocation of the present into the past, demonization of enemies, and heroization of protagonists—correspond to period films constituting the cinematic New Patriotism. However, American WWII-themed shooters are defined not only by their common, ideological message, but also by their hyperrealism in staging scenes from the conflict. Although the games’ developers frequently used slogans that seemingly attest to the authenticity and realism of their products,[36] the notion of realism in digital games is actually very problematic. We can attribute this issue to the ontological status of digital games in general. The realism considered as being in the real-world environment does not apply to digital games because they can only simulate their worlds, and simulation always excludes some factors constituting real life. For example, virtual bodies disappear after the passage of time, and the player can easily heal herself even after being seriously injured. As Aarseth says, virtual bullets used in various shooters do not differ ontologically,[37] and simulation as part of gaming experience always combines the real and the fictional.[38]

Furthermore, WWII-themed military shooters from 1998–2008 are more intertextual than extratextual, which means that they borrow from cinematic imagery rather than from real experiences on World War II battlefields. One can cite numerous inspirations of game developers by the cinematic New Patriotism. For example, the Omaha Beach sequence from Saving Private Ryan appeared in two Electronic Arts’ games about the Normandy invasion (Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and Medal of Honor: Frontline) where even details such as the subtitle “Omaha Beach, June 6th, 1944” with the Times New Roman font are copied from the film. Similarly, the Call of Duty and Call of Duty: World at War’s Soviet storylines that take place during the Battle of Stalingrad remediate the settings and events previously seen in Enemy at the Gates (2002, Jean-Jacques Annaud). The spectacularly staged sequence of the parachute landing in the French countryside, which introduces Road to Hill 30, as well as the serialized narrative of the whole series, recalls the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (2001, Steven Spielberg & Tom Hanks), whereas Rising Sun and Pacific Assault imitate Pearl Harbor in their depiction of the titular base attack.

Adapting Jay David Bolter and David Grusin’s term of “remediation”, defined as the “refashioned and improved versions of other media”,[39] James Campbell sees such a tendency as an example of “remediated nostalgia”. His research indicates that WWII-themed shooters were intended to simulate not World War II itself, but a World War II film. Hence, games such as Medal of Honor and Call of Duty attempt to provide ludic visual experiences similar to those from the 1990s American combat films.[40] This assumption, according to Eva Kingsepp, recalls the Baudrillardian notion of hyperreality which replaces historical events, currently impossible to revive, with their mediated representations.[41] The games imitated reality, but their developers could not develop a real experience, only a feeling of authenticity.[42]

Following James Campbell’s suggestion that WWII-themed shooters simulate cinematic experience, we discover that their design is intended not to demonstrate real suffering during combat, but to just “look” real. Discussing this issue, Andrew Salvati and Jonathan Bullinger define American WWII-themed military shooters as using “selective authenticity”, a term introduced to describe the creative interpretation of historical facts instead of strict historical reconstruction. This process, according to Salvati and Bullinger, applies to these shooters within the framework of three categories: technology fetishism (an accurate depiction of the weaponry used during the war), documentary authority (a selection of documentaries or quotations from known personalities), and cinematic convention.[43] The latter category is characterized by frequent use of slow-motion and cut-scenes (Rising Sun, Pacific Assault, Earned in Blood, Hell’s Highway), as well as a stabilized virtual camera during significant events (Road to Hill 30, Call of Duty 3, World at War) and the inclusion of authentic documentaries that are already cinematic in their form. All these factors contributed to the meta-narrative of the New American Patriotism in games and made them a visually attractive collection of factual discourses, where complex military operations are rapidly achieved on screen.[44]


The Decline and the Revival?


New American Patriotism in games, considered here as the presence of American WWII-themed shooters, rapidly disappeared after 2008—there were no further productions about the conflict. One can posit several causes of such a decline. Firstly, the virtual image of World War II became much darker during the existence of the movement. The first Medal of Honor games which attracted the attention of players featured no blood or gore. This situation changed after the appearance of the Brothers in Arms franchise, in which the player had to confront the dispiriting deaths of fallen comrades and scenes naturalistically picturing the physical fragmentation of soldiers. This increase of violence reflected the brutalization of the Second Gulf War, when a growing number of news reports indicated the tragic result of American aggression against civilians. The military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were failures resulting in the appearance of so-called Islamic State in post-2010 Iraq. The last game of the Brothers in Arms series, Hell’s Highway, is set during Operation Market Garden in 1944, which was regarded a similar failure because of equally poor intelligence and dire consequences for civilians. This game, featuring horrifying imagery of the consequences of war on soldiers and civilians, ends with the operation unaccomplished and the player-directed unit being demoralized, but nevertheless having faith in further phases of the war (retrospectively motivated, anyway). James W. Creel suggests that the closure of Hell’s Highway was paradoxically uplifting in its allusion to the War on Terror and hope for a final victory since World War II had been won despite the operational failure.[45] Yet if we consider the demotivating tones of the whole game, the implicit ideological message of Hell’s Highway seemed ineffective, the story being assessed by a British journalist Kristan Reed as “overblown, and, towards the end, really quite cringeworthy”.[46]

Secondly, the constant ideological remembrance of such historical battles as the Normandy beaches, Stalingrad, and Pearl Harbor became counter-productive. The discourse, when repeated without refreshment, turned out to be unconvincing, and the depictions of historical conflicts lost their attraction, as the meta-narrative of the New American Patriotism was still the same.[47] When Activision realized that moving the World War II setting to fictionalized modern conflicts in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007, Infinity Ward) “made the game more exciting to the players”,[48] the developers shifted to political fiction while maintaining the militaristic discourse to justify U.S. military aggression. Conversely, a new trend began to infect military shooters. The bonus horror episode of Call of Duty: World at War, in which the player could battle against zombified versions of the Nazis, became more popular than the game itself.[49] Thus, World War II in military shooters turned itself into a dead project, and the military–entertainment complex sought new methods of persuading the audiences to intervene in the Middle East.

However, the relocation of U.S. military forces to Iraq to counter an increasing regional threat from the so-called Islamic State gave the American government new arguments for maintaining the position of primary guardians of the global order. The military–entertainment complex seems to respond to such trends, with Activision and Gearbox Software recently announcing the development of new games set in World War II.[50] Thus, the question of American imperialism is being reintroduced. The living dead of WWII-themed games are rising from their graves, thus forcing us to indicate the renewed articulation of New American Patriotism.




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Pötzsch Holger, “Selective Realism: Filtering Experiences of War and Violence in First- and Third-Person Shooters”, Games and Culture 12:2 (2007), http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1555412015587802, date accessed 9 February 2017.

Ramsay Debra, American Media and the Memory of World War II (Oxford: Routledge) (2015).

Reed Kristan, “Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway”, Eurogamer, 2008 http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/brothers-in-arms-hells-highway-review?page=2, date accessed 24 June 2017.

Retro Gamer Team, “The Making of Medal of Honor”, https://www.retrogamer.net/retro_games90/the-making-of-medal-of-honor/, date accessed 4 February 2017.

Rosenberg Adam, “Zombies Don’t Belong in Call of Duty — so How the Hell Did They Get There?”, Digital Trends, 2015, https://www.digitaltrends.com/gaming/zombies-dont-belong-call-duty-hell-get/, date accessed 24 June 2017.

Safire William, Safire’s Political Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford Dictionary Press) (2008).

Salvati Andrew J., Bullinger Jonathan M., “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past”, in Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, ed. Matthew Wilhelm Kapell, Andrew B.R. Elliott (New York: Bloomsbury) (2013), pp. 153–167.

Schiesel Seth, “In This Electronic War, Momentum Shifts to the Underdog”, The New York Times, 4 July 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/08/arts/television/08battle.html?nytmobile=0, date accessed 24 June 2017.

Schulzke Marcus, “Serving in the Virtual Army: Military Games and the Civil-Military Divide”, Journal of Applied Security Research, 8:2 (2013), pp. 246–261.

Silverstein Ken, “Soviet-Designed Weapon Is Still Guerrillas’ Choice”, Los Angeles Times, 6 July 2003, http://articles.latimes.com/2003/jul/06/world/fg-rpg6, date accessed 24 June 2017.

Susca Margot A., “Why We Still Fight: Adolescents, America’s Army, and the Government-Gaming Nexus”, Global Media Journal, 12 (2012), p. 1–16.

Terkel Studs, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Ballantine Books) (1984).

Voorhees Gerald, “Monsters, Nazis, and Tangos: The Normalization of the First-Person Shooter”, in Guns, Grenades, and Grunts: First-Person Shooter Games, ed. Gerald Voorhees, Joshua Call, Katie Whitlock (New York – London: Continnum) (2012), p. 89–111.

Wetta Frank J., Novelli Martin A., “Now a Major Motion Picture: War Films and Hollywood’s New Patriotism”, The Journal of Military History 67:3 (2003), pp. 861–882.

White Geoffrey M., “National Subjects: September 11 and Pearl Harbor”, American Ethnologist, 31:3 (2004), pp. 293–310.



[1] David A. Clearwater, Full Spectrum Propaganda: The U.S. Military, Video Games, and the Genre of the Military-Themed Shooter (McGill University) (2006), p. XIII.

[2] Nick Dyer-Witheford, Greig De Peuter, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (Minneapolis: Universiaty of Minnesota Press) (2009).

[3] Nick Dyer-Witheford, Greig De Peuter; see also Marcus Schulzke, “Serving in the Virtual Army: Military Games and the Civil-Military Divide”, Journal of Applied Security Research, 8.2 (2013), pp. 246–261.

[4] First-person shooter (FPS) is a genre of digital games based on shooting at enemy objects and moving within three-dimensional game worlds where the player can manipulate the point of view by steering the mouse.

[5] In the Readers’ Top 10 poll for an American gaming magazine Computer Gaming World, the debuting Quake was placed immediately higher than the Steel Panthers and Panzer General games, which were listed there for several months. See “Readers’ Top 10”, Computer Gaming World 150:1 (1997), p. 42.

[6] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, “Now a Major Motion Picture: War Films and Hollywood’s New Patriotism”, The Journal of Military History 67:3 (2003), p. 861.

[7] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, p. 861.

[8] Their objects of analysis range from movies about World War II, like Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg), The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Malick) and Pearl Harbor (2001, Michael Bay), to modern warfare, like Three Kings (1999, David O. Russell) and Black Hawk Down (2001, Ridley Scott), to the American Revolution, like The Patriot (2003, Roland Emmerich).

[9] Michalis Kokonis, “Intermediality between Games and Fiction: The ‘Ludology vs. Narratology’ Debate in Computer Game Studies: A Response to Gonzalo Frasca”, Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies, 9.1 (2015), pp. 171–188; compare Gonzalo Frasca, “Ludologists Love Stories, Too: Notes from a Debate That Never Took Place”, in Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings, ed. by Marinka Copier and Joost Raseesne, (presented at the Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference, Utrecht: DiGRA and University of Utrecht) (2003), pp. 92–99.

[10] Espen Aarseth, “A Narrative Theory of Games”, in Proceedings of the International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games (Raleigh, North California: ACM) (2012), https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Espen_Aarseth/publication/254006015_A_narrative_theory_of_games/links/57fb37a708ae280dd0bf9983.pdf, date accessed 14 February 2017.

[11] Espen Aarseth.

[12] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, pp. 865–867.

[13] A term coined by Łukasz Kobylarz, “‘Rambo! Your Country Needs You!’ czyli kino w służbie państwa”, Panoptikum, 7 (2008), pp. 296–302.

[14] A phrase popularized by Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Ballantine Books) (1984).

[15] Frank J. Wetta, Martin A. Novelli, p. 868.

[16] Nicholas Mirzoeff, “The Subject of Visual Culture”, in The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, (London and New York: Routledge) (2002), pp. 6–7.

[17] Albert Auster, “Saving Private Ryan and American Triumphalism”, Journal of Popular Film & Television 30:2 (2002), p. 102.

[18] Ibid., p. 104.

[19]Retro Gamer Team, “The Making of Medal of Honor”, http://www.retrogamer.net/retro_games90/the-making-of-the-sims/, date accessed 4 February 2017.

[20] Gerald Voorhees, “Monsters, Nazis, and Tangos: The Normalization of the First-Person Shooter”, in Guns, Grenades, and Grunts: First-Person Shooter Games, ed. Gerald Voorhees, Joshua Call, Katie Whitlock (New York – London: Continuum) (2012), p. 103.

[21] Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays (Verso) (2003), p. 6-8.

[22] William Safire, Safire’s Political Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford Dictionary Press) (2008), pp. 30–32.

[23] See, for example, an examination of the Captain America comic book as influenced by up-to-date geopolitics: Jason Dittmer, “Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95:3 (2005), pp. 626–643.

[24] See a comprehensive study of the Americans’ attitude to gun culture: Gary Kleck, Point Blank: Guns And Violence In America (Transaction Publishers) (2005).

[25] Margot A. Susca, “Why We Still Fight: Adolescents, America’s Army, and the Government-Gaming Nexus”, Global Media Journal, 12 (2012), p. 1–16; compare David B. Nieborg, “America’s Army: More Than a Game”, ed. by Thomas Eberle and Willy Christian Kriz (presented at the Transforming Knowledge into Action through Gaming and Simulation, Munchen: SAGSAGA, 2004).

[26] Marc Ouellette, “‘I Hope You Never See Another Day Like This’: Pedagogy & Allegory in ‘Post 9/11’ Video Games”, Game Studies 8:1 (September 2008), http://gamestudies.org/0801/articles/ouellette_m, date accessed 22 February 2017.

[27] Trent Cruz, “’It’s Almost Too Intense’: Nostalgia and Authenticity in Call of Duty 2”, http://docplayer.net/30795749-It-s-almost-too-intense-nostalgia-and-authenticity-in-call-of-duty-2.html, date accessed 28 February 2017.

[28] See Fred L. Borch, “Comparing Pearl Harbor and ‘9/11’: Intelligence Failure? American Unpreparedness? Military Responsibility?”, The Journal of Military History, 67:3 (2003), pp. 845–860.

[29] See Geoffrey M. White, “National Subjects: September 11 and Pearl Harbor”, American Ethnologist, 31:3 (2004), pp. 293–310.

[30] Marc Ouellette.

[31] Ken Silverstein, “Soviet-Designed Weapon Is Still Guerrillas’ Choice”, Los Angeles Times, 6 July 2003, http://articles.latimes.com/2003/jul/06/world/fg-rpg6, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[32] See Robin Andersen, Marin Kurti, “From America’s Army to Call of Duty: Doing Battle with the Military Entertainment Complex”, Democratic Communiqué 23:1 (2009), p. 56.

[33] See Debra Ramsay, American Media and the Memory of World War II (Oxford: Routledge) (2015), p. 170.

[34] Tanine Allison, “The World War II Video Game, Adaptation, and Postmodern History”, Literature/Film Quarterly 38:3 (2010), pp. 191.

[35] Holger Pötzsch, “Selective Realism: Filtering Experiences of War and Violence in First- and Third-Person Shooters”, Games and Culture 12:2 (2007), http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1555412015587802, date accessed 9 February 2017.

[36] See James Campbell, “Just Less than Total War: Simulating World War II as Ludic Nostalgia”, in Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, ed. by Laurie N. Taylor and Zach Whalen (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2008), p. 186.

[37] Espen Aarseth, “Doors and Perception: Fiction vs. Simulation in Games”, Intermédialités 9 (2007), p. 38.

[38] Espen Aarseth, s. 43.

[39] Jay David Bolter, Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press) (1999), p. 15.

[40] James Campbell, pp. 187–188.

[41] Eva Kingsepp, “Fighting Hyperreality With Hyperreality: History and Death in World War II Digital Games”, Games and Culture, 2:4 (2007), pp. 367–368.

[42] Eva Kingsepp, “Immersive Historicity in World War II Digital Games”, Human IT: Journal for Information Technology Studies as a Human Science, 8:2 (2013), p. 64.

[43] Andrew J. Salvati, Jonathan M. Bullinger, “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past”, in Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, ed. Matthew Wilhelm Kapell, Andrew B.R. Elliott (New York: Bloomsbury) (2013), pp. 153–167.

[44] For example, in the Soviet campaign of Call of Duty, there is a mission in which the player defends a strategic object known as Pavlov’s House during the Battle of Stalingrad. Whereas the real defense lasted two months before the arrival of supporting Soviet forces, the in-game defense could be easily completed in 15–20 minutes. The historical events are condensed to fully immerse the player in the battle that could not be as intense as on screen.

[45] James W. Creel, “Failure Is Not An Option: WWII, Video Games, and the War on Terror”, in The Game Culture Reader, ed. by Jason Thompson and Marc Ouellette (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2013), pp. 175–187.

[46] Kristan Reed, “Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway”, Eurogamer, 2008 http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/brothers-in-arms-hells-highway-review?page=2, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[47] Brian Crecente, “Video Games Bid Adieu to World War II”, http://kotaku.com/5555349/black-opsvideo-games-bid-adieu-to-world-war-ii, date accessed 24 February 2017.

[48] Seth Schiesel, “In This Electronic War, Momentum Shifts to the Underdog”, The New York Times, 4 July 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/08/arts/television/08battle.html?nytmobile=0, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[49] Adam Rosenberg, ‘Zombies Don’t Belong in Call of Duty — so How the Hell Did They Get There?’, Digital Trends, 2015, https://www.digitaltrends.com/gaming/zombies-dont-belong-call-duty-hell-get/, date accessed 24 June 2017.

[50] Cade Onder, “Randy Pitchford teases new Brothers in Arms game”, http://www.gamezone.com/news/randy-pitchford-teases-new-brothers-in-arms-game-3453060, date accessed 11 July 2017.


Moving Image as Political Tool: The impact of neoliberalism on the role of the moving image in postmodern warfare

Bethany Crawford

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 21-36.

Bethany Crawford

Dutch Art Institute



Moving Image as Political Tool:

The impact of neoliberalism on the role of the moving image in postmodern warfare


This research critically examines the interrelation of neoliberalism, the moving image, and postmodern warfare with the intention of determining the impact of the neoliberal influence on the increasingly important role of the moving image in postmodern warfare. Through analysis of a selection of contemporary films, this research attempts to decipher how neoliberalism is pervading culture, both in the West and abroad, and why this is important in the context of postmodern war. As image and screen-based technologies are a dominant element in contemporary culture, it is vital to understand the extent of societal manipulation delivered via these platforms to perpetuate potentially harmful political economic agendas and military incentives.

Key words: neoliberalism, post-modern warfare, warfare, moving image, moving image technologies





This paper intends to evaluate the ramifications of the Western political establishments’ conformation to the politically applied neoliberal ideology on the utility and increased dependence of moving image technology in the arena of postmodern warfare, as both a weapon and a societal tool. With a focus on the modern wars that have been the consequence of the neoliberal agenda, this paper will consider the function of the moving image within this political context, with particular emphasis on cultural control. This will allow for comments on the counteractive capacity of artists’ moving image and the necessity of activating an engaged spectatorship in the face of increasingly immersive technologies and manipulative images. The intricate interrelation of neoliberal ideology, war and the film industry is a complex subject of study, as each factor facilitates and necessitates the other. Each element is historically and developmentally interwoven, with political and economic issues being a direct effect and result of motivations in conflicts and industry, and contrariwise. Due to the impact of neoliberal ideology, it has further become increasingly difficult to distinguish between these aspects in order to study their relation, as the resulting oligarchical control has amalgamated government, war and film into one indistinguishable, powerful businesses.

American hegemonic domination of the international film industry and the country’s presiding role over modern global politics and warfare certify the importance of examining the role of Hollywood and mainstream American cinema when investigating the neoliberal impact on moving image within postmodern warfare. As the U.S. government launched the post-9/11 ‘Global War on Terror’ to initiate invasions and substantial military campaigns in various locations in the Middle East, filmic endorsement was necessary in order to mobilise public support and maintain the advantageous governmental position over a society seized by fear. Two examples of films conforming to the contemporary propagandised depictions of the recent American military endeavours in the Middle East are Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2013) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012). American Sniper details the exploits of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle during his four tours of Iraq, as he accumulates the 160 confirmed kills that earned him the honour of ‘America’s deadliest sniper’. The CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and Pakistan is portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty through the motivations of a young, female CIA operative, Maya. The delivery of these war films in the slick narrative characterised by mainstream and Hollywood cinema exemplifies the passive consumption and neutralisation of on-screen violence that is arguably promoting a dangerous complacency of conflict in contemporary society. The inactive spectatorship encouraged by such narratives allows for a governmentally valuable platform for simultaneously administering glorification of both neoliberal values and the military violence that comes with it. Critical evaluation of American Sniper will focus on the film’s portrayal of Arabs and Muslims as a form of mobilising and maintaining public support for military action in the Middle East through fear and misrepresentation. Examination of the characterisation of gender in American Sniper will allow study of the definition and promotion of the ‘neoliberal man’ in relation to a neoliberal state. This will lead into analysis of the function of the female protagonist in Zero Dark Thirty and the production’s associations and appropriations of feminist rhetoric. Zero Dark Thirty will further provide the basis for a dissection of the film’s formal arrangements in regards to invalidation of the impact of on-screen violence, and the resulting consequences on its commentary of militarised torture.

The neoliberal ideological model supports a process of globalisation in order to internationalise economic structures and embrace a global free market. An idealised impact of international subscription to neoliberalism would ensure a globally competitive market, increased international productivity and consumerism, and minimisation of state controls on trade and economy. This economic and financial motivation is the foundational incentive of contemporary warfare in the neoliberal age. Other than allowing for the implementation of a plunderable economic structure, globalisation has proven a valuable vehicle for delivering a dominating cultural paradigm through the international export of American film, known as ‘soft power’.[1] The impact of the cultural imperialism of globalized American cinema, in tandem with the enforcement of political and economic neoliberal ideologies, is exemplified in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014). Both films focus on the aftermath of the Western-backed Indonesian coup d’etat led by General Suharto in 1965–66, which directly resulted in the deaths of over one million people. The Act of Killing thematically centres on the influence of American cinema on a group of gangsters unrepentantly responsible for a multitude of the genocidal killings as they re-enact the massacres through various cinematic genre conventions. The Look of Silence acts as a contextualising counterpart that follows the family of one of the victims of the genocide as the younger brother utilises his role of optometrist to confront the perpetrators. Analysis of the content and formal arrangements of The Act of Killing, with notes on similar methods used in The Look of Silence, will allow for considerations on Oppenheimer’s self-reflexive deconstruction of the role of film as mode of delivery for ideological sentiments and cultural reinforcement of military and economic force, in a direct critique of the impact of globalised American cinema. Character analysis of key participants in The Act of Killing will allow the examination of the ramifications of neoliberalism on a societal level and question the rewarded personality traits under a neoliberal regime.

The increasing internationally globalised interrelation of Western political aggression with Hollywood and American mainstream cinema has necessitated calls for a counteractive utility of the moving image to provoke a politicised dissidence in spectators. As militarised screen-based technologies are rapidly evolving and leading to eventual implementation as culturally accessible technology, society is becoming progressively more dominated by screen culture and advancing immersive and interactive moving image technology which multiplies the effectiveness of passive consumption. Experiential participation in simulated and immersive visual technology allows a situation in which the penetrative ideological impact of images pervades the mind at a deeper cognitive level.[2] Through these technologies, such as video games and virtual reality, the brain is being trained to function in conjuncture with neoliberal anticipation. The pre-emptive nature of the neoliberal state, such as anticipatory military action exemplified in the invasion of Iraq, is beneficial for an Orwellian governmental control over citizens through the perpetual threat of war and constant fear.[3] These passively engaging modes of moving image utility open dialogue for an inverted employment and critique of these technologies which is represented in the provocative works of the German artist filmmaker Harun Farocki, with specific focus on Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988) and Serious Games I–IV  (2009-10). Analysis of the formal arrangements of both Images of War and Serious Games will establish effective techniques of provoking spectator engagement with moving imaging works in direct remedial response to the encouraged passive consumption of contemporary image-based technologies. This will lead to investigation into methods of self-reflexive deconstruction of the moving image in the modern theatre of war in both Images of War and Serious Games I: Watson is Down.


American Sniper and Establishing the Enemy


Following the recent military endeavours in the Middle East, there has been an increase in anti-Islamic sentiment and Arab vilification within recent Hollywood war productions. The Arab world has assumed the role of the terrorist ‘Other’, a position formerly held by communists during the years of the Cold War. This cultural establishment of the Arab enemy beneficially maintains public support for the continuing military involvement in the Middle East. This trend is exemplified in American Sniper (2013) and will be illustrated through an analysis of the film’s use of sound and visual form.

The film sonically opens with the Islamic call to prayer eventually obscured by the mechanical sound of a military tank; this is confirmed visually as a tank appears rolling through a burned-out Middle Eastern town. The very outset of the film provides the initial connotations of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ rhetoric, the call to prayer not just providing a locational signifier (as there are mosques all over the globe), but when coupled with militarised images establishes an emotive connection between Islam and war. This is thematically continued through the duration of the film with consistent visual references to the Iraqi fighters as Muslim and the American soldiers as Christian, establishing a wrongful context of a war of religion (e.g. the scene featuring a quick cut to a suicide bomber’s lifeless hand falling whilst clutching prayer beads). The call to prayer is again used as sonic accompaniment to a climactic moment of tension by which the audience is first introduced to the main antagonist, the Iraqi sniper ‘Mustafa’. This scene further commemorates Mustafa’s first on-screen killing of a U.S. soldier, continuing the demonising association of Islam through sonic suggestion. The character of Mustafa is a cartoonish depiction of a villainous Arab, complete with an ominous, deep and throbbing leitmotif that intensifies his caricaturised evil persona.

American Sniper is punctuated throughout with a series of point-of-view shots through Kyle’s rifle viewfinder, as he tracks potential enemies in the deadly crosshairs. These shots are effectively subjective, implicating the spectator in the position of Kyle, strengthening emotional identification with the protagonist whilst simultaneously alienating and vilifying the subjects in shot, nearly always Iraqis. In one instance, after the audience is introduced to Kyle in the beginning of the film, he lines up a nefariously behaving hijab-clad female with her young child. Tracked through Kyle’s rifle viewfinder the child runs forward carrying an RKG grenade, passed to him by his mother. Not only is this sequence subject to the criminalising effect of the viewfinder POV, but the shot then quickly cuts to a scene of Kyle as a young boy shooting his first deer. This rapid transition infers a moral relation between the shooting of a deer and that of an Arab, effectively animalising and dehumanising the ‘Other’.


American Sniper and the Neoliberal Man


Eastwood’s American Sniper successfully advocates contemporary neoliberal-influenced prescriptions of gender. The attributes of the idealised self-disciplined individualism of the neoliberal man easily fulfils the ‘Hollywood hero’ prototype that Kyle profitably conforms to—a design unchanged since the early days of Hollywood that reinforces the conservative notions of gender and masculinity. Corresponding to these traditionally masculine character criteria is valuable in maintaining multitudes of young men signing up for armed service with aspirations of achieving similar cinematically hyper-masculine heroics. Kyle’s character is fundamentally a microcosm of the model conservative, neoliberal American state. He emphasises the desirable qualities of a neoliberal subject—exhibiting resilience, a constant pre-emptive anticipation, and an individualised self-reliance—that are admirable character traits necessary to thrive under neoliberal implications.

The film is an unadulterated celebration of masculine violence and individual merit within its very premise—a production solely dedicated to heralding the heroic sacrifices of ‘America’s deadliest sniper’. This congratulatory stance concerning ‘honourable’ violence is established early in the film through a sequence depicting an incident from Kyle’s youth. As a young Kyle and his family sit around the family table, his authoritative father delivers an analogical lesson on good and evil through the categorisation of an individual into a sheep, a wolf or a sheepdog. He refers to sheepdogs as “those who have been blessed with the gift of aggression and the overwhelming need to protect the flock” whilst condemning his young sons to turn out as anything other than a noble and protective sheepdog, and ultimately congratulating young Kyle on finishing a fight. This in essence is the summation of American Sniper’s attitude to violence, and eludes to the violence in Iraq as being a justifiable retaliation (a potentially dangerously misinforming connection of the invasion of Iraq to 9/11.)

Kyle embodies the impulsive and enterprising self-confidence rewarded under neoliberal individualism. On several occasions in the film, he instinctively recognises the correct course of action, even breaking rank in order to follow his intuition. The pinnacled climax, in which Kyle finally kills his nemesis Mustafa, is one such occasion. Kyle is repeatedly told to hold fire so as not to give away their position, under the commanding officer’s assurance that the distance between Kyle and Mustafa would render it an impossible shot. Kyle, however, is confident of his gifted marksmanship and takes the shot anyway, to great success. His character further displays the resilience desired in a prosperous neoliberal subject, an ability to speedily re-cooperate which negates any danger of dependence on anyone or establishment other than the self. This is illustrated in his ability to return immediately to the battlefield moments after his close friend ‘Biggles’ is shot, and his lackadaisical attitude to his girlfriend’s infidelity and their consequential breakup early in the film.


Neoliberal Women and Feminism in Zero Dark Thirty


Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was widely commended for its depiction of a dynamic female CIA agent accountable for arguably one of the greatest U.S. military victories in post-9/11 conflict. Some have even hailed the production a ‘feminist epic’—a claim that typifies current assumptions of female representation being the centrally significant issue of the feminist struggle, over endeavours for redistribution of power.[4] Aspirations for female representation over redistribution are commonly understood as a prerogative of post-feminism, arguably defined as a neoliberalised feminism.[5] Zero Dark Thirty provides exemplification of the current trend of appropriating feminist rhetoric to provide credibility to the contemporary military agenda.

Zero Dark Thirty’s gender representations within its central character, Maya, largely comply with the postfeminist ideal. She epitomises individualism, manifesting as a deeply driven ‘lone wolf’ character that is utterly devoted to her career. She is single-mindedly motivated to ensure the death of Bin Laden, which becomes an individually driven pursuit as her superiors move on to more imminently demanding issues of national security. This crusade eventually comes to fruition with Maya reaping the rewards of her dedicated individual labour, through the killing of Osama bin Laden at the hands of the navy SEALS under her direction. Early in the film, Maya is complimentarily referred to as a ‘killer’ in her field. As men primarily dominate this field of expertise, this statement resonates as an empowering accomplishment for her as a woman, but the violence of the term ‘killer’ provides potential insight to her success as a consequence of adopting traditionally masculine traits. Her aggressive ambition and quickly learned immunity to brutal violence align her with conventionally understood aspects of the ‘alpha male’. This encouraged female adaption to a more masculinised archetype in order to succeed in the workplace is a negation of foundational aspects of the feminist struggle and is characteristic of post-feminism. Maya’s character exhibits the self-surveillance and regimented self-discipline expected of an efficient post-feminist woman. Her slender and well-groomed appearance confirm that however engrossed she is in her vocation, she is still attentive to her physical presentation. Throughout the film she maintains an emotionally restrained persona, only exhibiting an aggressively emotive response when her superiors impose obstacles to the fervent pursuit of her goal. She appears to be constantly monitoring her own behaviour, contrastingly highlighted next to the relaxed and natural demeanour of her male co-agent. Maya’s unswayable individualism and inherently capitalist temperament is confirmed through the competitive acquaintance between her and her fellow female CIA agent, Jessica. Their initial meeting is an icy exchange, which later develops into a guarded friendship. This lack of establishing a sense of sisterhood or even a natural friendship is testament to the postfeminist severance of the necessity for a socialised unification of women that was prevalent in second wave feminism.


Neutralising Violence and the Brutality of Torture in Zero Dark Thirty


The narrative of Zero Dark Thirty presents a confirmation of the constructive outcome of employing enhanced interrogation techniques (“EITs”, commonly known as torture.) The director, Kathryn Bigelow, and the writer, Mark Boal, worked closely with the CIA to ensure a ‘realistic’ interpretation of the CIA manhunt for Osama bin Laden, leading many critics to decry it as pro-torture propaganda. Not only does the film provide justification for the military use of torture through the storyline, it further nullifies the brutality of the violence depicted through specific methods of camera work and structural form that increase viewer identification with the perpetrators of the violence and dampen the impact of its cruelty.

The entire film is shot with a minimum of four cameras for each scene, allowing the final product to provide a fully immersive exposure of the viewer to the characters, narrative, and location. Each scene cuts relatively quickly amongst the differing angles of the various cameras, with one camera delivering an active, seemingly handheld perspective. This shot appears almost as POV and forms an informal viewpoint that provides a subjective platform for the viewer. The resulting mode of experiential presentation strengthens viewer empathy with characters and gives the viewer a sense of their own personal presence within the narrative. This method acts as an effective vehicle to fortify the validation of state-sanctioned violence that is established in the plot through the spectator’s enhanced feeling of camaraderie with the characters performing the violence.

The diluted effect of the violence depicted in the film’s early displays of torture can further be contributed to discerningly utilised camera work. The scenes mostly deliver abstracted images of the imposed brutality—an example of another advantageous employment of the active, handheld camera perspective. The constant transition between the camera angles also provides a manipulating distraction from events unfolding within the narrative and ensures they don’t always stay in shot. In the opening scene, in which the detainee is water-boarded, there are frequent cuts to the shot of Maya as the passive witness. These interruptions in the representation of the torture mitigate the director’s claim of a ‘realistic’ and ‘unbiased’ exploration of the use of EITs in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.


The Globalised Impact of American Cinema


The Act of Killing provides testimony to the globalised influence of the passively consumed American cinema, detailed in the previous section, and the impact of cultural imperialism both through its filmic structure and its narrative political content. The premise of the film encompasses a selection of perpetrators to re-enact their involvement in the killings, through performative conformation to the American movie genres that they adulated. This construct establishes a surreal reflective critique as the killers talk about learned killing techniques from these American films that they then feedback into re-enacted imitations adhering to those specific genre conventions. The idolised violent heroics portrayed in the Hollywood films they admire act as reconfirmation of their own heroism. This can be exemplified in the previous study of American Sniper, Kyle being celebrated for his abundance of valiant assassinations as they were all justifiable kills due to the victims’ undeniable status of ‘bad guys’. The Indonesian perpetrators are similarly convinced of the undoubtedly villainous nature of the ‘communists’ they killed, thus they are heroes worthy of filmic commemoration also.

The Act of Killing utilises a self-reflective employment of screens throughout the production which act as a visual exposition of the critical historical and current involvement of film within the events depicted.[6] Throughout the production there are scenes of Anwar re-watching the re-enactments on a television set. This provides an opportunity for objective viewing of his actions, but yields little emotional response. The distancing and de-contextualising impact of screen-delivered images is highlighted in a scene that features the main character’s participation on a National television talk-show. The sequence cuts between formats, altering the perception of the viewer. Some frames are from the talk-show production itself, implicating the spectator in the position of a member of the Indonesian public watching the show on their televisions. Other shots return to the cinematic format of the film, which depicts the interview taking place and the studio cameras capturing the action. The most interesting frames refer to the previously mentioned method of featuring the images on a television screen within the frame.  One instance of this method that is particularly provocative features many different small screens depicting the image of Anwar as he talks on the show, as the footage is viewed by the programme operators. The shot zooms in a small screen showing a black and white image of Anwar as he speaks with the host, and a larger coloured screen with the same image. The visual impact of the dual television screens provides a comparable image of Anwar, perceivably far more sinister in the small black and white screen than on the larger, coloured screen. This comparative framing of the differently formatted images is resonant of the previously shown extracts of the anti-Communist government propaganda film that was essential viewing for all school-aged children and portrays the evil deeds of the communists in the same effectively vilifying black and white. The shot illustrates the power of framing in altering content and further alludes to the thematic considerations of time central to both The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. The viewer apprehends the same image of Anwar in the antiquated format of black and white and again in modernised full colour, thus referencing past and present and highlighting that although many decades have elapsed since the genocide, neither Anwar nor his rhetoric have altered.


Neoliberal associations with Psychopathy


The central characters in The Act of Killing illustrate not only the neoliberal ideological impact on personality development, but also, critically, the personality traits rewarded under such conditions. The gangsters and paramilitary personnel that perpetrated the genocidal killings in the mid-60s are shown to have risen to positions of political and economic power due to their active role in the massacres. As this was a western-backed coup d’etat with neo-imperial motivations, those who helped facilitate the overthrow were rewarded capital power in the newly established highly corporate and international-business-friendly state. The characters in the film exhibit the psychopathic features that excel under neoliberal regimes—traits that are comparable to the desirable modern attributes of successful corporations and businesses.[7] The cut-throat emphasised individualism that propels a successful neoliberal subject has habitual connotations to psychopathic behaviours that are exhibited strongly in nearly all the characters featured in The Act of Killing, although analysis will be streamlined to focus on the characters of Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry.

Anwar Congo provides the foundational character in the film and is responsible for directing the narrative production that re-enacts the differing methods of killing under various Hollywood genre conventions. The arc of the film follows his journey of altering moral awareness, from the unrepentant pride of his direct role in the killings to his seemingly empathetic epiphany. This is highlighted in a scene near the beginning of the film in which he dances the cha-cha on the rooftop where he used to kill ‘communists’—a post re-enactment of his murderous actions. This location is then revisited at the very end of the film, where this time Anwar violently retches as he describes again his killing of ‘humans’. It can be argued that Anwar Congo is representative of learned psychopathic behaviour, perpetrating violence and brutality that was continuously rewarded with the implementation of the new regime and therefore never explicitly considering the implications of his actions. Throughout the film it is evident that Anwar is lacking in any form of self-awareness; his inability to grasp the situation is frustratingly highlighted formally, with punctuations in the film of Oppenheimer playing back the footage of the re-enactments for him. The viewer is able to watch Anwar’s reaction to the footage—often frowningly studious—which alludes to a potential moment of realisation, only for it to conclude with a voiced disapproval of his clothing or inauthentic acting. In the film, he confesses to being plagued by nightmares, even dedicating a scene in the re-enacted production to his night terrors, but he doesn’t seem to have the emotional depth to fully understand the cause. Anwar’s unadulterated conviction in his behaviour during the genocide is arguably the result of his ability to deflect responsibility by imitating some of his favourite on-screen gangsters and military heroes, illustrated in his learning of some basic empathy through the same filmic language.[8] In this line of reasoning it is feasible that Anwar learned these desensitised, psychopathic traits as a survival tool which he has continued to manifest through its beneficial recompense in the proceeding administration.

Adi Zulkadry appears a third of the way through the film and features in the narrative re-enactments of the killings. A character analysis of Adi beneficially provides comparative understanding of Anwar’s potentially ‘learned’ psychopathy through establishing Adi’s inherent and firm character correspondence to traits understood to be undeniably psychopathic. Adi exhibits a clear understanding of the immorality of the ‘65–‘66 genocide. At one point during a re-enactment he attempts to coach his fellow perpetrators: “Listen, if we succeed in making this film it will disprove all the propaganda about the communists being cruel and show that we were the cruel ones…it’s not about fear, it’s about image. The whole society will say…they lied about the communists being cruel.” His intellectual capacity seems to be greater than that of Anwar in his ability to perceive the moral injustice of his actions and understanding of how this film will be perceived. This awareness fortifies the fact that he possesses the psychopathic ability to feel no remorse or empathy; this is further highlighted in a scene in which Adi and Oppenheimer are talking in a car. Oppenhiemer clarifies that under the Geneva Convention the Indonesian genocide is definitively classified as war crimes. Adi defensively replies that the definitions of right and wrong in war are susceptible to change, further arguing that war and mass killing is just part of the organic behaviour of people and always has been. This talent for intellectually manipulating concepts of justice to comply with his own individual agenda is a further example of psychopathic behaviour.


Active Spectator Participation in Artist Moving Image


Passive consumption of the moving image and the inactive spectator participation encouraged by mainstream cinema maintains film as the definition of a capitalist ‘product’. The emancipation of both film and the viewer from the capitalised process of production and mass consumption is arguably exemplified in artist moving-image works that endeavour to actively engage viewers, thus ensuring the film is realised through the mutual labour of both filmmaker and spectator-turned-producer.[9] This collaborative intellectual provocation of active spectatorship counteracts the neoliberal influence within mainstream and Hollywood cinema, detailed previously. Instigating active engagement with moving-image works can be achieved through formal considerations in both the moving-image work and the environment in which a viewer is exposed to the work. These constructive modes of deliverance are demonstrated in the works of the German artist filmmaker Harun Farocki, illustrated through formal analysis of Serious Games I–IV and Images of the World and the Inscription of War.

Serious Games comprises four moving-image installations, each detailing varying facets of the interrelationship between video game technology and the military. The installation is intended to be spatially experienced, allowing an immersive and participatory active engagement with the work and space, in direct contention with the virtual and video game technology depicted in its content. This environmental encouragement of movement ensures the spectator maintains a level of corporeal awareness whilst engaging with the moving-image works, which arguably functions as a form of Brechtian distanciation.[10] The spectators’ autonomous engagement with both the form and content of the installation provides a platform for an individuated apprehension of the work. This self-determining perception of the work further develops the installation to be experientially comparable to an expanded model of ‘montage’ and undoubtedly exceeds the limitations of a singular work in ensuring the participatory role of the viewer. The coupling of images in this manner is a technique Farocki described as ‘soft montage’; it allows the spectator to develop and question ongoing associations, informing “a general relatedness, rather than a strict opposition or equation.”[11] The impact of the ‘soft montage’ requires the spectator to assimilate the images and engage in a process of spatial editing, implicating the viewer as collaborative producer.

The activating method of montage is evident in the majority of Farocki’s work, including his seminal film essay Images of the World and the Inscription of War. This single screen work utilises a more conventional linear mode of montage, reminiscent of early montage methods employed by filmmakers such as Eisenstein, using cut up and re-appropriated archival images delivered through a thematic and rhythmically repetitive image track. This technique provokes the viewer to infer significance from between the images and successfully nullifies the potential didacticism associated with political film or the documentary genre. The laboured viewing required of the spectator in Images of the World encourages a broader contextual consideration of the images.[12] Another process utilised to certify spectator engagement with Images of the World is in the soundtrack, featuring a neutral female voice over. The objectivity of the narration negates the possibility of emotive manipulation of the viewer when apprehending the images, instead behaving symbiotically with the images to inspire a greater degree of autonomously produced questioning in the viewer.


Using the Form of the Moving Image to Deconstruct the Relationship of War and Images


In ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, Getino and Solanas call for revolutionary filmmaking to harness the communicative power of the moving image in order to counteract the “culturally penetrative” neo-colonial and consumerist films generated by the ‘System’.[13] This form of filmmaking would mobilise the spectators into being the reactionary, active citizens necessary to implement radical changes and a self-determining culture of the people, in contrast to the oppressive, neo-imperial culture of capitalism that caters solely to the ruling classes. This mode of revolutionary filmmaking is embodied in the works of Farocki. His moving image critiques on the increasingly dominating role of technology in contemporary society—importantly in the modern theatre of war—provide a vital self-reflexive filmic discourse. Through transitions in the formal deliverance and content of his work, Farocki’s development as a filmmaker and artist have reflected and symbiotically evolved with the technologies he scrutinised. His introspective and deconstructive examinations of image-making technology in contemporary warfare are centrally thematic to Images of the World and Serious Games I: Watson is Down. Analysis of these works will provide insights to the advancements of these technologies within the timeframe of each work and the effectiveness of artist moving image in intellectually disseminating the medium’s role in modern warfare.

Images of War utilises found photographs and documentary footage articulated into a film essay that references issues of aesthetics, visuality, and deception in the context of postmodern warfare. Farocki focuses on contemporary warfare’s fundamental endeavour to omnipotently see all, whilst simultaneously remaining hidden. It questions the problematic role of images in the theatre of war—centrally photography—and the implications of the techno-surrogate perception of the lens in terms of framing, perception, and context. Farocki utilises reoccurring motifs and sequences in the form of montage, frequently revisiting images and contextually rearranging them, thus highlighting the ease of altering the content of an image through reframing. A sequence that features repetitively in the film depicts photographs of Berber woman from Algeria, unveiled in order to photographically document their full appearance for the purpose of identity cards. When introduced to the full frame images of the women, the viewers are informed that only at home and with close family would they normally be without their veil. This implies the questionable veracity of an image portraying an already reframed facial identity of the photographed subject. As this sequence is revisited later in the film, the viewer is exposed to the same images of the women, albeit from the pages of a photography book as it’s flipped through by an on-screen reader. This alteration of context converts the content of the images, reframed once more from an operational image purposed for surveillance to a commodified image of pleasure. When the photographs reappear later in the film they are reconstructed once again, this time reframed by the hands of the on-screen reader, who alternates between covering the eyes and the mouths. As he covers the mouths of the women, only their eyes are visible, therefore revealing a more accurate portrayal of the real-life appearance of the woman through replicating what would be visible when veiled. This layered study of image de-contextualisation and restructuring highlights the deceptive nature of photography and imaging technologies.

As the military interrelation with image-based technologies has intensified and rapidly advanced, the functional capacity of these technologies has broadened. The participatory virtual worlds now utilised by the military for both training and rehabilitation purposes are the subject of Farocki’s multi-screen video installation Serious Games I–IV. In these works, Farocki explores how these immersive techniques potentially blur the spectator–participants’ distinction between fiction and reality and further the relationship of their physical body with the computer-generated images. The participant is neurologically receptive to video game imagery in a far more penetrable manner than of images perceived in films and photographs.[14] This ability to control the conscious level of comprehension of a soldier is beneficial in ensuring a highly effective desensitisation, dehumanisation of the enemy, and subconscious response in the field. This is highlighted in the first work of the series, Serious Games I: Watson is Down, a split screen installation showing an army unit involved with a video game purposed for training. Although the split screen images alternate and cut between images in conformation of the ‘soft montage’ method, they predominately subscribe to a format of one channel presenting the video game as it is played, while the other is fixed on the soldiers as they are playing. This assimilation of images—correlated with the language used by the soldiers—underscores the video game’s deconstruction of bodily and conscious separation from the on-screen virtual world. The soldiers converse with one another and refer to their avatar characters on-screen as ‘you’ and ‘I’. This hyper-subjective connection with the game is provocatively contrasted with the encouraged objective viewing of the spectator through Farocki’s activating use of both soft and spatial montage. As a soldier states “Watson just got killed”, we simultaneously see the computer-generated Watson fall from the tank and be left behind as the tank drives away and the real-life Watson lean back in his seat with a defeated sigh.




The research in this dissertation concludes that the most potent impact of neoliberalism on the role of the moving image in postmodern warfare is the augmentation of its societally manipulative function. Through promotive representation of ideals that perpetuate the neoliberal agenda, such as attaching false morality to military campaigns or valorising particular character traits and gender subscriptions, the moving image is a vital tool in maintaining a weak, fragmented and conformable society. This is reinforced with the encouraged consumerism of the neoliberal era, which manifests in an abundance of personal screen-based possessions that maximise exposure and alter engagement with the moving image. Oversaturation of information and images of war and violence ultimately normalise the suffering of others through establishing a desensitised society.[15]  Persistent exposure to these images preserves the perception of constant, unstoppable war, which leads to a dangerous apathy. The influence of the internet and the democratisation of image-making technology has led to a multitude of platforms to access informative content and beneficially communicative moving image, but this inundation of information exacerbates distractibility and obscures qualifiable veracity. The distancing effect of perceiving images of war and violence on screens has enhanced alienation and decreased empathy with the civilians on the receiving end of the military aggressions of the Western powers. The separating effect of the screen, combined with the effective ‘Otherising’ in largely circulated productions such as American Sniper, sustains indifference to the suffering of those fictionally perceived as enemies. This perpetuates the neo-imperial north–south divide that is maintained by the cyclical relation of neoliberal globalisation and the hugely funded technologically advanced weaponry of the wealthy Western nations.

As distinction between government, business, and industry has dissipated into a multi-corporate, neoliberal miasma, it has become increasingly difficult to discern the invested motivations of moving images in any given context. Artist moving image is not immune to prejudiced funding through gallery ownerships and private cultural funding bodies that boast corporate and political affiliations. With neoliberal privatisation, more and more aspects of society are becoming corporately sponsored, from the images and information consumed daily to educational establishments and hospitals. This fully penetrative impact of neoliberalism has arguably lead to a self-fulfilling, cyclical momentum of the applied ideology facilitated by the power of the image, comparable to the notions in Guy Debord’s ‘The Society of the Spectacle’: “for what the spectacle expresses is the total practice of one particular economic and social formation; it is, so to speak, the formations agenda…the spectacle is essentially tautological, for the simple reason that its means and its ends are identical. It is the sun that never sets on the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire globe, basking in the perpetual warmth of its own glory.”[16]




Boal, Iain A; Retort (Organisation), Afflicted powers: capital and spectacle in a new age of war, (London: Verso) (2005).

Boddy, Clive et al, ‘Extreme managers, extreme workplaces: Capitalism, organisations and corporate pyschopaths’, Organization 22:4 (2015).

Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books) (1994).

Elsaesser, Thomas, Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight-Lines, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press) (2004).

Elwes, Catherine, Installation and the Moving Image, (London & New York: Wallflower Press)(2015).

Farocki, Harun & Silverman, Kaja, Speaking About Godard, (New York: New York University Press) (1998).

Fraser, Nancy , Fortunes of Feminism:  From Sate-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, (London: Verso) (2013).

Getino, Octavio & Solanas, Fernando, ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, Cineaste 4:3 (1970-71).

Gill, Rosalind, ‘Postfeminism Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility’ European Journal of Cultural Studies 10:2 (2007).

Halle, Randall, ‘History Is Not a Matter of Generations: Interview with Harun Farocki’, Camera Obscura 16 (2001).

Kapur, Jyotsna & Wagner, Keith B. Ed, Neoliberalism and Global Cinema: Capital, Culture and Marxist Critique, (New York: London: Routledge) (2011).

Michalski, Milena& Gow, James, War, Image and Legitimacy: Viewing contemporary conflict, (London: Routledge) (2007).

Nayman, Adam, ‘Find Me Guilty: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing’. Cinema Scope Magazine. http://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-magazine/24-find-me-guilty-joshua-oppenheimers-the-act-of-killing/ , date accessed 10 February 2016.

Oppenheimer, Joshua & Ten Brink, Joram ed., Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence, (London & New York: Wallflower Press) (2012).

Ranciere, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, (London: Verso) (2009).

Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others, (London: Penguin Books) (2003).

Väliaho, Pasi, Biopolitical screens: image, power, and the neoliberal brain, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press) (2014).




American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014).

Images of the World and the Inscriptions of War (Harun Farocki, 1989).

Serious Games I-IV (Harun Farocki, 2010).

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenhiemer, 2012).

The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenhiemer, 2014).

Zero Dark Thirty, (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012).



[1] Kapur & Wagner, p.23.

[2]  Väliaho, Pasi, Biopolitical screens: image, power, and the neoliberal brain, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press) (2014) p.82.

[3] Boal, Iain A; Retort (Organisation), Afflicted powers: capital and spectacle in a new age of war, (London: Verso) (2005) pp.101-102.

[4] Fraser, Nancy, Fortunes of Feminism:  From Sate-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, (London: Verso) (2013) Part II, 6.

[5] Gill, Rosalind. ‘Postfeminism Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility’ European Journal of Cultural Studies 10:2 (2007) pp.147 – 166.

[6] Michalski, Milena& Gow, James, War, Image and Legitimacy: Viewing contemporary conflict, (London: Routledge) (2007) p.46.

[7] Boddy, Clive et al. ‘Extreme managers, extreme workplaces: Capitalism, organisations and corporate pyschopaths’, Organization 22:4 (2015).

[8] Nayman, Adam, ‘Find Me Guilty: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing’. Cinema Scope Magazine. http://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-magazine/24-find-me-guilty-joshua-oppenheimers-the-act-of-killing/ , date accessed 10 February 2016.

[9] Ranciere, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, (London: Verso) (2009) p.66.

[10] Elwes, Catherine, Installation and the Moving Image, (London & New York: Wallflower Press) (2015) p.146.

[11] Farocki, Harun & Silverman, Kaja, Speaking About Godard, (New York: New York University Press) (1998) p.142.

[12] Halle, Randall. ‘History Is Not a Matter of Generations: Interview with Harun Farocki’, Camera Obscura 16 (2001) p.55.

[13] Getino, Octavio & Solanas, Fernando. ‘ Towards a Third Cinema’, Cineaste 4:3 (1970-71) p.1.

[14]  Väliaho, p.41.

[15] Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others, (London: Penguin Books) (2003) p.84.

[16] Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books) (1994) p.6.



The Concept of War without Casualties: The Influence of the American Taboo of Death on the Perception of the Events of 9/11

Kaja Łuczyńska

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 37-49.


Kaja Łuczyńska

Jagiellonian University


The Concept of War without Casualties:

The Influence of the American Taboo of Death

on the Perception of the Events of 9/11




The article focuses on the paradoxical phenomenon of modern war and attempts to bring together the two absolutely opposite approaches of trying to be successful and victorious whilst also being completely non-lethal. As the author emphasizes, this problem is very much related to the general modern attitude towards death, which has been almost eradicated from everyday life. It has become shameful, forbidden, private and seemingly non-existent. Therefore, modern war could not gain public support if it did not try to adapt to this general tendency. The article presents ways that are used nowadays to obtain public endorsement for military conflicts and examines phenomena such as casualty aversion, body-bag syndrome, and non-lethal weapons. It also relates all these elements to the wide-spread problem of terrorism, which completely contradicts the modern urge to eradicate death from everyday life.

Key words: death, war, casualty aversion, terrorism, 9/11




War means violence and death. But does it really? In the film Eye in the Sky (2015), directed by Gavin Hood, Helen Mirren plays the role of a UK military intelligence officer, Colonel Katherine Powell, who is hunting down a group of terrorists who are currently hiding in Kenya. Using drones and high-tech military equipment, her team manages to locate the criminals and can, at any moment, assassinate them using precise bombing. However, there is an obstacle—a young girl appears near the target area and would likely be killed in an attack. The team has to go through the entire chain of command and make sure that they are still authorized to conduct the strike, which is getting more and more essential as the terrorists are preparing for a suicide attack in a village nearby. Things get more and more complicated. One of the British officials sums it up accurately: “Frankly, politically I’d rather point to Al-Shabaab[1] as murderers of 80 people shopping than have to defend a drone attack by our forces that kills an innocent child”.

The situation described above has also another less direct meaning. The urge to eradicate mortality from the public sphere is the widespread desire of many modern communities and it also entails areas traditionally associated with violence and death. As will be shown in this paper, this paradoxical desire is doomed to fail, partially because of the violent phenomenon of suicide terrorism that will be described later, based on the unprecedented events of 11 September 2001.


The Eradication of Death


It would be safe to say that death is no longer a part of contemporary life. Such exclusion is a part of a bigger phenomenon that is wide-spread in modern countries and might derive from profound changes which have been gradually occurring since the second half of 20th century. Medical development and living standards have minimized people’s direct contact with death and altered it in many ways. According to Gary Laderman, the author of “Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America”, these changes, called the “mortality revolution”, started in the USA in the early twentieth century:

Life expectancy, infant mortality, cause of death – these and other variables in morality tables all point to the same conclusion: the presence of death in the early decades of the twentieth century looked quite different than any other period of American history. There are a variety of explanations for these dramatic changes in demographic patterns, with most focusing on breakthroughs in medical sciences and technologies, improvements in sanitation and personal hygiene, effective public health reforms, and healthier eating habits. While the repercussions of these social transformations have been analyzed from a number of perspectives, one of the most common observations is that a completely new kind of relationship with the dead emerged in the early decades of the century. [2]

This new place of death in our daily lives has become one of the main topics of death studies, also known as thanatology. Many researchers from that area are interested not in the death rituals of indigenous people that have preoccupied anthropologists for many years, but the reactions to death displayed by members of modern, often secularized societies. Apparently, modern communities also strive to deal with this imminent element of everybody’s life and even medical development and higher life expectancy does not solve this issue entirely. There is a general tendency to try to get rid of death and move it away from the public eye. This evolution of our attitude toward death has been very well described by Philippe Ariès in his work “Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present”. According to this French historian, although our “attitude toward death may appear almost static over very long periods of time (…); changes occur, usually slow and unnoticed changes, but sometimes, as today, more rapid and perceptible ones”.[3] A lot has definitely changed since the time when death was a public ceremony, “a ritual organized by the dying person himself, who presided over it and knew its protocol”.[4] Nowadays, “death, so omnipresent in the past that it was familiar, would be effaced, would disappear. It would become shameful and forbidden”.[5] Although efforts to get rid of death from public discourse may seem ineffectual, modern societies such as the USA still try to eradicate it from every aspect of everyday life.


A Convincing War


It is safe to say that military conflicts are a standard element of human activities through the ages. The famous Prussian general and military theorist Claus von Clausewitz believed that war was an “eternal human social phenomenon”[6]. In his book, he also added that:

We are not interested in generals who win victories without bloodshed. The fact that slaughter is a horrifying spectacle must make us take war more seriously, but not provide an excuse for gradually blunting our swords in the name of humanity. Sooner or later someone will come along with a sharp sword and hack off our arms.[7]

Surely Clausewitz would be surprised by the contemporary image of modern war. When describing it, it is important to emphasize that when talking about war every word counts and even the term “war” is no longer acceptable—at least in the classic sense, because there have been quite a lot of unconventional wars, especially aimed at narcotics (“War on Drugs”). In the case of military conflicts, the term has been substituted by more subtle equivalents, such as “humanitarian intervention” or “stabilization mission” (both anchored in UN laws[8]). The same method is used in the case of torture, which that is absolutely unacceptable unless named differently. Michael L. Gross, the author of “Moral Dilemmas of Modern War”, gives following examples of such practices:

Thus, torture morphs into “moderate physical pressure,” assassination becomes “targeted killing” and civilian bombing is defensible when directed against “associated” civilian targets, that is, civilians who take some part in the fighting and who bear a measure of responsibility for armed conflict.[9]

However, ideals and sublime phrases are not always enough. Society is also very sensitive when it comes to casualties and the public opinion’s role is crucial in the case of wars conducted by the USA:

public opinion became a key factor in all three wars [Korea, Vietnam, Iraq], and in each one there has been a simple association: as casualties mount, support decreases. Broad enthusiasm at the outset invariably erodes[10].

What then can be done to gain people’s support? There are two basic approaches: creation of an alluring and exhilarating rhetoric around the conflict or accommodation of the image of the modern war to people’s expectations. As shall be shown below, both strategies are being used nowadays.


Undoubtedly, people are torn because of their attempts to reconcile the need to conduct military conflicts in certain cases and their aversion toward casualties and death in general.[11] War is a tremendous challenge to their morality and sense of justice. Fortunately, politicians and military commanders are striving to disburden them from those efforts. Every war needs a persuasive narration built around it which is strong enough to persuade people that the risk is worth taking. In 1955, Edward M. Collins wrote that:

Democratic nations can enter wars only when public opinion favors this course, since democracies are by definition and in fact responsive to public opinion coherently expressed. (…) This appears also to be the case with the British population, although it is perhaps less true of the British than of the United States. Both these populations, however, are influenced by a number of idealistic, abstract ideas regarding good and evil, fair and foul, and the virtues of their form of government in contrast to that of other countries. It is usually on the basis of these stereotyped concepts, rather than on the actual concrete issues involved, that they can be most effectively motivated toward war, and it is most often to these images rather than to reason and judgment that the press and other media and political leaders appeal in seeking to lead public opinion toward war.[12]

These “idealistic, abstract ideas” which convince people to accept a certain military conflict might not be commonly acknowledged as “propaganda”, but they work in a similar way. In “Propaganda and Persuasion”, Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell define propaganda as: “(…) the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist”.[13] All these features can be found in the rhetoric built around recent military conflicts, such as The Iraq War (2003–2011). George W. Bush Jr. and his administration have put great effort into persuading Americans that the Iraq invasion was not motivated by an urge to gain control over important oil deposits, but rather by a general sense of justice and a desire to help an oppressed nation.

According to Murray Edelman, a political scientist and the author of “Politics as Symbolic Action”, public opinion needs guidance—someone who would explain the complex reality, especially during challenging times.[14] After 11th September 2001, national confusion in the USA increased to a hitherto unknown level. This confusion was very rapidly transformed into a need to act, to take revenge for the horrifying destruction. This transformation was accomplished by the well-aimed rhetoric of politicians, especially George W. Bush Jr. In one of his most famous speeches (the State of the Union address delivered in 2002), Bush asserted:

Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror.  The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade.  This is a regime that has already used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens—leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children. This is a regime that agreed to international inspections then kicked out the inspectors. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world. States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.  By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.  They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred.  They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.[15]

The brilliant expression “the axis of evil” reminded people of Ronald Reagan’s term “the evil empire”[16] and thus became one of the most symbolic terms of Bush’s War on Terror. As New York Times journalist Elisabeth Bumiller wrote:

Nobody ever remembers much from State of the Union speeches, but one thing they do remember is the “axis of evil” formulation that President Bush brandished in last year’s address to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Like Ronald Reagan’s description of the former Soviet Union as an “evil empire”, the axis of evil is a leitmotif that will follow Mr. Bush beyond his presidency.[17]


A War without Casualties


They are many ways in which the USA tries to accommodate the image of the modern war to people’s expectations. One way is taking into consideration the phenomenon of “casualty aversion”—public unwillingness to accept casualties in military conflicts. This controversial idea is described by many as a pure myth. This is an opinion shared for example by Lieutenant Colonel Richard A. Lacquement, Jr., who states in the first words of his paper:

There is no intrinsic, uncritical casualty aversion among the American public that limits the use of U.S. armed forces. There is a wide range of policy objectives on behalf of which the public is prepared to accept American casualties as a cost of success. Squeamishness about even a few casualties for all but the most important national causes is a myth. Nonetheless, it is a myth that persists as widely accepted conventional wisdom.[18]

Myth or not, the idea of “casualty aversion” definitely shapes the way modern wars are depicted. During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, The American Army used the body count as its dominant indicator of strategic assessment. It has since become the index of progress and the measure of success in anomalous wars “without front lines and territorial objective”.[19] Wars nowadays are very different. They should have a specific goal, be limited and preferably be a kind of a “military intervention”: short, successful, and using precise high-tech technology. A role-model for this kind of military conflict is the First Gulf War that took place between 1990 and 1991 and began with the attack and occupation of Kuwait by The Iraqi Army. The media coverage of the war depicted it as technically advanced and precise. It was broadcast as a kind of pure fiction—a TV miniseries about war that looked almost like a perfectly prepared product, ready to be sold to public opinion.[20] In his essay “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”, French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard even asked if that war really happened at all and determined it as a kind of a “simulacra”[21] and “madness”.

The idea of a clean war, like that of a clean bomb or an intelligent missile, this whole war conceived as a technological extrapolation of the brain is a sure sign of madness. It is like those characters in Hieronymus Bosch with a glass bell or a soap bubble around their head as a sign of their mental debility. A war enclosed in a glass coffin, like Snow White, purged of any carnal contamination or warrior’s passion. A clean war which ends up in an oil slick.[22]

The idea of “casualty aversion” has also shaped popular culture and has become an inspiration for many films. A popular slogan: “Leave no man behind” influenced the plots of Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985, George P. Cosmatos), Missing in Action (1984, Joseph Zito), Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg), Behind Enemy Lines (2001, John Moore), Black Hawk Down (2001, Ridley Scott), The Great Raid (2005, John Dahl), Behind Enemy Lines (2001, John Moore), and Lone Survivor (2013, Peter Berg). What is more, the searches for soldiers lost in action, such as Pvt. Jessica Lynch[23], were media events watched by millions that had enormous potential to build morale. The aversion toward casualties in the US Army and the unimaginable power of the images of dead American soldiers was especially visible in case of the story told by Ridley Scott in Black Hawk Down. The film was based on the events of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu and Operation Restore Hope in Somalia (1992–93), which was terminated after the broadcasting of certain disturbing images:

Retrospectively, the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia has been widely understood to have been caused by the public response and subsequent pressure to withdraw following the publication of negative representations of the conflict by the media. This public pressure is claimed to have influenced members of Congress who subsequently forced an early withdrawal. The event which culminated in congressional pressure to cease operations in Somalia was the publication of images which depicted dead U.S. soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.[24]

The tragic events in Somalia affected US foreign policy for many years and were one of the reasons America has become very reluctant to risk casualties and reduced its involvement in many future conflicts. The so-called “body-bag syndrome” (or “body-bag effect”) that “describes a situation where the public is confronted with images of their dead soldiers and consequently asks the government to withdraw its forces from abroad”[25] has become an important factor in the decision-making process.

(…) any pressure to intervene with troops was always held in check by the fear of taking casualties, the so-called ‘body-bag effect’. To put this bluntly, policy makers, as much as they might feel compelled to respond to media pressure to ‘do something’ about a humanitarian crisis, were also aware that risking the lives of troops could ultimately backfire and generate negative media and public reaction when casualties were taken.[26]

The body-bag effect was noticed not only by media and the government, but also by the military itself, which gradually tried to adapt itself to the expectations of public opinion. This is precisely why they emphasize the use of non-lethal weapons (NLWs) in military conflicts—they help to keep the casualties on both sides to a minimum. These weapons use “optical and acoustic means, energy wave devices, and chemical agents to cause disorientation, discomfort, severe nausea, or temporary unconsciousness to incapacitate opposing forces and minimize collateral harm to non-combatants”[27]. NLWs either:

(…) repulse an enemy and thereby avoid direct encounters, others temporarily incapacitate an enemy so that the enemy can be overwhelmed and disarmed. In both cases, NLWs provide a force continuum, allowing a wide range of options between using high explosives and doing nothing. Properly deployed, nonlethal weaponry offers advanced military organizations the possibility of temporarily incapacitating enemy forces, controlling crowds, or conducting rescue missions without the need to endanger large numbers of noncombatants.[28]

Besides, all weapons nowadays emphasize the aspect of safety. In their thorough analysis of armament advertisements (“The Vision of War without Casualties: On the Use of Casualty Aversion in Armament Advertisements”), Niklas Schörnig and Alexander C. Lembcke point out that “weapon designers (…) have done an incredibly good job in protecting those who use these weapons in war and have reinforced this impression by actively promoting it via advertisement and lobbying.”[29] It is very clear that the aspect most commonly emphasized in those commercials is the safety of soldiers. For example, one of the ads quoted in the article (for the new Boeing X-45A) states “aircrews will no longer have to be put at risk to complete the most dangerous of missions” and promises “a more secure future for our country and the brave men and women who serve”[30]


The Opposite Usage: The Case of the 9/11 Attacks


Unfortunately, all the aforementioned means cannot eradicate tragedies which result in deaths of both civilians and officials. Sometimes the real fight moves from the battlefield to civilian areas and becomes a very asymmetric conflict. This is definitely the case of the current fight against terrorism that perpetually affects cities all around the world. “The 9/11 terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan are among the best-known recent examples of asymmetric warfare: conflicts between nations or groups that have disparate military capabilities and strategies”, summarizes the RAND think tank on its official website.[31] But the 9/11 events were much more than just an example of asymmetric warfare: they were an unprecedented act that caused trauma for the whole nation. 9/11 was also an illustration of the change that occurred in terrorism itself:

9/11 brought about a fundamental change in the nature of terrorism (…), especially because these attacks seem too inherently entwined with 21st century technologies and media to compare easily to other instances of large-scale terror.[32]

It was a new face of terrorism that was not reluctant to use modern technologies and combine them with the biggest symbolic weapon of great power: suicidal death and disdain for life which is so different from the usual American avoidance of death—a contrast that definitely empowered the 9/11 attackers and enhanced their actions. As Jean Baudrillard stated in his famous essay “The Spirit of Terrorism”:

(…) the terrorists have ceased to commit suicide for no return; they are now bringing their own deaths to bear in an effective, offensive manner, in the service of an intuitive strategic insight which is quite simply a sense of the immense fragility of the opponent—a sense that a system which has arrived at its quasi-perfection can, by that very token, be ignited by the slightest spark. They have succeeded in turning their own deaths into an absolute weapon against a system that operates on the basis of the exclusion of death, a system whose ideal is an ideal of zero deaths. Every zero-death system is a zero-sum-game system. And all the means of deterrence and destruction can do nothing against an enemy who has already turned his death into a counterstrike weapon. ‘What does the American bombing matter? Our men are as eager to die as the Americans are to live!’ Hence the non-equivalence of the four thousand deaths inflicted at a stroke on a zero-death system. [33]

This kind of clash of value systems had already been seen before World War II, when another group powered by radical ideology sacrificed their lives in order to severely harm the enemy. The suicide attacks of Japanese Kamikaze pilots had a profound impact on the Allied soldiers[34], who could not understand these attackers’ behaviour, which was motivated by extreme dedication to the cause and the samurai bushido code that places honour before anything else. Suicide terrorism is “the most aggressive form of terrorism”[35] and does not expect the attacker to survive. As can be seen in the case of the events of 9/11 and more recent attacks, “suicide terrorists often seek simply to kill the largest number of people”[36] and at the same time create an atmosphere of fear, suspicion and constant danger. What is especially striking is the logic hidden behind these seemingly irrational attacks. “Even if many suicide attackers are irrational or fanatical, the leadership groups that recruit and direct them are not”[37] writes Robert A. Pape in his profound analysis “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”.




Cold calculation is probably the most shocking element of suicide terrorism. Both its originators and perpetrators are often aware of the symbolic power of their gestures, which stand in complete contrast to the American or even “western” mentality. Our constant attempts to eradicate death from the public sphere and everyday life peter away when faced with public acts of ideologically motivated suicide. When thinking about the influence of the 9/11 attacks and the trauma it caused for American society, it important to remember that the strength of the attacks was definitely stronger because of the explicit contrast between the two attitudes towards death described in this paper. The American people gathered around TV screens had to face imminent symbols of death and destruction and observe people trapped in the Twin Towers that chose to jump rather than die in the flames or collapse. Even though the media censored the traumatic images and did not show the bodies of the casualties, the American viewers were very drastically reminded of their mortality. Death, formerly excluded from everyday life, came back and called for attention.

The perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and all the recent examples of suicide terrorism were aware that because human victims are seen as unacceptable in modern wars and death is a taboo topic in the every-day life of many countries, their acts would gain additional power and meaning. In a way, an attack on the whole new “western” way of life would come about. Obviously saying that a change of our attitude toward the phenomenon of death would scare off the terrorists and discourage them from conducting more violent acts is an inappropriate oversimplification. However, a more moderate approach toward death might be a positive influence on our everyday lives. Traumas and dramas might be smaller or even non-existent if we could find the right way to talk about the one and only imminent element of our lives: death.




Ariès Philippe, Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) (1975).

Baudrillard Jean, Simulacra and Simulation, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press) (1994).

Baudrillard Jean, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1995).

Baudrillard Jean, The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays, (London: Verso) (2002).

Bellamy Christopher, “War without Casualties”, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/war-without-casualties-1323022.html, date accessed: 6 April 2017.

Bumiller Elisabeth, “White House Letter; Axis of Evil: First Birthday for a Famous Phrase”, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/20/us/white-house-letter-axis-of-evil-first-birthday-for-a-famous-phrase.html, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

Chomsky Noam, 9-11, (New York: Seven Stories Press) (2001).

Clausewitz Carl von, On War, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (2007).

Collins Edward M., „Clausewitz and Democracy’s Modern Wars”, Military Affairs, vol. 19, no. 1 (1955).

Daileda Colin, „The Military History of ‘Leave No Man Behind’”, Mashable, http://mashable.com/2014/06/14/bowe-bergdahl-are-american-military-soldiers-ever-left-behind/#ehQa.pP_bGql, date accessed: 7 June 2017.

Danto Arthur C., „On Moral Codes and Modern War”, Social Research, vol. 45, no. 1 (1978).

Donn Katharina, A Poetics of Trauma After 9/11. Representing the Trauma in a Digitalized Present, (Oxon: Ruthledge) (2017).

Fershtman Chaim, Gneezy Uri, Hoffman Moshe, „Taboos and Identity: Considering the Unthinkable”, American Economic Journal: Microeconomics, vol. 3, no. 2 (2011).

Foley Robert T., Griffin Stuart, McCarthey Helen, „Transformation in Contact: Learning the Lessons of Modern War”, International Affairs, vol. 87, no.2 (2011).

Galdorisi George, „Why We Leave No Man Behind”, CNN, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/06/09/opinion/galdorisi-leave-no-man-behind/, date accessed:7 June 2017.

Gartner Scott Sigmund, Edson Myers Marissa, „Body Counts and “Success” in the Vietnam and Korean Wars”, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 25, no. 3 (1995).

Gross Michael L., „Medicalized WEAPONS & Modern WAR”, The Hastings Center Report, vol. 40, no. 1 (2010).

Gross Michael L., Moral Dilemmas of Modern War, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (2010).

Jowett Garth S., O’Donnell Victoria, Propaganda and Persuasion (London: SAGE) (2012).

Lacquement Richard A. Jr,  „The Casualty-Aversion Myth”, Naval War College Review, vol. LVII, no.1 (2004).

Laderman Gary, Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America, (New York: Oxford University Press) (2003).

Mack Andrew, „Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: the Politics of Asymmetric Conflict”, World Politics, vol. 27, no. 2 (1975).

McSweeney Daniel, „The CNN Effect and Somalia”, E-International Relations Students, http://www.e-ir.info/2011/08/11/the-cnn-effect-and-somalia/, date accessed:7 June 2017.

Mral Brigitte, „The Rhetorical State of Alert before the Iraq War 2003”, Nordicom Review, no. 27 (2006).

Mueller John, „The Iraq Syndrome”, Foreign Affairs, vol. 84, no. 6 (2005).

Nlabu Sascha, „Body Bags without Effects”, The Heptagon Post, http://heptagonpost.com/Nlablu/Body_Bags_without_Effects, date accessed:7 June 2017.

Overton Iain, Dodd Henry, „A Short History of Suicide Bombing”, Action on Armed Violence, https://aoav.org.uk/2013/a-short-history-of-suicide-bombings/, date accessed:7 June 2017.

Palgi Phyllis, Abramovitch Henry, „Death: A Cross-Cultural Perspective”, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 13 (1984).

Pape Robert A., „The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”, American Political Science Review, vol. 97. no. 3 (2003).

Robinson Piers, „Media as a Driving Force in International Politics: The CNN Effect and Related Debates”, Global Policy, http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/08/10/2013/media-driving-force-international-politics-cnn-effect-and-related-debates, date accessed:8 June 2017.

Schörnig Niklas, Lembcke Alexander C., „The Vision of War without Casualties: On the Use of Casualty Aversion in Armament Advertisements”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 50, no. 2 (2006).

Strachan Hew, „Essay and Reflection: On Total War and Modern War”, The International History Review, vol. 22, no. 2 (2000).

The White House, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020129-11.html, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

Voices Of Democracy, http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/reagan-evil-empire-speech-text/, date accessed: 5 April 2017.




Behind Enemy Lines (2001, John Moore)

Black Hawk Down (2001, Ridley Scott)

Eye in the Sky (2015, Gavin Hood)

Lone Survivor (2013, Peter Berg)

Missing in Action (1984, Joseph Zito)

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985, George P. Cosmatos)

Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg)

The Great Raid (2005, John Dahl)



[1]  Jihadist fundamentalist group based in East Africa linked with Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram.

[2] Gary Laderman, Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America, (New York: Oxford University Press) (2003), p. 2.

[3] Philippe Ariès, Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) (1975), p.1.

[4] Philippe Ariès, p. 11.

[5] Philippe Ariès, p. 85.

[6] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (2007), p. ix.

[7] Carl von Clausewitz.

[8] Michael L. Gross, Moral Dilemmas of Modern War, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (2010), p. 11.

[9] Michael L. Gross, p. 4.

[10] John Mueller, “The Iraq Syndrome”, Foreign Affairs, vol. 84, no. 6 (2005), p. 44.

[11] Michael L. Gross, p. 21.

[12] Edward M. Collins, „Clausewitz and Democracy’s Modern Wars”, Military Affairs, vol. 19, no. 1 (1955), p. 17.

[13] Garth S. Jowett, Victoria O’Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion, (London: SAGE) (2012), p. 7.

[14] Brigitte Mral, “The Rhetorical State of Alert before the Iraq War 2003”, Nordicom Review, no. 27 (2006), p. 47.

[15] The White House, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020129-11.html, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

[16] Voices Of Democracy, http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/reagan-evil-empire-speech-text/, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

[17] Elisabeth Bumiller, “White House Letter; Axis of Evil: First Birthday for a Famous Phrase”, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/20/us/white-house-letter-axis-of-evil-first-birthday-for-a-famous-phrase.html, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

[18] Richard A. Lacquement Jr, „The Casualty-Aversion Myth”, Naval War College Review, vol. LVII, no.1 (2004).  p. 39.

[19] Scott Sigmund Gartner, Marissa Edson Myers, “Body Counts and “Success” in the Vietnam and Korean Wars”, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 25, no. 3 (1995), p. 377.

[20] Encyclopedia of the New American Nation, http://www.americanforeignrelations.com/O-W/Television-The-persian-gulf-war.html#b%23ixzz1uKXkqB1I, date accessed: 5 April 2017.

[21] See: Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press) (1994).

[22] Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (1995), p. 43.

[23] Jessica Lynch was serving as a unit supply specialist was ambushed in Iraq on 23 March 2003 and seriously injured. She has become the first successful rescue of an American prisoner of war since War in Vietnam and the first ever of a woman.

[24] Daniel McSweeney, „The CNN Effect and Somalia”, E-International Relations Students, http://www.e-ir.info/2011/08/11/the-cnn-effect-and-somalia/, date accessed:7 June 2017.

[25] Sascha Nlabu, „Body Bags without Effects”, The Heptagon Post, http://heptagonpost.com/Nlablu/Body_Bags_without_Effects, date accessed:7 June 2017.

[26] Piers Robinson, „Media as a Driving Force in International Politics: The CNN Effect and Related Debates”, Global Policy, http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/08/10/2013/media-driving-force-international-politics-cnn-effect-and-related-debates, date accessed: 8 June 2017.

[27] Michael L. Gross, p.7.

[28] Michael L. Gross.

[29] Niklas Schörnig, Alexander C. Lembcke, „The Vision of War without Casualties: On the Use of Casualty Aversion in Armament Advertisements”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 50, no. 2 (2006), p. 206.

[30] Niklas Schörnig, Alexander C. Lembcke, p. 205.

[31] https://www.rand.org/topics/asymmetric-warfare.html, date accessed:8 June 2017.

[32] Katharina Donn, A Poetics of Trauma After 9/11. Representing the Trauma in a Digitalized Present, (Oxon: Ruthledge) (2017), p. 3.

[33] Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays, (London: Verso) (2002), p. 16.

[34] Iain Overton, Henry Dodd, „A Short History of Suicide Bombing”, Action on Armed Violence, https://aoav.org.uk/2013/a-short-history-of-suicide-bombings/, date accessed:7 June 2017.

[35] Robert A., Pape, „The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”, American Political Science Review, vol. 97. no. 3 (2003). p. 345.

[36] Robert A., Pape.

[37] Robert A., Pape.

Technology and the War on Terror: Film and the Ambivalence of Transhumanism

Tatiana Prorokova

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 50-61.


Tatiana Prorokova

Philipps University of Marburg


Technology and the War on Terror:

Film and the Ambivalence of Transhumanism





The War on Terror declared by the U.S. government after 9/11 resulted in the two most technologically equipped invasions the country has ever launched: the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War. American soldiers were provided with newly designed uniforms and weapons, with the best defensive armour and night-vision equipment, off-road vehicles, helicopters, and tanks. These enabled them to dominate the enemy technologically and guaranteed success in combat, minimizing the risk of injury and death among Americans. Film responded to these changes, playing with the issue of technology in war. In analysing Bigelow’s war drama, The Hurt Locker, which focuses on U.S. military actions in Iraq, and Favreau’s sci-fi Iron Man, which raises the problem of Afghan terrorists and thus implicitly deals with the Afghanistan War, this article looks over the role of technology in war and investigates the blurred boundaries between humanity and machinery in the era of technology. Additionally, the article examines Bay’s Transformers and its sequels to see whether war machines possess humanity.


Key words: The War on Terror, technology, machine, transhumanism



Introduction: Film and the War on Terror


The terrifying terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the consequences they entailed have made the opening of the twenty-first century frightening and disquieting for the whole world—specifically for the United States. The U.S. government’s War on Terror has resulted in multiple military operations, the longest of which are the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The two wars in the Middle East can be considered a continuation of the long military history of the United States but, undoubtedly, they are especially noteworthy due to the novel techniques used in the conduct of warfare. The Afghanistan War and the Second Gulf War turned into the two most technologically advanced wars the United States has ever launched. Indeed, the variety and abundance of newly-designed uniforms, arms, equipment, gadgets, and vehicles strikes one’s imagination. The U.S. demonstrated its indisputable readiness to fight the enemy, thus avenging the deaths of thousands of innocent people on 9/11 and protecting the country’s foundational values of freedom and democracy. Whether these interventions were successful or worth it are complex questions, but one can say without demur that the United States counted on their soldiers’ obvious technological superiority over the enemy for the success of these military intrusions. As James S. Corum aptly puts it, “At the centre of modern U.S. military culture lies a belief in technological determinism: that technology is a central factor in warfare and that the country with the best technology is bound to win”; in terms of military planning, such an attitude is perhaps, as the scholar himself puts it, ‘wrong’.[1] Nevertheless, this idea vividly illustrates the so-called American cultural belief in the unconditional power of technology to guarantee unreserved superiority and dominance to its possessor.

American cinema is teeming with examples of this faith in technology—in its unlimited power and ability to defeat the enemy—no matter how strong, ruthless, and insidious that enemy may be. Whether one distinguishes between films about wars that actually took place and science-fiction films that depict endless fights between humanity and aliens, robots and monsters, or whether one considers the two genres together, taking war films in general as one broad media category, one can find multiple cinematic examples that appeared long before the War on Terror that deal with the issue of technology in war. There is obviously a long chain of sci-fi films: from James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) to James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) to Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996). Additionally, Hollywood dwelled on the importance of technology in films about real wars, which became especially prominent from the era of the Vietnam War onward, from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) to David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999).

Technology has become an integral part of war: the battlefield is no longer considered the territory of humans as machines have started to play a significant role there, too. The two recent interventions in the Middle East, however, have clearly foregrounded the leading role of technology that, in turn, explains the impulse of the cinema of the War on Terror which unites films about the two wars with the sci-fi films that were released in the era of the War on Terror and to various degrees either explicitly or implicitly reflects it, showing the grotesque capabilities of technology in the twenty-first century. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008), Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor (2013), Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014), along with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 (2013), Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), and Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), Shawn Levy’s Real Steel (2011), Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012), Peter Berg’s Battleship (2012), and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) constitute a cluster of films that celebrate the new warfare and the era of new military technology.

The reason for this overt interest in technology and its role in war that action films and war dramas demonstrate is stipulated by the transformed nature of war. The ‘new’ war of the twenty-first century is peculiar due to the existence of the so-called faceless enemy which has been an impossible target for the U.S. and its allies since 9/11. It is thus unsurprising that when dealing with the problem of the global war, cinema vehemently attempts to present possible solutions for winning the war and eradicating terrorism. What 9/11 films have explicitly demonstrated is that the enemy is so elusive and strong that to win the war U.S. soldiers have to be technologically transformed. In other words, humans can never win the war on their own—in the twenty-first century we particularly strongly need advanced technology. Advancing this idea, action, sci-fi, and war films challenge the concept of the human body, suggesting that the ‘normal’ body is no longer needed, for it is not capable of successfully performing a military task. While terrorists are portrayed, in some way, as ‘freaks’, which ‘assures spectators that terrorism can be overcome’,[2] positive characters frequently, literally or metaphorically appear as superheroes who have to ‘com[e] to terms with their abilities, powers and bodies.’[3] Andrew Schopp makes an interesting observation, claiming that 9/11 induced the belief that “risk must always be managed, even if at some level we know that such management is impossible”.[4] One, therefore, might argue that the new, technologically advanced soldier skilfully turns the ‘impossible’ mission into a real one and, what is even more important, an accomplishable task.

The cinema of the War on Terror thus proposes an intriguing shift that war demands: the transformation of human participants into machines. Being overtly transhuman in their nature, these films not only approve of ‘cyborgization’, i.e. the ‘process of changing a human into a cyborg’,[5] but they see it as the only option that is available for the military today. The demand for a so-called transhuman, i.e. ‘a being which due to technological augmentations boosts its body and mind abilities far beyond the standards’,[6] foregrounds the power of technology and sees it as the only means to win the War on Terror. Some more explicitly than others, the cinematic examples that this article analyses demonstrate a crucial shift in the image of a soldier/fighter, thus overtly commenting on the problem of humanity and machinery that exists in times of war. But most importantly, they question the ability of humans to defeat the enemy, celebrating the power of machines.


The Rise of Technology


When one talks about the predominance of technological progress in the twenty-first century, one should of course realize that technology appeared much earlier than in the time of the War on Terror. Significantly, starting from primitive technologies from the far past and finishing with the high technologies of today, technology has always given privileges to its owner, facilitating social, political, economic, and educational development. Thomas J. Misa draws attention to ‘the several technologically marked historical epochs, such as the Bronze Age . . . [and] the Iron Age’.[7] Indeed, technology emerged when the first metal tools were created and widely applied. With the lapse of time, technology was improved and refined to such an extent that it now defines the status of its possessor and dictates the order in the world both in terms of military and economic domination. Richard Li-Hua claims:


Technology means state power to both developing and developed countries. Technology is regarded as a strategic instrument in achieving economic targets and in the creation of wealth and prosperity in developing countries, while technology is taken as an important vehicle to get large profits in developed countries. The effective use of technology is perhaps the most important issue faced by both developing and developed countries, and will undoubtedly become even more critical in years to come.[8]


Technology is therefore equated with power, and vice versa. Analysing Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, Mark Lacy underscores a crucial observation made by the scholar:


Society is transformed by technologies that allow military leaders, police and policymakers to see the enemy before they arrive at the castle walls, before enemy ships arrive on the beaches, before the bombers arrive over our cities, before the terrorist arrives at the airport terminal.[9]


Daniel Sarewitz pinpoints the characteristic of technology as a manipulator and argues that “Power is the projection of human intent over other people, animals or things. Technology magnifies intent and makes it more reliable”.[10]

Yet, when considering the role of technology in war and its influence on modern warfare, it becomes clear that technology has stimulated progress on the battlefield, which allows one to define the war of the twenty-first century as a new, technologically advanced war that is more difficult to predict and at the same time easier yet harder to fight. Still, Sarewitz accentuates the ambivalence of the use of technology in war and the ultimate guarantee of superiority, accepting the idea of the ‘absolute supremacy in military technology’ of the U.S. as demonstrated in the Iraq War, but foregrounding the ambiguity of ‘the technology-power nexus’ and claiming that ‘the proximal objectives enabled by a technology—killing a soldier or destroying a building, for example—say little if anything about the power of that technology to facilitate broader outcomes, for example the compliance of one society to the will of another.’[11] Indeed, noticeable technological superiority on the battlefield may not and does not guarantee the same status in the political arena, yet it arguably plays in favour of the better-equipped side.

How does technology modernize war? Using the example of visual technology, Jose N. Vasquez contends that it ‘chang[es] the experience of war in dramatic ways’.[12] With the help of technology, soldiers are able to control the territory of the enemy and are more capable of protecting their own; they are able to fight at any time of the day and night, and they can reach the enemy from nearly every position—a feat which was hardly imaginable decades earlier. Vasquez speculates that “Conceptualized as ‘cyber warriors’, ‘cyborgs’, and ‘digital soldiers’, the futuristic war fighters once thought of as purely science fiction are gradually becoming reality”.[13] This fascinating observation prompts me to address the issues of humanity and machinery as well as their relations in the modern times of technology and war. Is the widespread dependence on technology in the army a sign of technological self-enslavement, and can this tendency be characterized by the assumption of Antoine Bousquet that the development and improvement of technology is “nothing less than an attempt to insulate the system from uncertainty by creating a perfectly controlled and perfectly stable . . . artificial world”?[14] Do soldiers turn into machines, thus becoming science-fiction superheroes in the real world? Can we speak about a phenomenon such as ‘human machines’ or does humanity remain important even in perhaps the most unattainable, unimaginable, equivocal, and savage state—in war?


Humans or Machines? The Hurt Locker and Iron Man


Who are the soldiers of the twenty-first century, humans or machines? And whose victory is ultimately expected? Film provides a detailed and fascinating overview of the issue. I would like to focus on Bigelow’s war drama The Hurt Locker, which deals with the actual war in Iraq and Favreau’s action film Iron Man, which touches upon the issue of the war in Afghanistan.

The opening scene of The Hurt Locker, which immerses the audience into the world of a technologically advanced war, is the most memorable. Spectators are forced to see the action through the eyes of a robot driving through a street in Baghdad. As the picture is distorted, we realize that it is not a soldier but a robot that provides the overview of the locality. The camera moves and reveals a unit of soldiers arriving and taking their positions and then returns to the robot, thus making it evident that the mechanical character is as important to the operation as the human soldiers. The picture is distorted several times more before the director reveals that the robot is operated by a soldier. With the help of the robot, the soldiers find out what kind of bomb is planted nearby, and therefore are able to plan their further actions. They fasten a small cart to the robot and send it back to the bomb but, dramatically, the cart breaks on its way, demonstrating the imperfection of technology, and a sapper has to continue carrying out the operation. The audience observes Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) being dressed in a special suit designed to protect him from the blast wave. The camera lingers for an instant and, as soon as the helmet is on and carefully fixed, the soldier is ready to perform the mission. The scene is fascinating as it arguably raises the issue of the human and robotic characteristics of the modern soldier. The suit makes him look rather unnatural, as if he himself is another technological innovation of the U.S. army. As he raises his head to see a helicopter, the audience is forced to see through his eyes and although the picture is not as heavily distorted as it was in the scene filmed through the robot’s camera, there is still something that disturbs our vision, i.e. the helmet’s transparent plastic visor; although the visor allows us to see everything, it makes the picture blurry enough to realize that we are looking though a barrier and there is a black frame around our field of vision. The soldier, therefore, represents a human being locked inside a technological product; he becomes part of that technology—a robot that breathes. What makes the ‘robot’ ultimately a human is his dramatized death as the bomb is activated by one of the locals. Trying to escape the fatal ending, the soldier runs as fast as the suit allows him, but he is finally caught by the blast wave. As he falls down in slow motion, spectators notice the transparent part of the helmet covered with blood from the inside.

The soldier is substituted by a new sapper, which is a rather regular case in the army as newcomers take the places of those who die. However, such a ‘conveyer belt’ system allows for another interpretation, namely that just as a robot, machine, or gadget can break down and then be substituted, so can a human being, with the crucial difference that unlike a technological product, a human-being cannot be repaired. There are multiple scenes in the film where a new sapper deactivates a bomb, but I would like to underscore their importance to our understanding of the issue of humanity and machinery. The changing scenes—from the normal human interaction to the transformation of a soldier into a sapper who visually resembles a robot—are disturbing. Additionally, they reveal the ambiguity of the main character’s (Sergeant First Class William James, played by Jeremy Renner) nature. His fearlessness and calmness that often resemble indifference elevate him beyond an average human-being, thus hinting at his supernatural or hi-tech abilities that will allow him to stay alive, no matter what happens. At the same time, his care for a local boy as well as the presence of his wife and baby at the end of the film show James as a rather conventional human who has feelings. The film’s ending, however, contradicts this characterization as we observe smiling James in a sapper’s suit walking towards his next mission in Iraq, which he has volunteered for. He therefore gives up his ‘human’ life, choosing one enabled by technology. Thus, Bigelow’s words that The Hurt Locker reveals “dehumanising and humanising aspects of war” can, indeed, be interpreted in terms of the war and its constituent parts’ (one of which is undoubtedly technology) ability to not only control but also suppress the human side, turning soldiers into machines, both psychologically and physically.[15]

The story of Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), the main character of Iron Man, is somewhat reminiscent of the story of the sappers from The Hurt Locker. Considering the issue of the Afghanistan War and American participation in it, Iron Man is an apt example of an action film that explicitly deals with the duality of a war participant. Tony Stark, a wealthy businessman, creates an iron suit that he puts on every time the world is in danger. At the beginning, the film makes the story as plain as possible: there is a human-being inside of a highly technological, practically indestructible iron suit that accurately resembles the shape of a human body. Every time Tony communicates with somebody, he uncovers his face so that the audience is always aware that it is a human that interacts, takes decisions, argues, smiles, in short, performs all the actions that are typical of people. However, there is a nuance that is not to be neglected, namely that the suit is bonded to Tony (or is Tony bonded to the suit?) with the help of an electromagnet that was installed in Tony’s body when he was captured in Afghanistan, and later improved into a powerful reactor by Tony himself. What at first looks like Tony’s hobby later turns into an addiction that connects him and the suit so tightly that both the audience and Tony himself have difficulty distinguishing when Tony is a human and when he is a powerful superhero. Tony, whose high-tech weapons have guaranteed power and dominance to their possessors and fear to the ones at which they are targeted, now himself turns into such a high-tech weapon. Indeed, in the course of all the three parts of the film, Tony fights terrorists, criminals, and other bad guys, posing danger to them only when he is reincarnated as Iron Man.

In Iron Man 2, Tony goes as far as declaring: “I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one”.[16] Tony’s general condition, however, worsens as the suit negatively influences his health and it becomes clear that if Tony does not stop being Iron Man, he will simply die. The generator that is mounted right in his chest and that figuratively stands for the heart of Iron Man, is slowly killing Tony and, thus, Tony’s powerful second self. Therefore, the question of whether to remain as Iron Man or to return to ordinary life should be rather easy to settle in such a situation; Tony, however, tries to figure out a way to continue being a superhero. Although Tony’s human qualities (such as devotion, his desire to protect his dearest ones, his ability to love, his patriotism, and his decision not to speculate and purely gain profit from his arms business, but to care for the well-being others) construct Tony as a human superhero; his robotic side also gets a lot of attention. We often find him in his laboratory where he creates all kinds of technologically advanced gadgets and robots. The laboratory is literally the place where Tony feels at home, surrounded by all the iron constructions and creatures that communicate with him. Tony, therefore, is presented as someone who gets more and more involved in the world of technology, inevitably alienating himself from the world of humans.

Tony’s addiction to the iron suit strengthens in Iron Man 3, where virtually at the beginning of the film he feels a physical and emotional bond to it, suffering from ‘anxiety attacks’[17] any time he does not wear it and feeling comfortable and protected each time he is inside it. One can speculate that the reason for his fear of vulnerability is virtually a consequence of the events of The Avengers (2012), in which he was very nearly killed. Tony becomes even more involved in the world of machines that are, indeed, living creatures for him. Thus, we observe him placing the uncharged suit on the sofa in a way that he thinks the iron suit would find comfortable; showing compassion in the scene where a boy breaks off the suit’s finger, assuming that the suit can actually feel the pain. Tony stops sleeping, which represents his inconceivable physical endurance; he acknowledges that his suits are ‘part of’[18] him and, indeed, this is how he is finally perceived by his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who, although struggling to accept the technological self of her boyfriend, upon finding the helmet, holds it close to herself thinking of Tony, as she assumes this is the only bit of him left after the brutal fight.

The Iron Man trilogy, therefore, is an important work that raises the questions of machinery and humanity in war. Unlike The Hurt Locker, however, it provides a radically different answer to the question: who wins? Tony Stark’s humanity apparently wins over the technological, mechanical self of Iron Man as, at the end of the third part, we observe Tony throwing his generator into the ocean, thus demonstrating his acceptance of humanity and rejection of the robotic side for good. The same happens to the U.S. army (that with Tony’s help became largely equipped with iron suits, turning into the most frightening army on the planet) when Tony takes the decision to liquidate all the robots that he created. Iron Man, therefore, makes a clear appeal to the audience: it is easy to fight against the enemy with the help of technology; however, it can also become our enemy as it deprives us of our humanity, turning us into machines that are not able to enjoy the privileges of human life.


Transformers: Humanity in Machines


Investigating the transformation of humans into machines, I inevitably address the opposite issue, namely whether machines in war can possess humanity. To examine the problem, I have chosen to analyse a recent series of films that are primarily concerned with machines, demonstrating the flourishing of the technological era and, as a result, of technological progress; the film series in question is Michael Bay’s Transformers and its sequels.

The four films released so far can and should be treated as one story of relations between robots and human-beings. The film’s most apparent message is that technology today is much cleverer, less biased, and somewhat more humane than humans themselves. The Autobots are arguably represented as the only truly good characters in the film (perhaps with the exception of a small group of people that includes Sam (Shia LaBeouf) and his friends). Their reason for being on Earth is to protect the human race from the evil Decepticons. They exist as a small group of robots that resembles a family in which everyone is ready to help, protect, and care for each other. More than that, their desire to save people (who in the course of the film do not seem to be very thankful for this, preferring to exploit the robots rather than treat them as equals or accept their technological superiority) stands for the robots’ ability to feel love, devotion, responsibility, and compassion. There are a number of scenes in the film when, by means of contrasting a robot and a human, the director shows a tremendous difference between the two, accentuating humanity in robots and a certain inhumanity in a humans. For example, in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, we witness an Autobot pining because his friend Sam has to leave him to go to college, whereas later in the scene, Sam fails to say, ‘I love you’[19] to his girlfriend, which provokes a tense dialogue between the two. Thus, it is easier for a robot to express emotions rather than for a human.

All the robots in Transformers and its sequels represent a specific race—a race of ‘intelligent mechanical beings’[20], as they call themselves. Indeed, their intellect and thinking abilities are striking, but what is more fascinating is their uncanny resemblance to the human race. First, the robots look very similar to humans: they have a body, limbs, a head, and a face. The robots are not clumsy despite their huge size; when they fight, they can literally feel pain; when they get a punch in the face, they spit out liquid that looks very much like a mixture of blood and spit; as mentioned earlier, they can cry; they also can propagate, as we witness in a scene in which multiple cocoons are revealed; finally, robots grow old and suffer from typically human health problems. Their inner qualities are peculiar too: the robots are humanly superior, as unlike people they all possess moral qualities and very often are shown judging humans, making them behave and act better. “It’s inhumane is what it is!”[21] complains a robot that Sam locked outside in the rain. Indeed, according to Transformers, these are machines that possess humanity, whereas human beings do not.

This interpretation, however, may change dramatically if we consider Terence McSweeney’s suggestion that Transformers is a vivid projection of 9/11 in which the Decepticons stand for real terrorists.[22] In this case, the Autobots represent humans who fight against terrorists. But then it remains unclear who the real people in Transformers are. Therefore, I propose examining the film not as a pure metaphor of the world after 9/11, but in terms of its treatment of technological progress. In this case, the film sends a clear message that machines could develop into such highly intelligent creatures that they will become more perfect than humans in all aspects.


Conclusion: Humans. Or Machines?


In a time of high-tech wars, the question whether humanity and machinery have become equal or whether one prevails over the other remains a complex issue. Despina Kakoudaki interprets “the tendency to imagine the artificial body as a mechanical, rather than organic, entity” in terms of neutralization of ‘human vulnerability’.[23] Arguably, this is a pivotal aspect to consider when dealing with the issues of humanity and machinery. Vulnerability, or perhaps also victimization, therefore, are not to be treated as purely physical aspects (although they are, indeed, here); as The Hurt Locker, the Iron Man trilogy and the Transformers series illustrate, emotions are one of the most crucial characteristics that define humanity. Thus, those who can feel are considered humane whether or not they are humans or machines. Technological progress, indeed, changes humans. While technology develops into more and better products, humans transform as well. The complexity of the issue will hardly ever allow anybody to provide a single answer to the problem of humanity and machinery. The analysed cinematic examples, however, do not give up on the human race, but underline the difficulty of remaining true humans in the era of technology.




Bousquet Antoine, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, (London: Hurst & Company) (2009).

Corum James S., Fighting the War on Terror: A Counterinsurgency Strategy, (St. Paul: MBI Publishing and Zenith Press) (2007).

Holden Lisa, and Fran Pheasant-Kelly, “Freak-Show Aesthetics and the Politics of Disfigurement: Reconfiguring the Cinematic Terrorist in the Post-9/11 Era”, in Reflecting 9/11: New Narratives in Literature, Television, Film and Theatre, ed. Heather E. Pope and Victoria M. Bryan (New Castle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) (2016).

Iron Man (Jon Favreau, Paramount Pictures) (2008).

Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, Paramount Pictures) (2010).

Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures) (2013).

Kakoudaki Despina, Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press) (2014).

Lacy Mark, Security, Technology and Global Politics: Thinking with Virilio, (London: Routledge) (2014).

Li-Hua Richard, “Definitions of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing) (2009).

McSweeney Terence, The ‘War on Terror’ and American Film: 9/11 Frames per Second, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2014).

Michalczak Rafał, “Transhuman and Posthuman – On Relevance of ‘Cyborgisation’ on Legal and Ethical Issues”, 25th IVR World Congress Law Science and Technology, Paper Series 084: C (2012).

Misa Thomas J., “History of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology. ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing) (2009).

Purse Lisa, Contemporary Action Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2011).

Sarewitz Daniel, “Technology and Power”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing) (2009).

Schopp Andrew, “Interrogating the Manipulation of Fear: V for Vendetta, Batman Begins, Good Night, and Good Luck, and America’s ‘War on Terror”, in The War on Terror and American Popular Culture: September 11 and Beyond, ed. Andrew Schopp and Matthew B. Hill (Madison: Rosemont Publishing) (2009).

Tasker Ivonne, The Hollywood Action and Adventure Film, (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell) (2015).

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, Summit Entertainment) (2008).

Transformers (Michael Bay, Paramount Pictures) (2007).

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay, Paramount Pictures) (2009).

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay, Paramount Pictures) (2011).

Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay,Paramount Pictures) (2014).

Vasquez Jose N., “Seeing Green: Visual Technology, Virtual Reality, and the Experience of War”, in An Anthropology of War: Views from the Frontline, ed. Alisse Waterston (New York: Berghahn Books) (2009).



[1] James S. Corum, Fighting the War on Terror: A Counterinsurgency Strategy, (St. Paul: MBI Publishing and Zenith Press) (2007). p. 117.

[2]Lisa Holden, and Fran Pheasant-Kelly, “Freak-Show Aesthetics and the Politics of Disfigurement: Reconfiguring the Cinematic Terrorist in the Post-9/11 Era”, in Reflecting 9/11: New Narratives in Literature, Television, Film and Theatre, ed. Heather E. Pope and Victoria M. Bryan (New Castle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016), p. 200.

[3] Ivonne Tasker, The Hollywood Action and Adventure Film, (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell) (2015). p. 180. My italics.

[4] Andrew Schopp, “Interrogating the Manipulation of Fear: V for Vendetta, Batman Begins, Good Night, and Good Luck, and America’s ‘War on Terror”, in The War on Terror and American Popular Culture: September 11 and Beyond, ed. Andrew Schopp and Matthew B. Hill (Madison: Rosemont Publishing, 2009), p. 261.


[5] Rafał Michalczak, “Transhuman and Posthuman – On Relevance of ‘Cyborgisation’ on Legal and Ethical Issues”, 25th IVR World Congress Law Science and Technology, Paper Series 084: C (2012), p. 2.

[6] Rafał Michalczak., p. 4.

[7] Thomas J. Misa, “History of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 9.

[8] Richard Li-Hua, “Definitions of Technology”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 18.

[9] Mark Lacy, Security, Technology and Global Politics: Thinking with Virilio, (London: Routledge) (2014), p. 79.

[10] Daniel Sarewitz, “Technology and Power”, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, ed. Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen, and Vincent F. Hendricks (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p. 308.

[11] Daniel Sarewitz, pp. 309-310.

[12] Jose N. Vasquez, “Seeing Green: Visual Technology, Virtual Reality, and the Experience of War”, in An Anthropology of War: Views from the Frontline, ed. Alisse Waterston (New York: Berghahn Books, 2009), p. 87.

[13] Jose N. Vasquez, pp. 88-89.

[14] Antoine Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, (London: Hurst & Company) (2009), p. 11.

[15] Quoted in Lisa Purse, Contemporary Action Cinema, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2011), p. 162.

[16] Iron Man 2 (2010, Jon Favreau).

[17] Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black).

[18] Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black).

[19] Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009, Michael Bay).

[20] Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011, Michael Bay).

[21] Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011, Michael Bay).

[22] Terence McSweeney, The ‘War on Terror’ and American Film: 9/11 Frames per Second, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) (2014), p. 139.

[23] Despina Kakoudaki, Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press) (2014), p. 69.

Unseen war? Hackers, tactical media, and their depiction in Hollywood cinema

Marta Stańczyk

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 62-77.

Marta Stańczyk

Jagiellonian University



Unseen war? Hackers, tactical media, and their depiction in Hollywood cinema



The geeks have emerged in politics.
(Tim Jordan, Activism! Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society)

The feelings of vulnerability, fear of the unknown, and embarrassment that feed the hysterical reaction to hackers also lead to the fetishizing of hackers in popular culture.
(Tor Ekeland, Hacker Madness)



Emerging controversies about WikiLeaks’ contribution to Donald Trump’s electoral triumph and the ongoing persona-non-grata status of Edward Snowden highlight the notion of hacking in the modern world. Hackers used to be dualistically stereotyped on one hand as black hats, criminals and cyberpunk/cypherpunk hidden figures, and on the other as whistle-blowers, open access activists and hacktivists whose actions are potentially subversive. Film coverage of hackers and their tactics shows a paranoid and militarized vision of the world, with grey eminence often depicted either as a threat, or as survivors. Hence, from WarGames (1983, John Bedham), TRON (1982, Steven Lisberger) and Hackers (1995, Iain Softley) to The Fifth Estate (2013, Bill Condon), Live Free or Die Hard (2007, Len Wiseman) to Jason Bourne (2016, Paul Greengrass), hacking seems to have emerged as the avant-garde of militarized social space—as its main weapon and fundamental defence. Pop culture feeds itself with this ambiguity as long as it accommodates the dualistic needs of its receivers: a countercultural anti-hero becomes a scapegoat while a general sense of insecurity predominates. Distrust in technology and underground experts is simultaneous with redemption narratives about disclosing corporate/state/elite conspiracies and is heavily influenced by current non-cinematic events. This paper is an examination of hackers’ cultural impact and their connection with tactical media through subversive actions. It becomes essential to decode their manipulated or simplified public image, especially with ongoing progressive politicization of hacking and its significance.


Key words: electronic civil disobedience, hack, hacker, hacktivism, tactical media





Surfacing controversies about WikiLeaks’ contribution to Donald Trump’s electoral triumph, the commuting of Chelsea Manning’s sentence, or the ongoing Edward Snowden’s persona-non-grata status highlight the notion of hacking in the modern world. Hackers were stereotyped as black hats, criminals, and cyberpunk hidden figures for a long time, until the media and popular culture emphasized the potential subversiveness in their actions as whistle-blowers and free software and open source (FOSS) activists. Nowadays, on the one hand, they more often tend to be depicted as the last men standing; maybe antisocial, but driven by the virtuous ideological motives of a desire for justice, patriotism, anti-globalist protests, a sense of freedom, etc. On the other hand, with their excellent coding abilities, they are a part of information warfare (IW), threatening the inner harmony of social life and protecting citizens’ privacy. Film coverage of hackers and their tactics redistributes a paranoid and militarized vision of the world, with hidden figures often depicted either as a potential threat, or as survivors; either as a weapon in the fight against plutocracy, or as a technocratic nightmare.

“Hackers induce hysteria. They are the unknown, the terrifying, the enigma. The enigma that can breach and leak the deepest secrets (…). You feel vulnerable and it feels as though what happened is black magic”[1]; this quotation shows that the elaborate nature of hacking practice can cause its pathologization and even demonization. Rejecting such a perspective, this paper tries to locate hackers in a more neutral, objective discourse and to decode the biased opinions which fuel cinematic depictions of programmers pushing back the frontiers of technology. My case studies of movies together with real events and their media coverage are influenced especially by Tim Jordan’s research on hacker culture, community, ethics, and political agenda. He describes hacking as the act of computer intrusion, but he simultaneously accentuates that this intrusion does not have criminal motivations—its core is a tech-savviness. A good hack is original and autonomous; an activity is more important than the results, it extends the regular computer usage and is made in a joyful atmosphere, but “[h]acking has become associated in the mass media with illicit computer intrusion rather than with innovative uses of technology. This has led to the definition of cracking, a term many hackers use to refer to unwanted entry into computer systems by explorers or criminals”.[2] This differentiation has led Jordan to distinguish three fundamental notions about hacking: “there is the hacker who breaks into computer systems; the hackers who write software; and hacking as the essence of twenty-first century creativity”.[3]

Today hacking is often more of a cultural than a technological asset; it “is the way of understanding what is possible, sensible, and ethical in the twenty-first century”[4], therefore it becomes essential to decode its manipulated or simplified public image, especially with the ongoing progressive politicization of hackers and their significance. First of all, they are treated as a threat to social and private security due to the state engagement of hackers in cyberwar, IW and the sabotaging of other countries. Secondly, their actions are legally prohibited. Thirdly, hacking is by nature political due to its subversive use of media and reversing of power relations. And finally, hackers increasingly frequent collaboration with social activism has initiated hacktivism; hacking “turns into a form of ‘warfare’ (…) hackers engage in to advance their political agendas”.[5] Jordan describes hacktivists as “political activists, most often associated with the alter-globalisation movement, who utilize hacking techniques to create grassroots activist political campaigns. Hacktivists produce both ephemeral electronic civil disobedience actions (…) and try to create infrastructures of secure anonymous communication often to support human rights workers”.[6] So, hackers can be both agents of difference and change, and criminally-inclined “black hats” or crackers. Moreover, Hollywood cinema accentuates the tension between cyberterrorism and hacktivism; narratives fluctuate from these taking advantage of the militarization of cyberspace and paranoiac spirits (especially since 9/11) to redemptive ones that disclose corporate/state/elite conspiracies. Hence (cinematic) hacking seems to emerge as the avant-garde of militarized social space, its main weapon, and a fundamental defence. Pop culture feeds itself with this ambiguity as long as it accommodates the dualistic needs of its audience—a countercultural anti-hero becomes a scapegoat while a general sense of insecurity predominates.[7]


They’re stealing the Internet![8]


Hacking culture emerged in the 60s within American universities, but only two decades later did cinema find a formula for depicting computer geeks. In the 80s—with its hi-tech excitement, youth culture, and popularity of the IBM PC and other technological gadgets (e.g. the fetishized Power Glove[9])—the faith in information technology’s limitless potential and the sense of overriding fun were all-pervading. Although in Superman 3 (1983, Richard Lester), a hacker constructed a supercomputer in order to defeat the protagonist, coding had previously been used primarily as a tool of entertainment for movie characters (Revenge of the Nerds [1984, Jeff Kanew]; Weird Science [1985, John Hughes]). In TRON (1982, Steven Lisberger) Master Control’s predatory needs were justified by the real-life villain’s greed and in Electric Dreams (1984, Steve Barron) the PC and the protagonist were rivals over a woman. Even in WarGames (1983, John Badham) a military central computer appeared to be not maleficent but wrongly programmed. However, these optimistic narratives simplified hacking itself, presenting it as a movie gimmick rather than a process requiring professional skills. Depictions of hacking in 80s Hollywood cinema were often misunderstood and misleading. Repeating a random command such as “Access database” seemed to be sufficient for breaking into any system, thus making coding skills redundant.[10]

In the 90s modern angst emerged. There were still some gimmick hacks (as in Jurassic Park [1993, Steven Spielberg] or Universal Soldier: The Return [1999, Mic Rodgers][11]), sci-hack flicks (the absurd The Lawnmower Man [1992, Brett Leonard]) and genre recreation of hacking motives (for example, the corporate thriller The Net [1995, Irwin Winkler], comedy Office Space [1999, Mike Judge], and heist movie Sneakers [1992, Phil Alden Robinson]), but some Baudrillardist movies were indicative of the sense of paranoia: Johnny Mnemonic (1995, Robert Longo), The Thirteenth Floor (1999, Josef Rusnak) and especially The Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003 and 2003, The Wachowskis). Hackers began to be perceived as a threat for common citizens whose lives were affected by information technology to the point where it became an immanent element of their day-to-day reality. The Ashley Madison data breach,[12] the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack,[13] Silk Road’s embezzlement,[14] or Celebgate[15] all are scandals which undermined cybersecurity and net neutrality.

Hackers—although they should be called crackers for their criminal inclinations— occurred as hidden figures thinking only about their profits and capitalizing on their digital supremacy by preying on the malfunctions of omnipresent technology. Moreover, cybercrime gangs and state-backed hackers[16] joined the information warfare (which is defined as a “conflict or struggle between two or more groups in the information environment”[17]). In the case of cyberwarfare particularly, computers and networks are main targets and are struck by cyberattacks, espionage (depicted and revealed in Snowden [2016, Oliver Stone] or Jason Bourne [2016, Paul Greengrass]), sabotage (the disruption of equipment which is shown in Live Free or Die Hard [2007, Len Wiseman] among others), or DDoS attacks (the Distributed Denial-of-Service attacks that finds their most iconic representation in Hackers [1995, Iain Softley]). In 2009, President Barack Obama declared America’s digital infrastructure to be a “strategic national asset”.[18] On the one hand, cyberwar is often safer and reduces losses in people and infrastructure, as was the case of the American attacks on Iraqi communications networks in the Gulf War. On the other hand, it encourages illegal actions. During the aforementioned war, Dutch hackers stole information about U.S. troop movements from U.S. Defense Department computers and tried to sell it to the Iraqis, who thought it was a hoax and turned it down. Nowadays such an offer would be taken more seriously. Other threats are for example viruses and worms such as the infamous Stuxnet, “the world’s first digital weapon”,[19] which installed a rootkit on Windows OS. This was later believed to be an effect of American-Israeli cooperation against Iran’s nuclear facilities.[20] As Eugene Kaspersky, founder of Kaspersky Lab, said, “[t]he term ‘cyber-war’ is used by many to describe the situation, but that term—which implies that there are two equal, known enemies duking it out—is outmoded. With today’s attacks, you are clueless about who did it or when they will strike again. It’s not cyber-war, but cyberterrorism”.[21]

The threat seems ominous; therefore, in this situation hackers have commonly been criminalized, especially after the September 11 attacks, when the sense of paranoia became predominant. “Since 9/11, however, many liberal democratic states around the world have adopted legislation that ‘…paves the way for a far more permissive environment for electronic surveillance…’, and the online surveillance of activist communities as a way of policing social movements and stifling political protest is a growing concern for activists under traditionally repressive regimes and in Western democracies alike.”[22] The persecution of hackers, for example Fidel Salinas[23] and Jeremy Hammond[24], or Barack Obama’s attitude towards Edward Snowden show a state-based hysteria about any hack regardless of its motivations.[25] But whistle-blowers and hacktivists undermine the social trust in law and order, exposing state and media misuses: infiltration, invigilation, gatekeeping and hacking itself.[26] Moreover, as is written on the “Exposing the Invisible” webpage, “[p]eople are newly empowered to uncover hidden information, expose corruption and bring the truth to light”,[27] taking advantage of their anonymity and subverting power relations.


Hack the planet!


Hackers are often more socially accepted, as represented by the popularization of hacking conferences (H.O.P.E., DefCon), makerspaces, Hackathons and the Internet Protection Movement. There are even training courses for hackers that end with the certificate of Ethical Hackers.[28] FOSS’ flagship products—Firefox and GNU/Linux—“have both significant symbolic effects (in providing the ability of FOSS methods to create complex, stable programs) and market effects (providing significant alternatives of quality and freedom to commercial dominance)”.[29] Hackers engage themselves in fighting for social change not only through free software and open source principles The threat posed on the digital freedom was an inspiration for acts of electronic civil disobedience (ECD).[30] More and more social activists appropriate the tactical media manifesto written by Geert Lovink: “Tactical media are media of crisis, criticism and opposition. This is both the source [of] their power, (‘anger is an energy’: John Lydon), and their limitation. Their typical heroes are the activist, nomadic media warriors, the prankster, the hacker, the street rapper, the camcorder kamikaze; they are the happy negatives, always in search of an enemy. (…) [C]onsumers use the texts and artefacts that surround us (…) ‘tactically’. That is, in far more creative and rebellious ways than had previously been imagined.”[31]

Hacktivism can be understood as “activism! running free in the electronic veins that enliven our 21st-century, global socio-economies”.[32] Digitally-founded social actions are “a qualified form of humanism”[33] and they aim to create the space for “netizens”,[34] nevertheless hacking is conducted mainly by people with excellent coding skills who try to inspire social change by translating political thought into code. The most notorious groups in the United States are Anonymous and LulzSec. Julian Assange has been posting classified documents on WikiLeaks to call for “privacy of the weak, transparency for the powerful”.[35] In 1996, the Critical Art Ensemble recognized the politicization of cybersphere. In 1998, the Electronic Disturbance Theatre shared FloodNet, which was a tool enabling acts of (electronic) civil disobedience. And in 1999, the CULT OF THE DEAD COW (cDc) launched the Hacktivismo group, whose main goal was fighting for access to information as an expression of human rights. The group explained their mission in “The Hacktivismo Declaration” and “The Hacktivismo FAQ”. A few paragraphs from the latter should be evoked here as a representative of hactivists’ goals and hacker culture:

Q: What do you mean by the word “hacktivism”, then?

A: The provenance of hacktivism winds back to Omega – a longstanding member of the cDc – who started using it as a joke to describe on-line protest actions. Oxblood appropriated the word and began using it with a straight face; then many journalists, fading stars of the Left, and eventually script kiddies picked up on it, all claiming to know what hacktivism meant. It has been a noun in search of a verb for some time now. Oxblood once defined hacktivism as “an open-source implosion”, and now he’s added “disruptive compliance” to its range of description.

Q: What the hell are you talking about? I’m just looking for a simple answer here.

A: Hold your kimono, cupcake. O.K., hacktivism is the use of technology to advance human rights through electronic media.[36]

This short excerpt from cDc’s FAQ emphasizes not only the mission and motivations of Hacktivismo and similar groups, but also their slightly anarchistic, ironic style, anonymity linked with peer recognition and alternate, partly hidden communicating platforms such as IRC. It is the “performance of technology”[37] that interested the movie industry. Hacking has an allure which spread not only among whitehats involved in cybersecurity or computer geeks, but also film producers. However, hackers are still stereotyped and treated as public enemies because of their abilities, common illicitness and anonymity symbolized by Guy Fawkes’ mask.


Hollywood OS: bio-digital jazz[38]


“Most hackers do it for the challenge, thrill, and social fun. (…) [I]t [hacker culture] reconfigures technology and social relations by subverting the rules, laws, and social norms regarding the use of technology. It works in opposition to monopolistic, capitalist, statist regulation and perception of the new technologies.”[39] Hacker culture, while maybe not as cyberpunk or cypherpunk as in Hackers, has risen from a vivacious cleverness and striving for intellectual challenges amongst students, especially from MIT. The Social Network (2010, David Fincher) is a contemporary movie that redistributes that sense of adventurous experiments with emerging technology. Hackers have their ethics inspired by the notions of information sharing, freedom of inquiry, unlimited availability of (digital) tools and democratic ideals, in sheer opposition to cybercrimes, cracking, and all black hat activities.[40] Simultaneously, media depictions of hacking are frequently unjust, although not always deliberately.

As Cory Doctorow from MIT Media Lab points out: “[t]he persistence until now [until the premiere of Mr. Robot, 2015–, series – M.S.] of what the geeks call ‘Hollywood OS,’ in which computers do impossible things just to drive the plot, hasn’t just resulted in bad movies. It’s confused people about what computers can and can’t do. (…) The worst thing about WarGames [in which a teenager broke into NORAD’s mainframe, nearly causing a nuclear escalation – M.S.] – and its most profound legacy – was the reaction of panicked lawmakers. (…) The CFAA took an exceptionally broad view of what constitutes criminal ‘hacking,’ making a potential felon out of anyone who acquires unauthorized access to a computer system”.[41] Stephanie Schulte says that “the release of the film ‘WarGames’ helped merge Cold War anxieties with those involving teenage rebellion”.[42] Relatively soon after its premiere, public opinion, IT specialists and lawyers were surprised by the so-called Morris worm (1988), but this was cinema itself that strengthened law related to cybercrimes, causing penalisation (and even criminalisation) of young programmers—as was evident during the Obama administration—and had its peak in Aaron Swartz’s suicide after he was charged with thirteen felonies, the result of using his own script to download files from the JSTOR repository.[43]

Swartz’s story was depicted emphatically in The Internet’s Own Boy (2014, Brian Knappenberger). Modern documentaries are actually very committed to legitimatising hackers’ actions, but mainstream Hollywood cinema is still abundant in iniquitous representations. Hack flicks distort the image of hackers, their personality and hacking itself, which is reduced to fast typing and simply playing a game (Hackers, TRON, or Masterminds [1997, Roger Christian]). Hackers use multiple windows whose abundance is representative of the hacker’s skills; they talk with personified viruses,[44] they give nonsense explanations in which they merge random parts of IT vernacular[45] when locked in their mother’s basement with a myriad of screens, wires and bobbleheads (provoking wisecrack comments from the old guard, like John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard). The sole process of hacking is compressed and reduced to erratic typing from which multidimensional visual data or Nmap graphics emerge in order to cover the boring truth about the nature of coding. Hollywood representations eliminate not only the wearisome writing of lines of illegible code, but also software and hardware parameters or social engineering that are necessary to gain access to most accounts. Hackers are not modern sorcerers, although their depictions show the contrary. One of the most frequent and absurd sentences in hack flicks is “Hack the mainframe!”[46], hackers have supernatural computer intuition (as Stanley in Swordfish [2001, Dominic Sena]) and they are often vindictive masterminds (which is the case of Skyfall [2012, Sam Mendes], Untraceable [2008, Gregory Hoblit], GoldenEye [1995, Martin Campbell], Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol [2011, Brad Bird] and so on). And even if they are shown in a more psychologically-motivated way, filmmakers annihilate realism with a high level of aestheticization. For example, in Takedown (2000, Joe Chappelle) the process of hacking is shown through multiple exposures in which the protagonist is merely engulfed by code. Similar poetics are used in Hackers, in which film characters’ faces are changed into screens with mathematical equations on them. The film adds to that the transformation of New York into optical fibres and an embodied virus that is a half-naked man with long hair. And while Blackhat (2015, Michael Mann) tries to show code’s architecture through a simple figuration of links, wires, optical fibres and electrical impulses, TRON and TRON: Legacy (2010, Joseph Kosinsky) create autonomous worlds on the grid where duels, races and power games take place. No wonder Mr. Robot, with its social engineering, legitimate use of IT tools and jargon (ShellShock bug, onion routing, tor networking, rootkit, etc.), or accurate representations of hacker culture (more realistic and down-to-earth than the cyberpunk universe developed in Hackers) has gained words of approval not merely from critics, but also from programmers, cybersecurity professionals, and even Anonymous.[47]

The image of computers as black boxes or magical crates is dangerous [48] and leaves viewers awed when confronted with someone who recognizes deep technological structures, especially in the age of total digitalization and web 2.0. Hackers could be depicted in an even more “analogue” way—as they are in heist movies (Sneakers, The Italian Job [2003, F. Gary Gray], Swordfish, or Coin Heist [2017, Emily Hagins]), where they are often only a small part of crooks’ operations—but the black hat image remains. Hackers as antisocial, alienated, predominantly male[49] hidden figures seem to threaten society with their menacing invisibility and immanence (related to technological immanence itself). People’s privacy is identified as being most vulnerable to cyber activity; hence the popularity of ghost hacking’s motive has risen, resulting in such movies as Ghost in the Shell (1995, Mamoru Oshii, and 2017, Rupert Sanders), Inception (2011, Christopher Nolan), Source Code (2011, Duncan Jones) or even The Lawnmower Man and Johnny Mnemonic. The whistle-blowers’ activities which exposed many state or corporate abuses of privacy were a turning point in the social image of hackers, or rather hacktivists. Their pursuit of their own vision of justice, patriotism (as shown by Oliver Stone in Snowden) and freedom has gained them support as watchmen and as the last men standing.

Hackers with their subversive potential have become pop cultural icons, as is apparent in their biopics and cameos. Steve Jobs and Silicon Valley’s moguls are not the only epitome of information technology because filmmakers depict net activists juxtaposing the open source movement[50] with the corporate establishment. Takedown tells the story of Kevin Mitnick. Although based on a book by Tsutomu Shimomura, Mitnick’s main antagonist in real life, the hacker is shown ambiguously. This more understanding perspective was inspired by another book, The Fugitive Game by Jonathan Littman. Shimomura and Mitnick are shown as equal in skills and means, but with different goals. The first works for big corporations as a cybersecurity specialist, while the latter, although intrusive and invasive to the privacy of others, fights for freedom of information. The real Mitnick refused to acknowledge his crime as cracking and rather think of it as the effect of social engineering. He is now a white hat, a security consultant and pop cultural icon (appearing in Emmanuel Goldstein’s documentary Freedom Downtime (2004) and Werner Herzog’s documentary Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016) or as the inspiration for the main protagonist of the comic book Wizzywig). Edward Snowden (Snowden, Citizenfour [2014, Laura Poitras]) or Julian Assange (Australian Underground: The Julian Assange Story [2012, Robert Connolly], The Fifth Estate [2013, Bill Condon]) are other heroes of public interest who are followed by (for the time being, only in documentaries) stories about such hacktivists as Jeremy Hammond, Aaron Swartz and so on. Even without any real characters, movies recreate Zeitgeist, conspiracy theories, the sense of living in a tech-illusion, or just a deep contempt for the unseen mechanisms elaborated by corporations or states. It remains valid regardless of narrative structure. Popular types of characters include programmers and hackers working in big, exploiatative companies (e.g. Antitrust [2001, Peter Howitt]),[51] disadvantaged rebels using computer skills as their only weapon against elites (e.g. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [2011, David Fincher]), people treated as a tool in cybermanipulations and living in dystopias blurring the line between reality and VR (e.g. The Matrix trilogy but also the less obvious One Point O [2004, Jeff Renfroe, Marteinn Thorsson] and the already mentioned TV series Mr. Robot[52]).

Another popular narrative arc is old versus new, in which the old guard that can be called ‘a Timex watch in a digital age’, is confronted with digital era challenges. But this conflict is artificial and maybe even vaguely compensating. Popular culture has begun to acknowledge the omnipresence of hacking and put it in the context of warfare. Unseen war is not only the set of tactics related to IW: nowadays hackers are a synecdoche of socio-political conflicts and predominant power dynamics.




Agard Chancellor, “Why USA Network’s ‘Mr. Robot’ Is the Most Realistic Depiction of Hacking On Television”, International Business Times, http://www.ibtimes.com/why-usa-networks-mr-robot-most-realistic-depiction-hacking-television-2020213, date accessed: 9 April 2017.

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Cannata-Bowman Nick, “Why ‘CSI: Cyber’ Fails in Terms of Accuracy”, The Cheat Sheet, http://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/why-csi-cyber-fails-in-terms-of-accuracy.html/?a=viewall, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

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Hammond Jeremy, “Jeremy Hammond’s Sentencing Statement”, Indymedia UK, http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2013/11/513761.html, date accessed: 8 April 2015.

Hohenbild Sonja, Khonsari Shahriar, McMullen Heather, Turner-Beckman Kalea, “The Internet protection movement”, New Media Activism, http://wpmu.mah.se/nmict11group4/the-internet-protection-movement/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

Holkins Jerry, Krahulik Mike, “Penny Arcade”, http://pennyarcade.wikia.com/wiki/July_16,_2007, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

Hong Nicole, “Silk Road Creator Found Guilty of Cybercrimes”, The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/silk-road-creator-found-guilty-of-cybercrimes-1423083107?mod=WSJ_hp_RightTopStories, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

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Kumar S., “How Ashley Madison hack hurt everyone, not only cheaters”, Fortune, http://fortune.com/2015/08/20/ashley-madison-hacks-cybersecurity/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

Lovink Geert, “The ABC of Tactical Media”, nettime, http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-9705/msg00096.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

Mason Jeff, Felsenthal Mark, “Obama Disses Snowden, Says No ‘Wheeling and Dealing’ Or ‘Scrambling Jets to Get A 29-year Old Hacker’”, Business Insider, http://www.businessinsider.com/obama-not-scrambling-jets-to-get-29-year-old-hacker-2013-6?IR=T, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

McCullagh Declan, “From ‘WarGames’ to Aaron Swartz: How U.S. anti-hacking law went astray”, C-Net, https://www.cnet.com/news/from-wargames-to-aaron-swartz-how-u-s-anti-hacking-law-went-astray/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

Meisner Jason, “Chicago man plead guilty to ‘Celebgate’ photo hacking”, Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-celebrity-photos-hacking-plea-met-20160927-story.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

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Peterson Andrea, “The Sony Pictures Entertainment hack, explained”, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2014/12/18/the-sony-pictures-hack-explained/?utm_term=.b7f9226e319d, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

Porche Isaac R., III, Paul Christopher, York Michael, Serena Chad C., Sollinger Jerry M., Axelband Elliot, Min Endy Y., Held Bruce J., Redefining Information Warfare Boundaries for an Army in a Wireless World, (Santa Monica–Arlington–Pittsburgh: RAND Corporation) (2013).

Annika Richterich, Karin Wenz, “Introduction: Making and Hacking”, Digital Culture & Society 3:1 (2017), p. 8.

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Shamah David, “Latest viruses could mean ‘end of world as we know it’, says man who discovered Flame”, Start-up Israel, http://www.timesofisrael.com/experts-we-lost-the-cyber-war-now-were-in-the-era-of-cyber-terror/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

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[1] Tor Ekeland, “Hacker Madness”, Limn 8 (2017), https://limn.it/hacker-madness/, date accessed: 22 July 2017.

[2] Tim Jordan, Activism! Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society, (London: Reaktion Books) (2002), p. 120.

[3] Tim Jordan, “Hacking and power: Social and technological determinism in the digital age”, First Monday, 14:7 (2009), http://firstmonday.org/article/viewArticle/2417/2240, date accessed: 22 July 2017.

[4] Tim Jordan, Hacking: Digital Media and Technological Determinism, (Cambridge–Malden: Polity Press) (2008), p. 1.

[5] Annika Richterich, Karin Wenz, “Introduction: Making and Hacking”, Digital Culture & Society 3:1 (2017), p. 8.

[6] Tim Jordan (2009).

[7] This article describes Hollywood cinema and American cases of hacking due to the range of the phenomenon, but other countries with notorious hackers recreate their stories in pop culture, e.g. 23 (1998, Hans-Christian Schmid) and Who Am I. No System Is Safe (2014, Baran bo Odar) succeeded in German box office and Deutschland 83 (2015–) is a national TV hit due to the fame of Chaos Computer Club and Klaus Koch.

[8] Jerry Holkins, Mike Krahulik, “Penny Arcade”, http://pennyarcade.wikia.com/wiki/July_16,_2007, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[9] Kung Fury (2015, David Sandberg), an homage to the 80s poetics, had a wide web advertising, for example video Kung Fury: Hackerman – How to Hack Time in which we can find grid, computer disk (“First off you need a lot of ram… at least 256 kb” which is commented: “But remember – with great processing power came great responsibility”) and even the Power Glove, a pre-haptic accessory for the Nintendo Entertainment System (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEkrWRHCDQU, date accessed: 1 April 2017).

[10] One of the YouTube users commented accurately the compilation of the 80s hack flicks: “The fast track method to become an 80’s computer hacker. You’ll need… 1) – A can of Pepsi 2) – A poster of Michelle Pfeiffer on the wall 3) – A pair of Walkman headphones around your neck 4) – A nervous friend looking over your right shoulder 5) – A desk lamp …Now type the words ‘Access database’. Wait for the response ‘Access denied’, and simply reply with ‘Override’. Congratulations, the world is now your oyster.” 97channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUGQHdYUIEo, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[11] In Universal Soldier: The Return alleged supercomputer creating its army has a rather primitive way of communicate his rebellious nature: “Hello Dr. Cortner. I’m ready when you are. But, on the other hand… fuck you!”

[12] S. Kumar, “How Ashley Madison hack hurt everyone, not only cheaters”, Fortune, http://fortune.com/2015/08/20/ashley-madison-hacks-cybersecurity/, date accessed: 1 April 2017. The case was mentioned in Mr. Robot by Michael whose wife asked for divorce after his romances had been disclosed.

[13] Andrea Peterson, “The Sony Pictures Entertainment hack, explained”, The Washington Posthttps://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2014/12/18/the-sony-pictures-hack-explained/?utm_term=.b7f9226e319d, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[14] Nicole Hong, “Silk Road Creator Found Guilty of Cybercrimes”, The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/silk-road-creator-found-guilty-of-cybercrimes-1423083107?mod=WSJ_hp_RightTopStories, date accessed: 1 April 2017. The scandal and other abuses connected with Dark Web were depicted in documentary Deep Web (2015, Alex Winter).

[15] Jason Meisner, “Chicago man plead guilty to ‘Celebgate’ photo hacking”, Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-celebrity-photos-hacking-plea-met-20160927-story.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[16] Danny Palmer, “What’s the difference between state-backed hackers and cybercrime gangs? Nothing at all”, ZDNet, http://www.zdnet.com/article/whats-the-difference-between-state-backed-hackers-and-cybercrime-gangs-nothing-at-all/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[17] Isaac R. Porche III, Christopher Paul, Michael York, Chad C. Serena, Jerry M. Sollinger, Elliot Axelband, Endy Y. Min, Bruce J. Held, Redefining Information Warfare Boundaries for an Army in a Wireless World, (Santa Monica–Arlington–Pittsburgh: RAND Corporation) (2013), p. XV.

[18] The White House, Office of the State Secretary, Executive Order on Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/02/12/executive-order-improving-critical-infrastructure-cybersecurity-0, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[19] Kim Zetter, “An Unprecedented Look at Stuxnet, the World’s First Digital Weapon”, Wired, https://www.wired.com/2014/11/countdown-to-zero-day-stuxnet/, date accessed: 8 April 2017. The cyberattack was depicted in documentary Zero Days (2016, Alex Gibney).

[20] Ellen Nakashima, Joby Warrick, “Stuxnet was work of U.S. and Israeli experts, officials say”, The Washington Post,  https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/stuxnet-was-work-of-us-and-israeli-experts-officials-say/2012/06/01/gJQAlnEy6U_story.html?utm_term=.920c5dae260b, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[21] David Shamah, “Latest viruses could mean ‘end of world as we know it,’ says man who discovered Flame”, Start-up Israel, http://www.timesofisrael.com/experts-we-lost-the-cyber-war-now-were-in-the-era-of-cyber-terror/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[22] Sonja Hohenbild, Shahriar Khonsari, Heather McMullen, and Kalea Turner-Beckman, “The Internet protection movement”, New Media Activism, http://wpmu.mah.se/nmict11group4/the-internet-protection-movement/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

[23] Andy Greenberg, “Hacker claims feds hit him with 44 felonies when he refused to be an FBI spy”, Wiredhttps://www.wired.com/2015/02/hacker-claims-feds-hit-44-felonies-refused-fbi-spy/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

[24] Jeremy Hammond, “Jeremy Hammond’s Sentencing Statement”, Indymedia UK, http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2013/11/513761.html, date accessed: 8 April 2015. His case and political agenda were shown in The Hacker Wars (2014, Vivien Lesnik Weisman).

[25] Jeff Mason, Mark Felsenthal, “Obama Disses Snowden, Says No ‘Wheeling and Dealing’ Or ‘Scrambling Jets To Get A 29-year Old Hacker”, Business Insider, http://www.businessinsider.com/obama-not-scrambling-jets-to-get-29-year-old-hacker-2013-6?IR=T, date accessed: 1 April 2017. China, not especially legitimate for respecting human rights itself, called hypocritical – Joe Mullin, “Obama says he can’t pardon Snowden”, ArsTechnica, https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2016/11/obama-says-he-cant-pardon-snowden/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[26] One of the latest leaks applied to revealing CIA hacking tools: “VAULT 7: CIA Hacking Tools Revealed”, WikiLeaks, https://wikileaks.org/ciav7p1/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[27] Exposing the Invisible, https://exposingtheinvisible.org/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[28] Rebecca Slayton, “The Paradoxical Authority of the Certified Ethical Hacker”, Limn 8 (2017), http://limn.it/preface-hacks-leaks-and-breaches/, date accessed 22 July 2017. Slayton writes that CEH “sought to appropriate the technical savvy associated with hackers and the U.S. military and intelligence agencies while distancing itself from the untrustworthy and morally suspect image of hacking” but she also quotes Swartz’s statement about CEH “alumns”: “Some ‘IT pros’ may find a few techniques to secure against well-known attacks, but the underground is always 10 steps ahead.”

[29] Tim Jordan (2009).

[30] Critical Art Ensemble, Electronic Civil Disobedience & Other Unpopular Ideas, www.critical-art.net/books/ecd, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[31] Geert Lovink, “The ABC of Tactical Media”, nettime (1997), http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-9705/msg00096.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[32] Tim Jordan (2002), p. 119.

[33] Geert Lovink (1997).

[34] The paradigm of DIY is substituted with DIWO – Do It with Others – which emphasizes common goals and inclusive operations.

[35] Julian Assange, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, (New York–London: OR Books) (2012), p. 7.

[36] CULT OF THE DEAD COW, The Hacktivismo FAQ, http://www.cultdeadcow.com/cDc_files/HacktivismoFAQ.html, date accessed: 22 July 2017.

[37] Douglas Thomas, Hacker Culture, (Minneapolis–London: University of Minnesota Press) (2002), p. xx.

[38] “It’s a bio-digital jazz, man” is a quote from TRON: Legacy.

[39] Pramod K. Nayar, An Introduction to New Media and Cybercultures, (Malden–Oxford Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell) (2010), p. 100.

[40] At least in their literal, official meaning because hacktivists describe legal system as biased, corrupted, and serving elites.

[41] Cory Doctorow, “Mr. Robot Killed the Hollywood Hacker”, Technology Review, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603045/mr-robot-killed-the-hollywood-hacker/, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[42] Stephanie Ricker Schulte, Cached: Decoding the Internet in Global Popular Culture, (New York–London: New York University Press) (2013), p. 28.

[43] Declan McCullagh, “From ‘WarGames’ to Aaron Swartz: How U.S. anti-hacking law went astray”, C-Net, https://www.cnet.com/news/from-wargames-to-aaron-swartz-how-u-s-anti-hacking-law-went-astray/, date accessed: 8 April 2017.

[44] In the 4th episode of Mr. Robot’s season 1, few members of society watch Hackers which is criticised by Romero: “Hollywood hacker bullshit. I’ve been in this game 27 years. Not once have I come across an animated singing virus.”

[45] For example, in CSI: Cyber (2015-2016) there is a very absurd dialogue: “I’ll create a GUI interface using Visual Basic. See if I can track an IP address.” “I’ll distract her. You ping her IP.” See also: Nick Cannata-Bowman, “Why ‘CSI: Cyber’ Fails in Terms of Accuracy”, The Cheat Sheet, http://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/why-csi-cyber-fails-in-terms-of-accuracy.html/?a=viewall, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[46] “You won’t find the nuclear launch codes hidden in anything attached to Defense.gov” (Robert Evans, Caleb Eldon Brinkman, “5 Hacking Myths You Probably Believe (Thanks to Movies)”, Cracked, http://www.cracked.com/personal-experiences-1262-5-hacking-myths-you-probably-believe-thanks-to-movies.html, date accessed: 1 April 2017.

[47] Chancellor Agard, “Why USA Network’s ‘Mr. Robot’ Is The Most Realistic Depiction Of Hacking On Television,” International Business Times, http://www.ibtimes.com/why-usa-networks-mr-robot-most-realistic-depiction-hacking-television-2020213, date accessed: 9 April 2017. Sam Esmail hired many consultants (for example Michael Bazzell and Kor Adana) to help screenwriters with technological details. It can be seen in television that showrunners give much more attention to programming “anthropology.” There are still TV series as CSI: Cyber or Scorpion (2014–), but next to them we can observe shows that depict computer environment with reverence – Halt and Catch Fire (2014–), Sense8 (2015-2018), Person of Interest (2011-2016), and so on.

[48] The sense of insecurity is fuelled by narratives about the machines’ rebellion – as in The Matrix Trilogy, TRON and TRON: Legacy, WarGames: The Dead Code (2008, Stuart Gillard) or Storm Watch (2002, Terry Cunningham) – and almost omnipotent antagonists who use advanced technological devices in simplified way – for example in Live Free or Die Hard the villain left all country in despair with two clicks, in Eagle Eye (2008, D.J. Caruso) the offender used an everyday technology to trace and monitor her victims, and even in Sneakers characters had an ultimate weapon for hackers – a universal key which can break into all software.

[49] The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on first part of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, can initiate a new trend.

[51] Geert Lovink called them “the Army of Software” and appealed to them for rejecting Finazism (see: Franco Berardi, Geert Lovink, “A call to the Army of Love and to the Army of Software”, Net Critique, http://networkcultures.org/geert/2011/10/12/franco-berardi-geert-lovink-a-call-to-the-army-of-love-and-to-the-army-of-software/, date accessed: 8 April 2017).

[52] Elliot’s mental illness emphasises the schizoid character of modernity which is best depicted in the last episode of the first season – Elliott is standing in front of neon American flag in Times Square full of society supporters after talking with projections of his mind.

Emergent International Humanitarian Law in the Context of Cyber Warfare

Ivory Mills

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 78-99.


Ivory Mills

Northwestern University


Emergent International Humanitarian Law in the Context of Cyber Warfare



Over the last decade, actors throughout the international community have begun to engage in information operations (IO)—the use of information technology such as computer network attacks to influence, disrupt, corrupt, usurp, or defend information systems and the infrastructure they support. Current international humanitarian law fails to address the challenges that arise from technological advancements, often lacking consideration of the many non-state actors actively involved Additionally, and arguably most importantly, it is unclear whether cyber-attacks constitute the use of force put forth in the UN Charter. Examining recent changes in technology, the increased presence of non-state actors, a decade’s worth of cyber-attacks, and recent developments in domestic and international law, it becomes clear that the existing legal framework is inadequate and necessitates further consensus building and negotiation across the international community.

Key words: cyber war, international humanitarian law, information operations, information technology, cyber attacks





As the development and pervasiveness of information and communication technologies (ICTs) continues to increase, individuals, organizations, and nations continually find new, unanticipated, and often unlawful ways to use them. Over the last decade actors throughout the international community have begun to engage in information operations (IO) or cyber-attacks. “Information operations are the integrated employment of electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations, military deception, and operations security, in concert with specified supported and related capabilities to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp adversarial human and automated decision-making while protecting [y]our own”.[i] Computers control most infrastructure, including telecommunication networks, water supplies, electrical grids, oil storage and transport networks, banking and financial systems, and emergency services.[ii] Given their widespread capabilities and scope, such computers and technological networks are ideal for use as weapons and targets of information operations.       

Because the technology is mostly inexpensive, widely available, and deployable from virtually anywhere, cyber-attacks are highly attractive to state and non-state actors. Moreover, their threats and consequences are disconcerting, as they have the potential to disable a country’s infrastructure, destroy financial systems and data, and disrupt national communications systems, amongst other things. But the technologies and their uses have dramatically outpaced the laws and policies that govern them in international conflict. As such, national and international governing bodies have struggled to adapt and integrate existing laws and practices to this novel phenomenon. There is continued disagreement about if and how international humanitarian law governing the use of force, jus ad bellum, applies to information operations. This paper explores emergent international humanitarian law (IHL) of information operations, highlighting how new technologies, recent events, and multiple stakeholders have complicated the understanding and application of IHL in this context. It discusses the opportunities and threats that have emerged and details the considerations that must be made to establish adequate and effective law to regulate cyber war in the modern, globalized, multistakeholder regulatory environment. Finally, utilizing a constructivist approach to IHL, it posits that its existing laws are inadequate for the current international system and puts forth an interdisciplinary approach necessary to address the complex challenge of developing a rule of law to govern cyber war in the international community that binds the relevant actors with mechanisms that the vested stakeholders will abide by and buy into.

What’s new?



The threat of cyber war is the result of the growth and development of the information society. Perhaps, the most significant aspect of the information society is the rapid and expansive development of information and communication technologies (ICTs). These technological advancements provide continuous access to information and data and unprecedented interconnection across all aspects of society. Given the history of the internet (initially developed for and by the U.S. military), it is no surprise that military organizations continue to take advantage and often lead the charge in developing and advancing ICTs, and utilizing these technologies in their strategic and tactical exploits to further national security. Additionally, cyberspace has become a critical battleground due to the economic and geopolitical implications of increased access and connectivity, and the pervasiveness and vulnerability of the technologies.

In 1969, the US military developed ARPANET, a program to facilitate communication between the Department of Defense, its contractors, and universities. As ARPANET evolved into the internet, it quickly spread to industry and the consumer public, utilizing increasingly available telecommunication mediums, such as telephone lines, microwave relays, and satellite uplinks. And as fibre optic cables, transistors, and microchips were developed, the internet and ICTs rapidly diffused throughout the world. Consequently, multiple actors (individuals, states, corporations, non-state actors) gained access to create and deploy programs, code, or mechanisms that influence, disrupt, corrupt, usurp, or defend information systems and infrastructure. Recognizing the threats resulting from these technologies, states began developing offensive and defensive cyber war technologies.

In this new battlefield, cyber weapons are classified into three categories: syntactic attacks, semantic attacks, and mixed attacks.[iii] Syntactic attacks acts modify the logic of computer operating systems to introduce delays and or make the system act in unpredictable ways.[iv] Examples of syntactic attacks include malicious code, denial of service, and hacking. Malicious code is a programmatic language designed to damage or infiltrate computer files and programs. Sometimes it replicates system files and has the potential to cause huge economic damage by crashing the entire host system. Viruses are files that enter a computer system and, once opened, they corruptand destroys computers, sometimes to the point of making the entire computer inoperable.[v] Lastly, hacking is breaking into a computer and altering its operating system by bypassing the security functions.

In contrast, semantic attacks target the accuracy of information the user has access to, which appears to the owner/operator to work be working normally.[vi] Semantic attacks can utilize the infiltrated systems to control the information contained on government and military sites, and cause serious problems on connected systems. They have been used to feed false data to industries and infrastructural operations, causing a shutdown of electrical power, air traffic controls, and emergency response systems. Such disruptions on a wide scale basis could cause panic and unrest.

The isolated and combined use of syntactic and semantic attacks, which disable critical operational systems and feed disinformation, could result in numerous destructive social, political, and economic scenarios, including but not limited to critical public and private critical national infrastructures.[vii] The use of new technologies in this emergent battlefield not only has significant economic and political consequences, but also the potential to cause widespread physical destruction and social unrest.



In addition to, or in light of, the development of these new technologies, actors throughout the international community have found novel and often unanticipated ways to utilize the technologies in social and political realms. Consequently, as history has demonstrated, law has emerged because of a series of unfortunate events. In this case, governments, individuals, organizations, and other non-state actors have employed ICT technologies in information operations. And while there have not been any insurmountable or global cyber-attacks to date, there have been some which—for the victim states—were significant.

Israel-Hezbollah “July War” of 2006


In February 2005, Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated, resulting in mass protests.[viii] Based on speculation that the new government would demilitarize Hezbollah and rumours that Israel would strike Lebanon, Hezbollah took pre-emptive action, killing three and kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and launching several short-range rocket attacks against Israel. Israel responded with a massive attack, damaging a significant amount of Lebanese infrastructure and killing over 1,000 civilians, but failing to demilitarize Hezbollah. Throughout the course of these ground and air attacks, both sides used cyber war tactics to support their kinetic efforts.

The Israelis conducted denial of service attacks on Hezbollah’s television station, while Hezbollah hackers allegedly gained access to the networks of Israeli Defense Force units at the Lebanese border.[ix] Additionally, Hezbollah integrated a “cyber psychological operation” (CYOP) into their military strategy. CYOP is the use of cyber operations to directly attack and influence the attitudes and behaviours of soldiers and the general population.[x] With this strategy, the attackers used credible political and military power to get attention and project information power, thus shaping the information environment of the conflict.

In response to Hezbollah’s CYOP, many of Israel’s Western allies banned Hezbollah’s websites. Unable to utilize their legitimate site, Hezbollah hijacked IP addresses of corporations around the world to ensure that their messages were successfully transmitted to the intended recipients—the general public, the Israeli public, and anti-Hezbollah individuals, organizations, or states.[xi] IP hijacking transmits information from one location to another through a series of routers. This strategic manoeuvre of utilizing non-combatant IP addresses allowed Hezbollah to maintain the communication of their strategic message.

This instance creates unique and timely challenges for understanding the role of international humanitarian law in cyberwar. These attacks by Hezbollah raise the question of whether or not nonstate actors could commit acts of war?

Estonia 2007


On April 27, 2007, the Estonian government completed long-held plans to relocate a national monument. Initially installed by the USSR in 1944 to honour Soviet soldiers who died during WWII. Significantly opposed by the Russian population of Estonia, the relocation sparked a series of protests in Tallinn. Thus in 2007, Estonia became the first state victim of an overt and coordinated assault on its telecommunications networks.[xii] At the beginning of the protests, there was an internet post in a public forum, giving instructions for participating in a distributed denial of service attacks against Estonian government systems.[xiii] While the riots and protests in the streets of Tallinn had subsided, on the internet there was an ongoing, multifaceted campaign of denial and disruption.

For three weeks, Estonian websites were flooded with data requests from thousands of computers in increasingly larger waves. The requests first knocked out government websites, including, but not limited to those of the Prime Minister and the President, the Justice Ministry, and the Foreign Ministry.[xiv] Eventually, the attacks spread to daily newspapers, broadcast television, internet service providers, hospitals, banks, universities, and public service providers, disabling emergency phones for fire and paramedic services for an hour.[xv] Over a million computers were infected with botnet viruses.[xvi] Eventually, Estonian officials produced evidence suggesting that the Russian government was involved in these attacks. But there was little recourse for Estonia in the international community via diplomatic or legal avenues.

Iran (Stuxnet) 2010


In 2010, a 500-kilobyte computer worm was discovered as it invaded computers around the world. The virus was especially sophisticated, including a specific attack vector limited to certain computers.[xvii] Now commonly known as Stuxnet, the virus was used to infect at least 14 industrial sites in Iran, allowing its creators to spy on the systems and causing the machines on site to tear themselves apart, despite the efforts of their human operators.[xviii] Stuxnet was very precise, inflicting little to no damage on any person, place, or system other than the target, a rarity in the context of war. Like other modern ICTs, the perpetrator’s identity remains anonymous (despite continued speculation and suggestion that the United States was responsible). These distinctions are especially important when trying to understand the role of IHL in regulating cyber-attacks. Like new war technologies of the past, cyberwar technologies challenge the common notions and understandings of battle: if the perpetrator remains anonymous, who is the attack attributed to? If the attack travels around the world before reaching its target, who has jurisdiction? Because these attacks can be more precise than other weapons, do the responses have to be as exact to meet the necessity and proportionality requirements of IHL?

These attacks represent a few particularly significant instances of information operations, but are not, by any means, representative of the scope, scale, or number of attacks that have occurred.

New Stakeholders: Non-state Actors


Because of the nature of information operations, non-state actors are now empowered to exploit and undermine IHL because they make it impossible to compartmentalize the battlefield and single out with sufficient clarity who the military targets are. The law of war and the use of force have traditionally governed conflict between nation states. With the insertion of hacktivists, terrorists, and other non-traditional actors in war, it is unclear how victim states respond, who is responsible, what the consequences can and will be. There are some arenas in international law that recognize the importance of non-state actors; however, in the perpetually unresolved regulation of information operations, no such policy statements have been made by international bodies. Instead, non-state actors responsible for cyber-attacks are often considered cyber criminals, in violation of domestic cybercrimes, or even less justiciable, as nuisances.

For example, Anonymous is a collective, politically motivated hacking group with a core of highly skilled IT personnel that has demonstrated its willingness to conduct operations against government and military-affiliated Web sites.[xix] The collective is featured in the media nearly every week for claiming to be or being found responsible for cyber-attacks against governments and corporations.[xx] Anonymous has led efforts to publish sensitive national security information contained by government and government-contracted private actors.[xxi] For example, the term “anti-security” refers to a movement to counter government efforts to increase cyber-security. Such information operations by individuals, hacking groups, and terrorist organizations have proven especially difficult for victim nations and corporations, since international humanitarian law applies to states and the perpetrated attacks often occur in multiple jurisdictions, by multiple people, and may not cause as much damage as the international community would deem necessary to constitute a use of force.

Resultant Debates & Issues


These technologies, events, and new actors involved in information operations have dramatically altered the regulatory landscape. They have resulted in a variety of opportunities and threats, as well as debates about utilizing, altering, or developing international humanitarian law in the context of cyber war.



The technologies and non-state actors in the context of information operations gives rise to a long-held debate about attribution. Attribution in IHL is “the means by which responsibility for illegal acts or omissions are attached to the state”.[xxii] There are concepts of both direct and indirect responsibility when determining attribution. Under direct responsibility, states are liable if their direct acts or omissions led to harm, if the actor acted on behalf of the state or state agent, or if the state has control over non-state actors.[xxiii] Indirect responsibility, on the other hand, finds states liable when there is no underlying link between the actor and the state, and is often applied in the context of terrorism.[xxiv]

International humanitarian law governs state action, and state responsibility depends on attribution. But cyber-attacks challenge the notion of attribution because the wrongful act appears to be ascribed to a computer by location; and if not the computer, then by the non-state actors, who are beyond the legal scope and definition of a state. According to the Tallinn manual, the fact that a cyber operation has its source in governmental infrastructure is not sufficient to attribute these acts to that State, but instead it constitutes an indication that a State is associated with the cyber operations.[xxv] In contrast, international law scholars Shackelford and Andres argue for a more flexible standard of responsibility for cyber-attacks because it is so difficult to prove the identify of attackers. These ongoing debates and the changes that shaped them lead to more questions and conversations that must be addressed legally and practically.

In determining to whom attribute a cyber-attack, security analysts look at from where (from what IP address) the software/attack came; how, when, and by whom the software was constructed; and what the software was designed to do. But answering these questions is much more challenging than it may seem, not only because the internet is so expansive, but also because cyber attackers work diligently to hide information about the origins of an attack. Even if an analyst could reverse engineer the software, the IP address could be faked or could have been rerouted through many different physical locations. Moreover, the source IP may contain malicious software that could prevent tracing or that could infect an analyst’s computer, completely disrupting the investigative process.[xxvi] Thus, victim states, corporations, and individuals can rarely, if ever, be sure that they’ve correctly determined the source of an information attack. Thus, unless the attacker claims responsibility, it is nearly impossible to determine with 100% certainty who is responsible for a cyber-attack.

In the Estonia case discussed above, attribution was a critical challenge to IHL and a very early demonstration of its limitations as currently conceived. The Estonian government claimed that they were victims of a cyber-attack—a novel and unregulated type of warfare by Russia; however, the international community responded with little urgency. Despite the U.S.’s position that cyber warfare is a top priority and ‘fair game’ in international politics, its officials wrote of the events in Estonia as a “cyber riot”. Similarly, NATO’s response to Estonia’s calls for assistance from the international community was limited and did not provide any recourse. Besides the claims from Estonia, no state actor vocally placed blame on Russia, be it for evidentiary or geopolitical reasons. Eventually, NATO assembled a group of legal scholars and lawyers to create the Tallinn Manual to interpret how existing legal principles applied to cyber war. Nevertheless, it remained unclear to the Estonian government and the international community whether the cyber-attacks endured were regarded as an act of war that warranted a proportional response (kinetic or otherwise).



Another critical challenge in the context of modern information operations is that of authority. Essentially, the question that emerges is whether international humanitarian law has legitimate governing purview to make and impose laws in cyberspace. By definition, authority is the sense in which a person who has power can get others to act in particular ways. Practically speaking, a state is considered to have authority if it maintains public order and makes laws that are generally obeyed by its citizens.[xxvii] While it has been widely accepted that international humanitarian law governs, is less clear how legitimate and effective its authority is on states. This becomes even less clear when looking at the undeterred and even emboldened nature of non-state actors involved in conducting cyber-attacks, as well as in the failure of the international community to come to a consensus on its modus operandi regarding information operations conducted by states against other states.

In the Israel-Hezbollah case discussed earlier, Hezbollah’s hacking of the Israeli Defense Force units and their use of CYOP to shape the information environment by utilizing non-combatant IP addresses to gain credible political and military power highlights the challenges of understanding authority in this context. While Hezbollah is not a legitimate state, it has historically exercised widespread and significant military, economic, and political authority. Furthermore, it repeatedly engages in kinetic warfare. Nevertheless, as it adapts to the emerging landscape that includes cyber weapons, it still is unclear whether its (or any other terrorist organization) actions are governed by IHL. Some might argue that they have the authority to be considered a state, but many others would staunchly disagree. These debates and their continued negotiations are represented in the existing international and domestic laws detailed in the following section.

Existing law


The dynamic nature of this issue has a variety of implications and draws influence from both national and international laws and practices that lead to the development of legal norms, which—at best–continue to be ineffective and incoherent.

International law


The biggest conflict in the debate of IO regulation is whether a cyber-attack constitutes an armed use of force. This question shapes the emergence of international law and practice because it determines if the conduct of an information operations rises to the thresholds described in the UN Charter, which in turn determines how states can act and react.

Use of force derives its meaning from the UN Charter. Article 2(4) states, “[a]ll Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or [armed] use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations”.[xxviii] Subsequently, Article 51 articulates that “[n]othing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations”.[xxix] It is generally agreed that Article 51 carves out an exception to Article 2(4)’s prohibition of force. With respect to IO, these provisions raise several questions. First, are there certain cyber-attacks that constitute a use of force as articulated by the Charter? If so, what is the distinction? Second, could a cyber-attack provide the victim state the right to use kinetic force in response, and still meet the necessity and proportionality requirements of IHL?

The Charter Articles acknowledge that national sovereignty underscores international humanitarian law.[xxx] When a State’s conduct rises to the threshold, the law of armed conflict applies. As such, an unlawful armed use of force justifies countermeasures. But even before technology existed to facilitate information operations, not all aggressive acts would amount to an unlawful use of armed force. It is also widely acknowledged that Article 51’s “armed attack” is a narrower category of actions than “use of force” and typically requires some sort of physical damage to persons or property.[xxxi]

Customary law, guided by the Nuclear Weapons Advisory Opinion issued by the International Court of Justice, suggests that Article 2(4) applies to “any use of force, regardless of the weapons employed.[xxxii] Additionally, Article 36 of Additional Protocol I articulates that states that develop new weapons or methods of warfare have an affirmative duty to determine if its use would be prohibited.[xxxiii] Thus, it is argued that IO can be governed by analogy to existing international law of war. Despite all this, it remains unclear if, when, and how these concepts apply to information operations for a variety of reasons, including attribution, imminence, and geography.

As mentioned above, in response to the ongoing confusion, NATO formed an International Group of Experts, which set out 95 non-binding black letter rules in the Tallinn Manual on International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare.[xxxiv] The manual examines how extant legal norms apply to this new form of warfare, detailing the ways international customs, as understood by these scholars, apply to cyberwar.[xxxv]

While the manual is not a binding legal authority, its comprehensive nature does provide an authority which demonstrates how customary law could apply and provides the framework for a legitimate binding agreement. Whether it becomes enacted as law or not, it is undisputed that the jus ad bellum principle could apply to information operations. However, when and how it applies gives rise to another historical divide over the UN Charter’s interpretation and demonstrates the challenges to building international consensus.

In addition to trying to understand the applicability of jus ad bellum to cyber war, it is important to understand how and when it applies. The dominant view among scholars is that if the effects or consequences of state-sponsored cyber intrusions are sufficiently damaging, international humanitarian law should govern and recourse to armed force may be justified against states responsible.

Professor M.N. Schmitt argues, “as the nature of a hostile act becomes less determinative of its consequences, current notions of “lawful” coercive behaviour by states, and the appropriate responses thereto, are likely to evolve accordingly”.[xxxvi] He highlights the areas of uncertainty and disagreement in the legal analysis, but asserts that “attack” is a term of prescriptive shorthand meant to address the consequences.[xxxvii] The provisions of the UN Charter seek to shield protected individuals from injury or death and to protect objects from damage or destruction, so the consequences are sufficient if they cause significant human suffering, not merely diminished quality of life. U.S. policy advisor, Howard Koh, takes a similar stance, asserting that international law principles apply to cyber war and, under some circumstances, can constitute a use of force within the meaning of Article 2(4).[xxxviii]

National Laws


While international law continues to be a contentious topic and its application to cyber war is unresolved, the division over the Charter’s interpretation becomes increasingly clear in the development of national policies and practices. Many states have developed policies for information operations that in one way or another determine when another government’s cyber operations constitute an armed use of force and legally justify a response. In 2012, the UN Institute for Disarmament Research found that 114 of 193 states have developed national cyber-security programs.[xxxix] Of these programs, 47 include a role for the armed forces, with 12 of the 15 largest spenders having or developing cyber warfare units and 10 developing offensive cyber warfare capabilities.[xl]

These policies and practices serve as important sources of law for the individual states, but also help shape the emerging international response since repeated practices over time can form customary international law.[xli] Thus, the strategies these state actors employ in their development and implementation drives the development of law. “Strategy generates reappraisal and revision of law, while law itself shapes strategy”.[xlii]

Unites States


Historically, the US and its allies have understood Article 2(4)’s prohibition of force and Article 51’s right to self-defence to apply to military or armed violence.[xliii] However, the emergent US views lie in the middle of the traditional debate, as they try to account for the destructive potential of cyber operations without dramatically expanding the Charter’s scope.[xliv] There are obviously a variety of interests competing for prevalence in the US approach: military capabilities, civilian infrastructure, the private sector, intelligence collection, and international cooperation.

In efforts to balance these interests, the US Department of Defense’s (DoD) Law of War Manual XVI details its national approach and understanding of existing international principles. This document asserts, “as a doctrinal matter, DoD has recognized cyberspace as an operational domain in which the armed forces must be able to defend and operate, just like the land, sea, air, and space domains”.[xlv] Further, it articulates the following policies, which seemingly interpret and integrate customary international law into domestic law:

“When no more specific law of war rule or other applicable rule applies, law of war principles provide a general guide for conduct during cyber operations in armed conflict.”[xlvi] The DoD claims that the law of war anticipates technological innovation, including cyber operations so cyber operations may in certain situations constitute a use of force within the meaning of Article 2(4). It defends this position by analogizing the effects resulting from information operations to those of kinetic operations. Essentially, if the effects of cyber operations are regarded as a use of force if resulting from kinetic warfare, it can be regarded as a use of force.[xlvii] Additionally, a state’s right to self-defence, recognized in Article 51, may be triggered by cyber operations that amount to armed attack or imminent threat thereof.

Furthermore, the U.S. is considering a cyber-security strategy that may include anticipatory cyber-strikes, designed under certain circumstances to knock out adversaries’ computer systems and networks perceived as hostile. This strategy suggests that in addition to the more traditional military defence and deterrence strategies just described, the U.S. government may also be considering legal interpretations flexible enough to permit its own offensive cyber-operations below a certain threshold or against inchoate hostile cyber-activities.

In addition to these policies, the U.S. has demonstrated its interest and priorities in practice by militarizing its response to cyber-attacks through Cyber Command, bringing together the cyber components of the Navy, Marine Corp, Army and Air Force into a unified command structure.[xlviii] These policies and practices highlight the national interests—interests that will undeniably shape emergent international law since the US is working internationally to clarify how these principles apply to information operations. As described by Robert Keohane and other liberal institutionalists, this is an example of powerful states creating laws that suit their interests and attempting to set an international agenda that aligns with said interests. However, because there is no single hegemonic nation in the world (despite the pervasive military capabilities of the US), to date there has not been sufficient buy-in to make this effective and legitimate law or practice.

European Union


Almost all European Union member states have adopted a national cyber security strategy or mention it as an aspect of their national security strategy, putting structures in place to deal with cyber threats.[xlix] Fifteen member states include a military perspective of cyber defence, but only a few admit to investing in cyber war technologies. In 2011, cyber defence was included among the policy priorities of the European Defence Agency and, in 2012, member states agreed to using the military to lead cyber defence efforts.

In Denmark’s Defence Agreement for 2013–2017, it establishes a Centre for Cyber Security and strengthens its cyber warfare capabilities to be able to execute both offensive and defensive military operations in cyberspace.[l] In 2013, Finland announced that it would develop cyber-defence weapons, create comprehensive cyber defence capability, and establish a cyber defence unit.[li] France’s 2011 strategy contains strategies to become a global power in cyber defence, safeguard its ability to make decisions through the protection of sovereignty information, strengthen the security of its critical infrastructure, and ensure security in cyberspace.[lii] Furthermore, France has developed offensive and defensive capabilities and has units within its armed forces focused on both cyber war and defence.[liii]



Strategically, Russia has asserted its interest in cyber warfare, stating that “by using information warfare methods to attack an adversary’s centres of gravity and critical vulnerabilities it is possible to win against an opponent, military as well as politically, at a low cost without necessarily occupying the territory of the enemy”.[liv] Its Military Doctrine of 2010 notes the importance of information warfare during the initial phase of a conflict to weaken the command and control ability of the opponent and in the form of an information campaign during the actual battle to create a positive view within the international community.



According to Chinese scholar, Li Zhang, the Chinese stance is that the current UN Charter and other existing laws of armed conflict apply in cyberspace.[lv] But how to apply jus ad bellum may require the creation of new rules or the revision and clarification of existing international rules so that they can apply in cyberspace. China highlights the novelty of the technology and the trends of the international community in its considerations.[lvi] Furthermore, China has invested in personnel and information infrastructure for cyber warfare. Moreover, in addition to People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) operators, PLA’s Unit 61398, there is a large network of volunteer Militia Information Technology Battalions, or ‘net militia units’, recruited from civilian talent pools.[lvii]

This discussion highlights the varied perspectives and approaches nations are taking to deal with this new issue. Some of which are limited to national law, while others reference, translate, or disavow IHL. These policies and practices demonstrate the interests and actions of individual nations, but also shape international humanitarian law through diplomacy and international relations. Still, there is no rule of IHL or consensus across nations that provides recourse and enforcement for acts of cyber war that have, and will continue to occur.

Towards a Legitimate IHL


Both scholarly debates and responses to recent events suggest existing international humanitarian law does not adequately regulate information operations: they do not fit the phenomenon, their translations create uncertainty, and they lack enforcement mechanisms. Most notably, however, the existing laws are inadequate because they don’t definitively identify a rigidly defined problem based on consensus building and negotiation across the international system. These failures make it impossible to determine what the law is, when actions can constitute a use of force, and what the legal response is.

The Role of Law


Developing effective and legitimate IHL to govern cyber warfare seems nearly impossible when considering the history of international law, the complexities that have arisen in the current system, and the characteristics of the internet. Despite this however, there is a necessary void that IHL must consider and fill, based on the role of law as a social construction that is larger than existing liberal institutions, and that must adapt and evolve as necessary.

Law is manmade. It is a social construction that serves the needs and desires of those who make it.[lviii] It is a mechanism of control and a tool of social organization, allowing the community to which it belongs to express what is just and right and to punish and/or criminalize what is wrong, unwanted, or unacceptable.[lix] It determines the way its constituents behave and details the minimum standards of behaviour of an individual in his/her interactions with others in the community.[lx] It works to support human and societal desires for certainty, security, predictability, and stability by providing rigid and defined standards[lxi]; however, it is also malleable, able to be adjusted as morals, values, needs, and times change within the realm that it serves.

International law consists of the rule of conduct for states in their relations with other states. Most notably, in distinction from national laws, it is only binding if nations accept it because the notion of sovereignty implies freedom from control and irresponsibility for action. In international law, there is no centralized authority or control over the entire community, so “in too many cases, both international law and international legal procedures are either ignored by states or are distorted by the parties to further their own interest”.[lxii]

In the context of cyber war, the role of law seems to get lost in conversations about all that is new and changing. First, in this context, which has always lacked stability and clarity, the law can serve to establish standards. Throughout history, law has served as a guide for minimally acceptable behaviour. While the various stakeholders involved in cyber war prevention and enforcement all work toward the same goal, because there is no widely accepted or binding agreement of what constitutes cyber-attacks, they are all working from different starting points and with different understandings. By establishing a standard, law can harmonize the terminology used across the international community, as well as the efforts and foci of enforcement. To date, several nations have worked to set an agenda for regulating cyber war and information operation for the international community, as liberal institutionalists would argue must occur. None have succeeded. Until there is consensus between these disjointed national approaches that thoroughly identifies and legitimizes the problem, the novelties of the technologies and the actors will continue to limit the efficacy of IHL.

In addition to establishing standards for behaviour and harmonizing terminology across the international community, the next most crucial component of an effective IHL response to information operations is compliant state action. As demonstrated in the discussion of national laws in part III, states have already begun to put forth their understanding of how IHL applies in the context of cyber war; as states continue to make policy statements and respond to threats and challenges, the scope and scale of IHL will become clear.

Compliance with the Law


In addition to states putting forth their customary practices and policy statements, one more concern within this discussion is whether states will comply with this emergent international humanitarian law. According to Louis Henkin’s How Nation’s Behave, “almost all nations observe all principles of international law and almost all of their obligations almost all of the time”.[lxiii] In addition, scholars of international law and relations have substantiated this claim using empirical studies, which tend to confirm “not only that nations obey international law most of the time, but also that, to a surprising extent, even the noncomplying gradually come back into compliance over time with previously violated international legal norms”.[lxiv] Even as the international community has dramatically transformed, international customs are still largely obeyed.[lxv]

Scholarship suggests that despite the changes, developing technologies, and broadened scope of stakeholders, compliance is still likely because it results almost entirely from the functional benefits it provides; most agree that a functioning and peaceful international society is much more beneficial than a belligerent one. Harold Koh’s exploration of why nations comply with international law includes discussion of changing landscapes, actors, and technologies.[lxvi] He suggests that in transnational legal processes, public and private actors interact to make, interpret, internalize, and enforce rules of transnational law, concluding that compliance with international law is more than likely to occur, even as everything around it seems to change. Thus, once consensus building occurs and the national and international communities agree, IHL will be more legitimate, more efficacious, and the community will be more likely to comply.



New technologies, recent events, and non-state participation have increasingly complicated the understanding and application of IHL in the context of cyber war. It is these new developments—coupled with international and national policies—that work collectively to negotiate emergent IHL and to determine whether, to what extent, and in what instances information operations constitute a use of armed force and how IHL applies. While this emergent law will come into being in contentious fashion (as consensus building often does), it will be binding and legitimate, encouraging most, if not all, to eventually comply.




Brenner, Susan W., and Marc D. Goodman. “In defense of cyberterrorism: An argument for anticipating cyber-attacks.” U. Ill. JL Tech. & Pol’y (2002): 1.

Center, Joint Warfighting. Joint Task Force commander’s handbook for peace operations. Books Llc, 2012.

Charter, U. N. “Charter of the United Nations.” June 26 (1945): 59.

Cirlig, Carmen-Cristina. Cyber Defence in the EU: Preparing for Cyber Warfare?. European Parliamentary Research Service, 2014.

Dunlap Jr, Charles J. “Perspectives for cyber strategists on law for cyberwar.” Strategic Studies Quarterly 5 (2011): 81.

Eichensehr, Kristen. “Cyberwar & International Law Step Zero.” (2015).

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Finland National Cyber Security Strategy (2013).

Foltz, Andrew C. Stuxnet, Schmitt Analysis, and the Cyber Use of Force Debate. Air War College Maxwell Air Force Base United States, 2012.

Grosswald, Levi. “Cyberattack Attribution Matters Under Article 51 of the UN Charter.” Brook. J. Int’l L. 36 (2010): 1151.

Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, Preamble, Oct. 18, 1907, 36 Stat. 2277, 1 Bevans 631.

Hathaway, Oona A., et al. “The Law of Cyber-Attack’(2012).” California Law Review 100: 817.

Henkin, Louis. How Nations Behave. 2d ed. (Columbia University Press) (1979).

Henkin, Louis. “International human rights as rights.” Cardozo L. Rev. 1 (1979): 425.

Hoffmann, Stanley. “International systems and international law.” World Politics 14.1 (1961): 205-237.

Hollis, David, Cyberwar Case Study: Georgia 2008, Small Wars Journal (2008).

Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-13 Information Operations (2012).

Jonasi, Lucky. “A critical analysis of the applicability of international humanitarian law in the context of cyber warfare.” (2014).

Kaiser, Robert. “The birth of cyberwar.” Political Geography 46 (2015): 11-20.

Kelsey, Jeffrey TG. “Hacking into international humanitarian law: The principles of distinction and neutrality in the age of cyber warfare.” Michigan Law Review (2008): 1427-1451.

Keohane, Robert O. “International institutions and state power.” Essays in International Relations Theory, Boulder, Colo (1989).

Keohane, Robert O., and Lisa L. Martin. “The promise of institutionalist theory.” International security 20.1 (1995): 39-51.

Kerschischnig, Georg. Cyberthreats and International Law. Eleven International Publishing, (2012).

Kirchner, Stefan. “Distributed Denial-of-Service Attacks Under Public International Law: State Responsibility in Cyberwar.” IUP Journal of Cyber Law 8 (2009).

Knake, Robert K. Internet Governance in an Age of Cyber Insecurity. No. 56. Council on Foreign Relations, (2010).

Koh, Harold Hongju, International Law in Cyberspace (2012), http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5858&context=fss_papers, date accessed 28.09.2017.

Koh, Harold Hongju. “Why do nations obey international law?.” (1997): 2599-2659.

Lacewing, Michael. Authority and Legitimacy. (Routledge) (2013); http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/alevelphilosophy/data/AS/WhyShouldIBeGoverned/Authorityandlegitimacy.pdf. date accessed 28.09.2017.

Priyanka R. Dev, “Use of Force” and “Armed Conflict” Thresholds in Cyber Conflict: The Looming Definitional Gaps and the Growing Need for Formal U.N. Response, 50 Texas Int’l L. J. 2, (2015).

Quigley, Kevin, Calvin Burns, and Kristen Stallard. “‘Cyber Gurus’: a rhetorical analysis of the language of cybersecurity specialists and the implications for security policy and critical infrastructure protection.” Government Information Quarterly 32.2 (2015).

Reich, Pauline C., et al. “Cyber warfare: a review of theories, law, policies, actual incidents–and the dilemma of anonymity.” European Journal of Law and Technology 1.2 (2010).

Rho, Jennifer J. “Blackbeards of the twenty-first century: Holding cybercriminals liable under the alien tort statute.” Chi. J. Int’l L. 7 (2006): 695.

Richardson, John. “Stuxnet as cyberwarfare: applying the law of war to the virtual battlefield.” J. Marshall J. Computer & Info. L. 29 (2011): 1.

Schmitt, Michael N., ed. Tallinn manual on the international law applicable to cyber warfare. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Shakarian, Paulo, Jana Shakarian, and Andrew Ruef. Introduction to cyber-warfare: A multidisciplinary approach. Newnes, 2013.

Tallinn Manual on the international law applicable to cyber warfare 2013. (2013).

Tsagourias, Nicholas. “Cyber attacks, self-defence and the problem of attribution.” Journal of Conflict and Security Law 17.2 (2012): 229-244.

UNIDIR, The Cyber Index: International Security Trends and Realities (2013).

US Department of Defense law of war manual: an update. (2015).

Waxman, Matthew C. “Cyber-attacks and the use of force: Back to the future of article 2 (4).” (2011).

Zhang, Li. A Chinese Perspective on Cyber War, International Review of the Red Cross (2012).



[i] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-13 Information Operations (2012).

[ii] Jennifer J. Rho, Blackbeards of the Twenty-First Century: Holding Cybercriminals Liable under the Alien Tort Statute, 7 CHI. J. INT’L L. 695 (2007).

[iii]Jennifer J. Rho, p.139.

[iv] Jennifer J. Rho, p.139.

[v] Jennifer J. Rho, p.139.

[vi] Jennifer J. Rho, p.140.

[vii] Susan W. Brenner & Marc D. Goodman, In Defense of Cyberterrorism: An Argument for Anticipating Cyberattacks, 2002 U. ILL. J. L. Tech. & Pol’y 1, (2002), pp. 40-41.

[viii] Paulo Shakarian, Jana Shakarian, Andrew Ruel, Introduction to Cyber-Warfare: A Multidisciplinary Approach (2013).

[ix] Paulo Shakarian…, p.78.

[x] Paulo Shakarian…, p.79.

[xi] Paulo Shakarian…, p.81.

[xii] David Hollis, Cyberwar Case Study: Georgia 2008, Small Wars Journal (2008).

[xiii] Paulo Shakarian…, p.50.

[xiv] David Hollis, p.1025.

[xv] David Hollis, p.1025.

[xvi] Bots and Botnets – A Growing Threat, http://us.norton.com/botnet/ , (2016). A “bot” is a type of malware that allows an attacker to take control of an affected computer. Also known as “web robots,” bots are usually part of a network of infected machines, known as a “botnet”, which is typically made up of victim machines that stretch across the globe. Since the bot infected computer does the bidding of its master, many people refer to these victim machines as “zombies.” The cyber criminals that control these bots are called botherders or botmasters. Some botnets might have a few hundred or a couple thousand computers, but others have tens and even hundreds of thousands of zombies at their disposal. Many of these computers are infected without their owners’ knowledge.”

[xvii] John Richardson, Stuxnet as Cyberwarfare: Applying the Law of War to the Virtual Battlefield. J. Marshall J. Computer & Info. L. 1 (2011-2012), p.29.

[xviii] John Richardson, p.3.

[xix] Paulo Shakarian…, p.135.

[xx] Paulo Shakarian…, p.160.

[xxi] Paulo Shakarian…, p.167.

[xxii] Levi Grosswald, Cyberattack Attribution Matters Under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, 36 Brook. J. Int’l L. (2011), p. 1154.

[xxiii] Levi Grosswald, p. 1154.

[xxiv] Levi Grosswald, p. 1154.

[xxv] Tallinn Manual on the international law applicable to cyber warfare 2013. (2013).

[xxvi] Paulo Shakarian…, p. 32.

[xxvii] Lacewing, Michael. Authority and Legitimacy. (Routledge) (2013); http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/alevelphilosophy/data/AS/WhyShouldIBeGoverned/Authorityandlegitimacy.pdf. date accessed 28.09.2017.

[xxviii] U.N. Charter art. 2, para. 4.

[xxix] U.N. Charter art.51.

[xxx] Priyanka R. Dev, “Use of Force” and “Armed Conflict” Thresholds in Cyber Conflict: The Looming Definitional Gaps and the Growing Need for Formal U.N. Response, 50 Texas Int’l L. J. 2, (2015).

[xxxi] Priyanka R. Dev, p.385.

[xxxii] I.C.J. Reports 1996, p. 226.

[xxxiii] Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, Preamble, Oct. 18, 1907, 36 Stat. 2277, 1 Bevans 631.

[xxxiv] Michael N. Schmitt, Tallinn manual on the international law applicable to cyber warfare. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[xxxv] Michael N. Schmitt.

[xxxvi] Pauline C. Reich, Stuart Weinstein, Charles Wild & Allan S. Cabanlong, Cyber Warfare: A Review of Theories, Law, Policies, Actual Incidents – and the Dilemma of Anonymity, 1 European Journal of Law and Technology 2, (2010), p. 23.

[xxxvii] Pauline C. Reich…, p. 23.

[xxxviii] Harold Hongju Koh, International Law in Cyberspace (2012), http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5858&context=fss_papers, date accessed 28.09.2017.

[xxxix] UNIDIR, The Cyber Index: International Security Trends and Realities (2013).

[xl] UNIDIR, The Cyber Index: International Security Trends and Realities (2013).

[xli] Priyanka R  Dev, p. 381.

[xlii] Matthew C. Waxman, Cyber-Attacks and the Use of Force: Back to the Future of Article 2(4), 36 YALE J. INT’L L. 421, 426–37 (2011).

[xliii] Matthew C. Waxman, p.427.

[xliv] Matthew C. Waxman, p.427.

[xlv] The US Department of Defense law of war manual: an update. (2015).

[xlvi] The US Department…, p.996.

[xlvii] The US Department…, p.998.

[xlviii] [xlviii] Carmen-Cristina Cirlig, European Parliamentary Research Service, Cyber defence in the EU Preparing for cyber warfare? PE 542.143 (2014).

[xlix] Carmen-Cristina Cirlig, p.6.

[l] Defence Agreement for 2013-2017.

[li] Defence Agreement for 2013-2017.

[lii] France’s Information Systems Defence and Security (2011).

[liii] Supra note 54, p.7.

[liv] Emerging Cyber Threats and Russian Views on Information Warfare and Information Operations (2010).

[lv] Li Zhang, A Chinese Perspective on Cyber War, International Review of the Red Cross (2012).

[lvi] Li Zhang, p.804.

[lvii] Supra note 54, p.5.

[lviii] Supra note 54, p.117.

[lix] Supra note 54, p.117.

[lx] Supra note 54, p.118.

[lxi] Supra note 54, p.118.

[lxii] Supra note 54, p.127.

[lxiii] Louis Henkin, How Nations Behave. 2d ed. (Columbia University Press) (1979), p. 47.

[lxiv] Harold Koh, Why Do Nations Obey International Law? Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 2101, http://digitalcommmons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/2101,  (1997).

[lxv] Harold Koh, p. 2601.

[lxvi] Harold Koh.

Knowledge is for Cutting: Waging War on the Human Terrain

Sandra L. Trappen

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 100-116.


Sandra L. Trappen

City University of New York



Knowledge is for Cutting:

Waging War on the Human Terrain



The notion of war as a social problem is derived from a troubled legacy in the social sciences. Whereas the discipline of anthropology has a multifaceted and comprehensive record of engagement with war studies, sociology’s efforts have been less robust and critical. Previous work in anthropology looks at the history of military anthropology studies and area studies within counterinsurgency operations. This article builds on that critical work as it presents observations and findings from research conducted while the author worked with the U.S. Army Human Terrain System (HTS). The research was conducted using traditional participant-observation methods to document how HTS conducted research operations. Findings and analysis draw from the critical tradition to consider what HTS research practice might tell us about what Bruno Latour referred to as “science in the making” and to shed light on a contemporary social phenomenon—the problem of “alternative facts”, “fake news”, and “fake science”.


Key Words: Human Terrain System, military anthropology, covert ethnography, war science





The notion of war as a social problem derives from what might be termed a troubled legacy in the social sciences. Whereas the discipline of anthropology has a multi-faceted and comprehensive record of engagement with war studies, sociology’s efforts have been less robust and critical. War studies in sociology in the present day continue to comprise a small sub-discipline within the social sciences, as they continue to privilege applied approaches to problem solving. Such studies tend to be restricted to a small group of well-funded specialists, many of whom work with think-tanks that continue the focus on public policy and the problems of the military as an institution.[1] Previous work in anthropology that looks at the history of military anthropology studies and area studies within counterinsurgency operations has been more critical..[2] This article builds on that critical work as I present observations and findings from research conducted while working with the U.S. Army Human Terrain System (HTS).


Critical Theories of War and Science


Critical approaches owe a debt to C. Wright Mills, the only major sociologist to ever seriously consider the problem of war in society. Often at odds with peers like Merton, Mills focused on institutions, whose interpenetrating influence he wrote about prolifically in works like The Power Elite. [3] The languishing of Critical Theory in our contemporary period poses a contrast with the robust, albeit negative, critique that typified the mid-century period. I locate my work and situate observations of HTS within these frameworks, where I draw from the critical tradition to consider the more specific problem of HTS research practice; this problem shares resonance with contemporary social phenomena that are garnering attention of late—the problems of “alternative facts”, “fake news”, and “fake science”. I address these issues in addition to other debates through discussion and analysis of findings obtained from my covert ethnographic study. Data are drawn from my time spent working for HTS.

Grounded in the tradition of the sociological imagination that situates everyday life in the complex structures of history and social power, my work helps extend debates in the social sciences about war beyond a mere focus on institutions and policy. This focus on HTS research practice is undertaken to understand how military ideas influence knowledge-making practices. In taking this approach, I make a case for the reinvigorated application of critical theory to study the problem of war in contemporary times. Consequently, instead of asking questions like “Is it ethical for social scientists to conduct this type of research?”, I ask, “What are HTS researchers doing as a matter of practice?”  Rather than the question “How does HTS support or fail to fulfil the aims of the COIN (counterinsurgency) doctrine” I ask “What kinds of knowledge might be produced by these encounters?”


Methods and Data


This research was conducted using traditional participant-observation methods. Fieldwork focused on one organization, HTS, where I document how they conducted research operations. I entered my field site in Leavenworth, Kansas after being hired by BAE Systems, which during this time held the U.S. government contract to provide HTS with social science research personnel. While employed there, I obtained a secret-level security clearance which enabled me to examine different forms of textual document records (classified and unclassified). As many of the research reports were classified, I do not reproduce report excerpts here. Other documents that I reviewed included job descriptions for social scientists, research protocols, survey instruments, descriptions of data collection methods, and military manuals that contained protocols for report writing. At no time were human subjects (employees of HTS) studied.

Although I did not conduct field research operations with HTS in Afghanistan as I originally intended, I participated in three months of extensive pre-deployment social science research operations. Field experience consisted of working 12+ hours a day, during which I assumed the role of a social scientist on one of the operating teams. The HTS team members with whom I was associated were distributed across two different class cohorts comprised of approximately 70 individuals. Our days were spent learning how to implement HTS practice guidelines within the context of conducting field research operations. We prepared reports, designed survey instruments, conducted rehearsals, participated in language training, and provided daily briefings to HTS staff members. My role as a social science researcher likewise provided access to team members who were previously deployed with field research teams in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For purposes of full-disclosure, I think it is important to note how this research is a product of my own reflexivity. It is informed by more than 15 years of professional and academic work experience as a U.S. Army Captain working as a Signals Intelligence and field service officer and as a social scientist; I hold three advanced degrees from accredited academic research institutions, including a Ph.D. in sociology. I currently hold a full-time lectureship with a U.S. public research university, where I teach Field Research Methods and Critical War Studies. This combined experience informs my approach to problem solving and ability to interpret study data. In taking this qualitative approach, I am of course aware of the standard criticism levelled at ethnographic social science research. Qualitative research (ethnography in particular) has historically been subject to critique for reasons that it is not generalizable, falsifiable, or that it lacks validity and other quality control measures.[4] However, the strength of this approach in the current context cannot be overstated—there was no other way to access this information. Discovering, as I did, that HTS was a military intelligence operation—not a social science research operation—is a finding that could not have been obtained using statistical methods of inquiry. This finding forms the basis of an important conceptual shift that I distinguish in my critique and analysis, which looks at the pattern of institutional deception to ask not only questions about “how” but also “why?”

All research observations were made on site at HTS’s field operations office; however, where they lie within the spectrum of covert to overt observation, I cannot exactly say. My identity as a researcher and institutional affiliation were fully disclosed, though I did not disclose the intent to write about my experiences. The combination of intelligence and academic research credentials positioned me to gain entry to an organization that was known to be suspicious of traditionally trained academic applicants. Thus, while I fit the description of a traditional academic, my previous military intelligence background most likely had a favourable impact on my hire. Lastly, I should note that my observations are particular to the time and place they were made. In September 2014, shortly after my tenure with the organization ended, HTS was disbanded.


The Human Terrain System


For those not be familiar with the original controversy surrounding HTS, I offer this short overview. HTS was social science research support program that was set up in 2006 under the United States Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), headquartered at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Founded by Colonel Steve Fondacaro and Montgomery McFate, the program was managed jointly by the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps and in partnership with its original contractor, BAE Systems.[5] HTS employed researchers that represented the full range of social science disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, area/regional studies, and linguistics. The stated mission of HTS was to provide military commanders with socio-culturally informed research. The operations’ areas of focus were primarily Iraq and Afghanistan. Discussions were underway during my tenure about plans to broaden the scope of operations, including places such as Africa, Syria, and Mexico. Although officially disbanded in September 2014, it remains a matter of speculation as to how/if their operations might be replicated and incorporated into different organizational elements within the U.S. Defense Department. [6]

Previous estimates of the efficacy of HTS research operations are mixed. While constituents internal to the U.S. Army have spoken highly of the program, going so far as to state that the Human Terrain Teams helped to keep soldiers alive by mitigating tribal rivalries and correspondingly reducing violence.[7] Others, like David Price and Hugh Gusterson, are more critical.[8] Significant efforts were undertaken at academic professional conferences, where debate focused on HTS and the issue of whether or not professionally affiliated social scientists should be engaged in military research operations. While the American Anthropology Association (AAA) did not rule out the engagement of its anthropologists with the military, they ultimately issued prohibition guidelines that stated work with HTS was not compatible with ethical anthropology practice.[9]  Unfortunately, while the AAA’s prohibition was admirable and perhaps necessary on ethical grounds, I want to point out that it produced the unfortunate effect of discouraging or precluding professionally trained social scientists from undertaking first-hand observations of HTS. The prohibition precluded informed critique because it forbade “ground truth” observations.




Although it has been a few years since controversy regarding HTS peaked, the findings here share a dynamic relation to current events, in which there is a privileging of “alternative facts” that approximates “fake science”. This section highlights select findings and suggests that HTS research practice, as a form of what Latour called science in the making, represents a systematic effort to, more or less, “fake it and make it”.

In offering here what is mostly a negative review, I want to state my personal biases. Prior to entering the field, I was aware that the institutional environment for women at HTS was reported as being especially problematic. I did in fact experience and observe problematic encounters between men and women in the program. My bias, however, does not undermine the textual evidence upon which this report is based. Moreover, I want to emphasize that this research does not make claims of “representativeness”. The fact that I did not find evidence of institutional competency during my tenure with HTS took me by surprise. I entered the field open to the idea of potential benefit being served by having trained anthropologists assist decision-making in military operations and that this might, as HTS claimed, offer some level of protection to civilians from violence.[10] Unfortunately, in addition to the much-cited ethical problems, there were structural barriers that precluded success. Credentialed experts (specifically, those with extensive training at research universities) were viewed as suspect by HTS. The institutional social context of HTS was not, given the events I witnessed and experienced, tolerant of criticism. Voiced criticism guaranteed quick dismissal from the program. I opted to withhold personal criticism because I wanted to remain with HTS as long as possible in order to make observations; however, over the long-haul this proved unsustainable.


Observations and Findings


This section reviews select observations from my field work. Admittedly, balancing my role as both an HTS team member and researcher was difficult and required careful management of social interactions. All my work with HTS was conducted within the confines of a communications-secure facility. This imposed operating restrictions, which meant no photography, no zip drives, and no removing of reports from the premises of the facility. To overcome this, I kept detailed notes in a daily journal. While there is no consensus for evaluating qualitative research, professional practice guidelines emphasize research methods and reflexive interpretation.[11]

HTS group research operations were set up in such a way as to maintain geographic proximity to the Fort Leavenworth Kansas military base, although our work site remained strategically separated from the base operation: we were located in an unmarked facility under a Mexican restaurant within the town of Leavenworth. It is interesting to note that at one point during my security screening process, active duty Army personnel candidly admitted to me that HTS was denied permission to operate on the military base due to the poor reputation of the organization and its personnel.

One of the general takeaways of my observations was that the research competency of HTS was not only lacking—it appeared to be fully absent. This assessment, of course, is based on my own observations and findings, which are consistent with others who have written about the poor quality of the research.[12] Not only was HTS producing research of dubious value, they were using science as a shield to produce military intelligence reports, which they in turn marketed to constituent users as social science research. My own training, certification, and work experience handling intelligence reports informs this finding that HTS research and data collection methods were indistinguishable from methods common within military intelligence organizations. Put differently, HTS was not producing research in a manner consistent with the protocols that distinguish professional academic research. Rather, what they did instead was produce a form of “fake science” that was passed off as research. They were, in other words, performing science.

These performative aspects of conducting social science research were on full display during my work with HTS: I found that what HTS called “research” was not guided by empirical ethically informed research methodology. By this I mean there was limited or no use of hypothesis generation, systematic sampling, and triangulation; there were no defined audit procedures, nor were there tests for validity. Comparison studies were similarly not in evidence. Operating in place of the standard research methods that form the basis of rational inquiry and the ethic to do no harm was a discernible military logic that was informed by an ethic of violence: the aim of study was to produce sufficient knowledge of people and populations to bring them under military control. As such, violence served as both method and epistemology. The resulting fake/pseudo-science was not produced as a result of hapless failure; it was an outcome that indicated intentional practice and strategy.

My evaluations of report-based evidence, which I document in personal journals, revealed that the formatting and content of research reports as well as in the data collection protocols gave the indication that they were not, nor were they ever intended to be, research products; they were always military intelligence products that were produced and marketed to the constituents of HTS (units within and outside the U.S. military). When I evaluated their research reports (N = 60), I found the methods, practices, and protocols did not reflect even the slightest modicum of adherence to professional research standards and practices. A clearly written protocol is typically the first indicator of a professionally conceived research plan. Likewise, professional reports will often contain clearly defined concepts and definitions. Literature reviews, including the incorporation of relevant studies into research, were not typically addressed by field research teams, but were instead handled by a remote research team, located in Kansas. This team with whom I worked was further destabilized by logistical and staffing turnover problems, which were evident during my tenure; this fact precluded their efficacy and inhibited the performance of work of teams in the field. Briefly put, the basic recognizable quality indicators of research products were missing in every case that I evaluated.

One of the key goals of qualitative research is rich/thick description in addition to interpretation and explanation of social practices. To be fair, this was sometimes accomplished in reports that I reviewed; however, the research was almost never guided by explanatory hypotheses. As for quantitative research, HTS admitted it was not well-equipped to conduct quantitative research; they struggled in their efforts to produce multivariate research. A common failure in surveys that I reviewed was that they failed to clearly articulate research questions and tie them to instrument questions. Analysis was similarly bereft of substance and reflected common inference errors (i.e. ecological fallacies, overgeneralization, faulty reasoning). Noteworthy was a general tendency for research protocols to evidence confirmation bias; in many cases, question wording demonstrated the cultural biases of the researchers that wrote them. Research questions were sometimes proposed in such a manner that they would inevitably produce data that would confirm pre-existing bias. Study findings, not surprisingly, did not evidence causal connections among social phenomena and were more often predicted by study designs. Data collection efforts thus tended to produce the information researchers sought to “empirically” acquire.

Specific research methods employed by HTS researchers comprised standard interviews, surveys, and participant-observation methods; this included the infamous and deservedly ridiculed “windshield ethnography” that was performed as a standard battlefield research practice. For those uninitiated and not familiar with this critique of HTS, the term refers to the practice of driving through research operations field sites, at which point team members conducted remote visual surveys, looking through the windshields of moving vehicles. Though the practice was widely criticized, I found it to be somewhat emblematic of the failures of the HTS organization as a whole.

Team members were given daily tasks to complete what were called “Baseline Assessments”. This framework constituted the basis for the research plan. The acronyms (ASCOPE and PMESII), which are commonly used by military field personnel to analyse operations environments, guided report preparation.[13] These operations assessments, of course, bore no resemblance to social science research protocols. The differences between the two products—an intelligence product vs. a research product—were measurably different.

Research practice failures were not only limited to the research products that were produced. The research credentials of HTS researchers, I noted, were markedly different from researchers practicing in the disciplines. This occurred in spite of HTS’s extensive (and expensive) outreach efforts to recruit credentialed researchers. Researchers possessed the requisite degrees and credentials (M.A., Ph.D.); they were not specialists. Many that I came to know did not have active research agendas, nor were they affiliated with professional research organizations. Professionalization was further suspect, as evidenced by normative failures to publish and attend professional meetings. These findings, in my estimate, outweigh previous findings of deficit with regard to language skills, which I can confirm were, likewise, weak if not entirely absent. As both Gusterson and Connable have noted, the Human Terrain Teams have been challenged in their efforts to employ trained anthropologists.

Previous scholarship and professional meetings documented at length the problem of ethical conflicts with HTS. Equally problematic, however, are my observations that confirmed evidence of an overlooked dimension of the problem: researchers exhibited a profound lack of critical reflexive awareness in their approach to research. By this, I mean that I noted a wide-spread lack of awareness of how their embeddedness as social actors not only compromised their role as researchers, but also the integrity of research outcomes. This failure to acknowledge their situated role and what in ethnographic research is widely known as the Hawthorne Effect (by which a researcher’s presence can distort findings) was, in my estimate, a significant failure.[14] A similar failure occurred to the extent that researchers failed to acknowledge role conflict, particularly as this pertained to working alongside armed soldiers. The researchers’ failures to address such conflict and potential bias in their reports did not, in my estimate, occur due to wilful indifference; rather, it reflected what is perhaps best described as simple ignorance. To illustrate the point, one social scientist told me, beaming with pride no less, about a field research method he improvised in Afghanistan: he zip-tied the hands of interviewees when he conducted surveys in order to give onlookers the impression that they were not cooperating with the Americans. This was, he explained, his way of helping to ensure the safety of human subjects.

Finally, I should add here, weak attempts were made to organize field-appropriate ethical research protocols (i.e. external review). Debate on the problem of vulnerable subjects was documented in the AAA meetings as well as the in published literature that has been critical of HTS.[15] Despite the near constant refrain of protest from HTS, who argued they were working toward establishing a field IRB, HTS continued as late as 2012 to operate without oversight from an external IRB authority.


Analysis: Why Did They Do It?


Previous critics attributed HTS failure to a variety reasons, including poor management, fraud, misbehaviour, and contractor failure.[16] All of these problems were demonstrated in the time I spent working with the organization. Turmoil among the staff and research teams was, moreover, found to be normative and not exceptional. Researchers confided to me that conflict and poor working conditions typified their experience of working for HTS on deployment. HTS staff members openly voiced frustration that they were having difficulty finding follow-up assignments with the government as their contracts all approached termination. Consequently, while my observations support these criticisms, such an assessment stops short and belies more comprehensive explanations revealed to me during my tenure with HTS, as I noted there was a discernible institutional failing by design—a failing that implicated both the institutional culture and leadership of HTS. But instead of focusing on individual-level failure, I looked to the organization itself as I questioned why, for example, such a well-funded organization would tolerate such a low level of institutional competency?

The reasons for this, I will argue now, were purposive and functional. Despite HTS declarations that they aimed to produce social science research, their actions betrayed an organization that never aspired to accomplish this on a practice level. This explains why there was such a high tolerance for researchers with a deficit of skills and credentials. Rather than attribute research shortcomings to a combination of the above-cited failures and benign ignorance, I observed that some of these things appeared to be meticulously cultivated. To this end, critical voices in my research cohort, a number of whom possessed professional-level research credentials, were all terminated within weeks of their arrival for training at the Kansas facility. In my own case, I managed to remain with the group for three months, a reprieve that was temporary and purchased with silence. Once I determined there was no “science” in the HTS approach to social science, it was the act of asserting a critical voice that secured my exit from the program.

One functional advantage secured by employing credentialed (but not necessarily practiced/trained) researchers was that it furnished the Army and the U.S. government with an imprimatur of sorts—one that could be used to advance “truth” claims to support operational needs that were already determined. Worthy of note was that there was an outsized representation of credentialed economists represented in my research cohort, many of whom had been employed by the failed coalition provisional authority in Iraq; no one in this group demonstrated more than a passing familiarity with social science field research methods (though all appeared to be accomplished, even skilled, government institutional actors).

Hiring poorly trained researchers conveyed another distinct advantage: such individuals were less likely to register ethical complaints when conducting field research. This had the added benefit of minimizing role conflict and concern for human subjects because these particular individuals lacked professional/ethical social identities. In other words, they would not conventionally self-identify as researchers. Such individuals could be trusted to operate outside the boundaries of professional research practice guidelines, especially when working with vulnerable populations.

For the record, HTS researchers did not indicate to me that they were acting unethically in a wilful sense; many were simply ignorant of what constituted ethical research practice. Nevertheless, despite these professional lapses and failures, HTS researchers operated as effective accomplices to the extent that they worked to produce the “fake science” that was ultimately sold as research. In this case, I find social science research methods and discourses were used by the Army and HTS to “de-operationalize” what was always a military intelligence mission. The language of science here worked as an effective cloaking device insofar as it helped to conceal the organization’s real intelligence gathering mission. But here again one must ask, Why?

One need only reflect back to examine the U.S. Executive level strategy that was implemented in the days pre-dating the launching of the Iraq War. During that time, research and intelligence data were produced by the Office of Special Plans as part of an effort to justify an interventionist foreign policy—war to put it bluntly—that might be sold to the American people. HTS fit this model, even as it played a small but important role. Operating under the pretence of methodological positivism in conducting research operations, HTS researchers satisfied the “appearance” of possessing expertise, despite not producing research of substance. This in turn helped impart a veneer of respectability to HTS, whose data constituted the substance of reports provided to U.S. military clients and other constituents distributed across the government and beyond—to all stakeholders who stood to benefit from data that supported the political agenda to perpetuate ongoing war.

In light of this, I argue that what occurred with HTS is not isolated to the organization itself; as my observations demonstrate, the social dynamics that came to define HTS were operating across public as well as private institutional boundaries: government, military, and private/commercial. In other words, the problems associated with HTS are indicative of multi-level institutional phenomena; they potentially demonstrate a potential shift in broad-scale knowledge-power dynamics across different institutional sites, many of which are operate under the aegis of providing “good governance”.

To this end, the HTS case illustrates how war is bound up in efforts to shape ongoing understanding of concepts of knowledge, objectivity, evidence, and truth. No longer simply attuned to the control of land and resources, war shapes the scientific knowledge-making process as evidenced in how it performs research practice. In what is shaping up to be a “post-policy” and “post-truth era” of politics, groups like HTS are merely functioning nodes in a chain of organizations engaged in similar work to produce battlefield intelligence for the U.S. government and its military. As it turns out now, the trend of hybrid public/private entities, including corporations like the one that hired me (BAE Systems), operate as part an assemblage of intelligence providers, including others more recently like WikiLeaks and Cambridge Data Analytics, all of whom are vying for leverage in efforts to gather human intelligence data to engage in politics, policy, and war by other means.[17]  Like HTS, these organizations operate on the periphery, virtually, and otherwise, in social spaces dispersed far beyond the limits of ethical scrutiny. They remain invisible to the public eye as they set about the process of making “truth” and what is essentially secret fake science.

To summarize, the findings from my field work support a claim that the research products produced by HTS were never intended to conform to the guidelines of ethical empirical research in the traditional sense; their fundamental approach to research revealed they were always producing a military intelligence product. And so it follows, the credentialed degree holders hired by HTS were never expected to conduct research operations; they were hired to be role-players who were tasked to perform science in the making. These findings further demonstrate how individual and institutional actors, working cooperatively, if not always in a coordinated fashion, with counterparts in the U.S. Army, government, and private corporate sectors, operated to benefit their mutual interests, as these were articulated within a classified, closed, self-referential, information loop. Taken together, my findings suggest that HTS failures constituted a success at a military intelligence strategy level.




In a speech to Rutgers University in 2016, the former U.S. President Barak Obama said, “The rejection of facts; the rejection of reason and science—that is the path to decline”.[18] This political backdrop offers a basis for reflection, as it provides context for problems unfolding in the contemporary period. Evidence-based fact and truth are increasingly being rendered unstable by efforts to substitute “alternative facts” and “fake news”. I argued that HTS was producing “fake science” to the extent that what they claimed they were doing and what they were actually doing were not the same. The purpose of the organization was not, as HTS stated, to produce “socio-culturally informed research” for military commanders and staff; rather, the aim was to collect military intelligence data to support an interventionist foreign policy strategy. Put another way, HTS is what happens when rationally performative social science is given access to weapons and a budget. Through the act of subverting research methods, they upended conventional research practice to produce social facts that fit a pre-determined war strategy. As such, they rendered questionable the knowledge produced by their efforts. The impact HTS had on academic debates should not, furthermore, be underestimated. To be sure, there may be long-lasting implications for how the academic disciplines themselves might be shaped by wartime knowledge-making practices. When we consider that military and defence funding, unlike traditional academic funding, is potentially more resilient (if not entirely impervious) to the market influences and political whims that have come to typify the neoliberal takeover of universities, it is not inconceivable that the insurgent “expert” of the future might not be an expert at all.

The HTS research program, it was noted, ended its operations. The findings presented here remain relevant, nonetheless, as they offer a window into understanding ongoing developments in regard to knowledge-making practices; they call attention to how HTS, even if it is judged to be a “failed” research organization, managed to succeed in ways that may be relevant to understanding the current political moment. The HTS research model, for all of its flaws, is symptomatic of larger social, political, and economic problems. As a model, I have argued that it presented us with a disruptive counterinsurgency model for doing research. Boundaries were blurred and things were not as they seemed. Far from demonstrating that unethical “bad” science was produced, I argued that HTS was performing research, which is a qualitatively important distinction. As such, the HTS example illustrates how war and militarism work together to reconfigure knowledge-making practices. The result was “fake science” produced not as matter of ineptitude, but through purposive design. In this respect, the HTS descent into pseudo-science lies within a continuum of developments in which the contrived performance of empirical research becomes normative in efforts to “make” and “un-make” the factual registers of military research operations.

To summarize briefly, ethical empirical research methods were not incorporated in HTS’s approach to conducting research. They did not, based on my observations, possess the technical knowledge or ability to incorporate competent ethical research methodology into their field research practice. My situated observations of the culture of the organization—that is, the social context within which research was produced and where I worked and produced reports—do not support findings that there were intentions to produce this type of research. To be clear, this is not to say that the organization was not capable of producing a descriptive field report that contained value. I am simply stating that I did not observe evidence of this. Furthermore, using untrained field researchers who possessed neither the technical research acumen nor, for that matter, the appropriate reflexive, tactical, or situational awareness to assure their own safety and the safety of their subjects was a despicable practice. The researchers themselves, although many seemed not to know it, were in my estimate expendable assets. Deception and to some extent “self-deception” appeared to be hard-wired into the group’s organizational culture, which operated as a small unit functional elaboration of the larger deception upon which the entire political project of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East continue to be based. One area in which HTS did excel was in efforts to maintain the appearance of doing research. This was, in my view, accomplished to the detriment of conducting effective, substantive, ethical research operations.

As for the issue of whether or not social scientists should embed themselves with armies conducting military operations, I think the ethical question is settled. The original AAA mandate—that professionally identified social scientists should not affiliate with these operations—was in my estimate both appropriate and necessary. The problem is that HTS research operations were never intended to function as stated; they were always a military intelligence operation. And so on that basis, I concur with findings that suggest military Civil Affairs units and Psychological Operations units operating within the Army’s Special Operations Command are organizationally better equipped to conduct intelligence research operations to meet the needs of the military.[19] Notwithstanding, I think there is a legitimate liminal zone that can be carved out where academic researchers working from critical paradigms might conduct ethnographic research within organizations like HTS, recognizing there are access issues and other limitations (security clearance and document classification restrictions), all of which impact publishing. To this end, it is the duty of scholarship to engage with these organizations, if only to bear witness, so they might render visible social phenomena that governments, armies, and corporations would prefer to remain occluded from observation. Forsaking these realms of inquiry—leaving them to be solely occupied by military researchers—guarantees that military methodologies driven by epistemologies based on ethics of violence will prevail, for they alone will regulate access and determine what counts as knowledge on the battlefield.

HTS reminds us that where there is a public display of performing research, power too is on display. The group’s research activities constituted an expression of political power, in which the power to produce “research” functioned to confirm the status of researchers as the “real” knowledge experts. With that, the real power of HTS research lies in how it effectively undermined the boundaries of what constitutes acceptable empirical research practice. In doing so, it operated outside the techno-mechanical process of collecting data; they challenged the boundary of what academics like to think of as the institutional “inside” that defines research practice. Power and research methods worked together in this manner through the modulation of affect to create a research spectacle—a veritable theatre of war, or what Clough (2012) refers to as “a becoming obscene of the social”, where there is a “technicalization or socionormalization of violence that resets the limits of obscenity in a redesign of the scene of the social that is resonant with ongoing war”.[20] Not empirical certainty, but ambiguity, indeterminacy, and the modulation of affect are the predictable outcomes of research based on a counterinsurgency model. Such a model is arguably incompatible with the pursuit of knowledge to advance human understanding.




CEAUSSIC (2009) Final Report on the Army’s Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program. 14 October, http://www.aaanet.org/issues/policy-advocacy/CEAUSSIC-Releases-Final-Report-on-Army-HTS-Program.cfm   date accessed 4 April 2017.

Clough P.T., “War By Other Means: What Difference Do(es) the Graphic(s) Make?” In: Karatzogianni, Athina and Adi Kuntsman (eds.) Digital Cultures and the Politics of Emotion (London: Palgrave) (2012).

Connable Ben, “All Our Eggs in a Broken Basket: How the Human Terrain System is Undermining Sustainable Military Cultural Competence,” Military Review, (March-April 2009): p. 58.

Gentile Gian, Think Again: Counterinsurgency, ForeignPolicy.com, (January 13, 2009), https://foreignpolicy.com/2009/01/13/think-again-counterinsurgency/ Date accessed 19 June, 2017.

Gentile Gian, Michael Linick, and Michael Shurkin, The Evolution of U.S. Military Policy from the Constitution to the Present, (Rand Corporation) (2017).

Glenn David, “Program to Embed Anthropologists with Military Lacks Ethical Standards.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 December, 2009, http://www.chronicle.com/article/Program-to-Embed/49344/ Date accessed 3 April 2017.

Gonzalez Roberto, Anthropologists in the Public Sphere: Speaking Out on War, Peace, and American Power, (University of Texas Press) (2004).

González RJ, Gusterson H and Price D, Introduction: War, culture, and counterinsurgency. In: Network of Concerned Anthropologists, The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual, (Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press) (2009).

Griffin M., An anthropologist among the soldiers: Notes from the field. In: Kelly JD, Jauregui B, Mitchell ST and Walton J (Eds.) Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press) (2010).

Gusterson Hugh, “The U.S. Military‘s Quest to Weaponize Culture.” The Bulletin Online, June 20 (2008), http://thebulletin.org/us-militarys-quest-weaponize-culture Date accessed 3 July 2017.

Gusterson Hugh, “Project Minerva and the Militarization of Anthropology”, Radical Teacher 86:4-16 (2009).

Gusterson Hugh, “Do Professional Ethics Matter in War?”, The Bulletin Online, March 4, 2010, http://www.thebulletin.org/web-edition/columnists/hugh-gusterson/do-professional-ethics-matter-war

Gusterson Hugh, “The Cultural Turn in the War on Terror.” In: John Kelly; et al. Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency (University of Chicago Press) (2010) pp. 279–298.

Gusterson Hugh, Is Resistance Futile?, Paper presented at workshop on Capturing Security Expertise, Copenhagen, June 16-17, 2011.

Kassel Whitney, “The Army Needs Anthropologists,” Foreign Policy (2015) https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/07/28/the-army-needs-anthropologists-iraq-afghanistan-human-terrain/  Date accessed 18 June, 2017.

Kelly John, Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, (University of Chicago Press) (2010).

Latour Bruno, How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Boston: Harvard University Press) (1988).

Lee R.M, Unobtrusive Methods in Social Research (Buckingham: Open University Press) (2000).

Lucas GR Jr, Anthropologists in Arms: The Ethics of Military Anthropology, (Lanham, MD: Alta Mira Press) (2009).

McFate Montgomery, “Cultural Knowledge and Common Sense,” Anthropology Today 24(1):27 (2008).

Mills C. W. The Power Elite. Oxford University Press, 1956.

Price David, Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State.  (Counterpunch: AK Press) (2011).

Price David, Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War, (Duke University Press) (2008).

Quarantelli Enrico, “Nature and Conditions of Panic”, American Journal of Sociology, (1954) Vol. 60:267-75.

Salzman P.C. , “On Reflexivity,” American Anthropologist, 104(3), pp. 805-813 (2002).

Segal David and James Burke, Military Sociology, (Sage Publications, Volumes 1-4) (2012).

Schrag, ZM, Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965–2009. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press) (2010).



[1] Segal, David and James Burke, Military Sociology, (Sage Publications, Volumes 1-4) (2012); Gentile, Gian, Michael Linick, and Michael Shurkin, The Evolution of U.S. Military Policy from the Constitution to the Present, (Rand Corporation) (2017).

[2] Price, David, Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War, (Duke University Press) (2008); Gonzalez Roberto, Anthropologists in the Public Sphere: Speaking Out on War, Peace, and American Power, (University of Texas Press) (2004); Lucas GR Jr, Anthropologists in Arms: The Ethics of Military Anthropology, (Lanham, MD: Alta Mira Press) (2009); Kelly John, Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency. (University of Chicago Press) (2010); González RJ, Gusterson H and Price D, Introduction: War, culture, and counterinsurgency. In: Network of Concerned Anthropologists, The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual, (Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press) (2009); Griffin, M., An anthropologist among the soldiers: Notes from the field. In: Kelly JD, Jauregui B, Mitchell ST and Walton J (Eds.) Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press) (2010).

[3] Mills, C. W. The Power Elite. (Oxford University Press) (1956).

[4] There is a tradition in the social sciences dating back to the time of social psychologist George Herbert Mead that more recently includes others like Michael Burawoy, Norman Denzin, and Mitchell Duneier, who advocate for the importance of journal writing, self-conscious reflection, and interpretation when making observations. Situated ethnography as such has found increasing support in the literature, in which researchers are encouraged to incorporate active measures; they essentially operationalize reflexivity by systematically documenting how their personal experiences influence the research process. Thus, while quantitative methods value prediction, the replication of research methods, and the social distancing of researchers from subjects, qualitative work promotes the closeness of researchers to subjects, where inter-subjectivity and epistemological reflexivity are understood to be assets and not liabilities. See Burawoy, Michael. “The Extended Case Method”, Sociological Theory, Vol. 16, No. 1, Mar. (1998), pp. 4-33; Denzin, Norman K. and Yvonna S. Lincoln, The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research (3rd edition) (2005); Duneier, Mitchell, Sidewalk (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux) (2001).

[5] Gusterson, Hugh, “Project Minerva and the Militarization of Anthropology”, Radical Teacher, 86:4-16 (2009); “The U.S. Military‘s Quest to Weaponize Culture”. The Bulletin Online, June 20 (2008); and Is Resistance Futile?, Paper presented at workshop on Capturing Security Expertise‘ Copenhagen, June 16-17, 2011; Montgomery McFate, “Cultural Knowledge and Common Sense”, Anthropology Today 24(1):27 (2008).

[6] Kassel, Whitney, “The Army Needs Anthropologists,” Foreign Policy (2015).

[7] Whitney Kassel (2015).

[8] Price, David, Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State. (Counterpunch: AK Press) (2011); Gusterson Hugh, “Project Minerva and the Militarization of Anthropology”, Radical Teacher 86:4-16 (2009).

[9] Glenn, David, “Program to Embed Anthropologists with Military Lacks Ethical Standards”. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 December, 2009.

[10] This logic constituted the basis for how the program was originally sold to the U.S. government/military by the group’s founders, Colonel Steve Fondacaro and Montgomery McFate.

[11] Salzman, P.C., “On Reflexivity”, American Anthropologist, 104(3), pp. 805-813; see also Hsuing Ping-Chun, “Teaching Reflexivity in Qualitative Interviewing”, Teaching Sociology,(2008): 36(3), pp. 211-226.

[12] Whitney Kassel (2015).

[13] ASCOPE:  Areas, Structures, Capabilities, Organizations, and People, Events; PEMESI: Political, Economic, Military, Social, Infrastructure, and Information. See military field manuals FM 6-0, “Mission Command: Command and Control of Army Forces.” and FM 3-24, “Counterinsurgency.”

[14] Lee R.M, Unobtrusive Methods in Social Research (Buckingham: Open University Press) (2000).

[15] Schrag, ZM, Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965–2009. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press) (2010).

[16] Whitney Kassel (2015).

[17] Von Clausewitz, Karl, On War, trans. Col. J.J. Graham. New and Revised edition with Introduction and Notes by Col. F.N. Maude, in Three Volumes (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & C., 1918) (Vol. 1. Chapter 1: What is War?).

[18] Keynote address given at Rutgers University’s commencement, May 15, 2016.

[19] Connable, Ben, “All Our Eggs in a Broken Basket: How the Human Terrain System is Undermining Sustainable Military Cultural Competence”, Military Review, (March-April 2009): p. 58.

[20] P.T. Clough, “War By Other Means: What Difference Do(es) the Graphic(s) Make?” In: Karatzogianni, Athina and Adi Kuntsman (eds.) Digital Cultures and the Politics of Emotion (London: Palgrave, 2012),    p. 28.

The nuclear technology debate returns. Narratives about nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japanese films

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 117-131.


Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

Jagiellonian University



The nuclear technology debate returns.

Narratives about nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japanese films




The presented article revolves around the widespread debate on the Fukushima catastrophe in Japanese cinematography and the artists’ responses to the incident. They give the viewers clues on how to understand the reasons and results of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as well as how to perceive nuclear technology after the catastrophe. The author analyses the chosen post-Fukushima films, points out the recurring depictions, and deliberates on the ways of presenting nuclear power. The analysis starts with a brief comparison of post-Hiroshima and post-Fukushima cinematography. The author then focuses on activists’ art in the form of anti-nuclear agitation (Nuclear Japan, 2014 by Hiroyuki Kawai) and pictures that can be classified as shōshimin-eiga: Kebo no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) and Leji (Homeland, 2014). The third part of the article puts emphasis on the description of the catastrophe as a “new beginning”, as Takashi Murakami presents it in Mememe no kurage (Jellyfish Eye, 2013). The debate on nuclear technology also appears in the remake of the story about the best-known Japanese monster, Godzilla, reactivated by Hideaki Anno in the post-Fukushima film Shin Gojira (New Godzilla, 2016). The last part of the paper presents the Western point of view and covers analysis of films such as Alain de Halleux’s Welcome to Fukushima (2013), Doris Dörrie’s Grüße aus Fukushima (Fukushima, My Love, 2016) or Matteo Gagliardi’s Fukushima: A Nuclear Story (2015).

Key words: Fukushima, nuclear power, post-Fukushima film, Japanese cinema, catastrophe




The widespread debate on the Fukushima catastrophe, the future of the Japanese reactors, and the suffering, fears, and social problems the nation has to face have also influenced Japanese cinema. The artists’ responses to the incident and the aftermath that is still felt have resulted in a cinematic wake that happened surprisingly quickly after the catastrophe. The narrations about nuclear power, even though considered as a taboo that should not be violated while the memories of the tragedy are still alive, are constructed so as to face social fears; they give the viewers (also around the world) clues on how to understand the reasons and results of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as well as how to perceive nuclear technology after the catastrophe.

The recurring pictures that can be found in most of the post-Fukushima films are depictions of the off-limits exclusion zone, guarded by the government because of high-level radiation. The artists also underline the contrast between the silence in the zone and the hustle and bustle of the temporary houses and schools occupied by the victims. Nuclear power itself is presented in two ways: neutrally, for example in Leji (Homeland, 2014) by Nao Kubota or Kibō no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) by Sion Sono, or in the form of activist art and anti-nuclear agitation (Nuclear Japan, 2014 by Hiroyuki Kawai). It is almost impossible to find positive commentaries about nuclear power in post-Fukushima films; however, the catastrophe can be described as a “new beginning”, as Takashi Murakami presents it in Mememe no kurage (Jellyfish Eye, 2013). The debate on nuclear technology also appears in the remake of the story about the best-known Japanese monster, Godzilla, reactivated by Hideaki Anno in the post-Fukushima film Shin Gojira (New Godzilla, 2016).

The primary purpose of this paper is to analyse the narrations about nuclear power in Fukushima-related Japanese films in the context of the directors’ personal points of view on the issue and the impact of their works on Japanese society. As can be perceived, observing the catastrophe through subjective lenses is almost unavoidable as the authors of the aforementioned films are not only distant observers. They combine personal experiences with the national trauma they are part of. Due to this fact, the presented article aims to deliberate on the problem of how Japanese filmmakers have presented nuclear technology since 2011, while linking their works to the films that emerged after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Another point of focus presented in this paper is how the audience understands the aforementioned films about the tragedy and why they are gaining popularity in Japanese society. Moreover, it is also worth focusing on the impact the pictures may have on collective memory, as will be discussed later. The examples of the films presented in this article were chosen because of their popularity and significance for the development of the nuclear technology debate.


From Hiroshima to Fukushima


The massive and immediate destruction caused by nuclear energy and the fact that the source of this annihilation is human-made traumatizes the collective memory beyond any measurable limits. What is significant in the case of nuclear disasters is the fact that its results function in two visual orders. On the one hand, pictures of untouched landscapes juxtaposed with sudden, total destruction bring to mind apocalyptic visions of the End of Times which are known from Western depictions. On the other hand, the invisible radiation and lack of immediate results (or, in other words, “immediate victims”) have no simple visual representations; this traumatizes the imagination the most[1]. The visible effects of the destroyed surroundings of these catastrophes are extended in time by the menace of nuclear contamination that will also affect society in the future[2]. The impact of the nuclear catastrophe on the Japanese nation, happening twice in a relatively short period, put the filmmakers in a situation in which they try to present on the screen a tragedy that is impossible to understand. David Deamer observes that “Each atom bomb film overcomes the spectre of impossibility in its way; each in its own way creates a singular encounter with the nuclear attacks […]”.[3]

Visions of the apocalypse derived from Western culture influenced the rise of the post-Hiroshima subgenre of Japanese cinema: hibakusha. Narratives which can be classified under this term introduced the topic of the atom bombs and explored the meaning of “Hiroshima” for the post-war generations[4]. The critical potential that characterized the hibakusha films, the emphasis on the sociological context of the catastrophe, and the variety of other genres combined with the determinants of the subgenre allows it to be connected to the post-Fukushima cinematic wake. It should be pointed out that the earliest on-screen depictions of the destruction caused by nuclear power were dominated by the three genres which also appear most often in the case of the March 11 incident: contemporary drama, monster movies, and documentary[5]. For example, analogies can be found between Ito Sueo’s Hiroshima Nagasaki ni okeru genshi bakudan no eikyō (The Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,1946) and Hiroyuki Kawai’s Nuclear Japan (2014) documentary films, both of which are described in the next part of this article. Both films use original footage and capture with scientific precision the tragedy of the Japanese nation. However, when Kawai restrains himself from providing a plethora of drastic pictures of mutilated bodies, Sueos’s footage shows the drama without euphemisms. The second part of the very first post-bombing documentary[6] devoted to Nagasaki presents narrations about the tragedy of particular people which can also be found in the film from 2014. The post-Hiroshima style of producing dramas, like Shindo Kaneto’s melodrama Genbaku no ko (Children of Hiroshima, 1952) or Shohei Imamura’s Kuroi ame (Black Rain, 1989), both of which emphasize sentimentalism and focus on the emotions of particular people, can be found in Kibô no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) by Sion Sono. It should be underlined that the differences found in the films mentioned above are intangibly connected to the nature of the two catastrophes: genocide in the case of the World War II events and a tragedy initiated by an unfortunate series of natural factors.

In terms of the impression on American society, March 11, 2011 is also compared to the events of 9.11[7]. It was Takashi Mikuriya who first suggested that the sengyo (the long post-war period in Japan) ended with the Fukushima disaster. Furthermore, Mikuriya proposed another term, saigo (literally: next, after), to describe the time “after the catastrophe”.[8] The new era, in the opinion of the Japanese researcher, has the potential to become more democratic, thus a period full of hope and peace[9]. Barbara Geilhorn and Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, deliberating on the artistic pursuits related to the nuclear disaster of March 11, point out in their publication that “Fukushima forced artists across the genres to reconsider the relationship between art, representation, and live experience”.[10] The experience of the disaster and the analysis of the emotions accompanying the traumatic events appeared not only in film but also in literature and performing arts. Here, it is worth mentioning the artistic pursuits on the grounds of Japanese theatre and the plays of Oriza Hirata and Toshiki Okada: the former, in his play entitled Sayonara (Good bye, 2011), uses a female android as a metaphor for the failure of the human-technological understanding which resulted in the Fukushima disaster[11]. On the other hand, Okada’s theatre, defined as “musical theatre with ghostly apparitions”[12], aims to criticize Japanese cultural norms, society, and politics. His Jimen to yuka (Ground and Floor, 2013) performance “depicts a group of people experiencing an intense post-Fukushima malady”,[13] which metaphorically comments on the failure of the Japanese political system[14].


Activist art or searching for the ultimate solution


The controversy arising around the catastrophe that appeared due to the social accusations of the negligence of the government resulted in the emerging activist movement. While searching for the ultimate solution to the problem, both in the West and in Japan, the filmmakers strive to answer whether it is necessary to rely on nuclear energy in future technological development. It should also be underlined that the activists define nuclear power as unequivocally wrong and postulate that its use should cease.

One of the most publicly visible activists who uses film as a medium to communicate his postulates is Hiroyuki Kawai[15]. This professional lawyer who decided to become a documentary filmmaker was born in Manchuria, China, but he mentally tied himself to Japan after he graduated from the University of Tokyo in the 1970s. His interest in lawsuits against nuclear power plants reached its peak after Fukushima, but even before the tragic events of March 2011, he was deeply involved in the fight to eradicate nuclear power from Japan[16]. Kawai admits that his main purpose is to protect the environment, especially from the tragic nuclear disasters that have long-term effects on natural habitats. Analysing how to reach a wide audience and not satisfied with the number of people attending his lectures, the activist realized that explaining his objectives with a movie would be the best way to popularize his ideas.

Nuclear Japan, released in 2014, was to answer the question that had been asked by the director many times: Has nuclear power brought happiness to the Japanese nation? The documentary goes back to the seven hours before the catastrophe and the camera’s eye accompanies a group of firefighters. They accomplish different tasks, from looking for missing people after the tsunami, to the disposal of radioactive materials. However, their efforts are only presented to underline the message conveyed by the author. At every step, he stresses that if it had not been for the nuclear disaster, many more lives could have been saved[17] and, consequently, he accuses the Japanese government for its faulty decisions. In his work Kawai combines footage illustrating the efforts of the public services and the pain of civilians with interviews with experts (e.g. Tetsunari Iida, the director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies) and, as he refers to on his website, “facts and evidence”.[18] Moreover, the documentary offers a wealth of technical information on how the reactors function, nuclear policy in Japan, and safety regulations[19]. However, even though the author tries to present his findings in the most objective way possible, he cannot help avoiding subjectivization of the matter.

Kawai presents only a one-sided point of view, demonizing nuclear power and providing the ultimate solution to the problem: “to halt nuclear power plants all over Japan[20]”. The director perceives his movie as a tool that helps to convey his ideas and bring them to a wider audience, not only to those in academia. It should also be underlined that thanks to the complexity of the presented issues and the unique footage of the testimonies provided by the victims, the film was considered as evidence during the trials related to the catastrophe[21]. Even though the event has an obvious tragic meaning, the message Kawai tries to convey can be read as a positive look at the future of the nation. He observes that “the Fukushima disaster has increasingly forced the courts and the judges to expose the lies of the government and the nuclear industry, as well as take responsibility for the huge damage caused[22]”. Kawai creates an analogy to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, comparing the government reactions, commentaries, and actions taken. It is visible that the director has a feeling that the catastrophe, paradoxically, helped to raise the tabooed issue of the post-nuclear trauma. Consequently, Kawai perceives himself as a representative of a new movement that will shed some light on the safety of nuclear energy in Japan.


Screening the zone, preserving the memories


The catastrophe and form of post-Fukushima societal order in Japan are also vividly presented in dramas. In this category, under the label of the shōshimin-eiga[23] genre, there is a plethora of poetic pictures that aim to not only show the destruction, despair, and lack of hope, but also the preservation of collective memories, as well as on the discourse on the future of the nation. The lightly fictionalized narrations, depicting the tragedy of particular families, are designed to challenge viewers’ emotions and, in the case of foreign audiences, make them familiar with the problems of Japanese society. It can be observed that the message proposed by the authors of the post-Fukushima dramas conveys more neutral meaning than in the case of Kawai’s documentary. Under the genre of drama, it is the story of the suffering and pain that matters the most, not the strict anti- or pro- nuclear point of view of the author.

One of the first post-Fukushima drama films, and, at the same time, one of the most appreciated by foreign critiques[24], is Kibō no kuni (The Land of Hope, 2012) directed by Sion Sono. The picture received the NETPAC Award for Best Asian Film at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival. The author focuses on presenting the histories on two families uprooted from their home cities, who strive to fight back for their lost safety by adjusting themselves to the new reality. Sono pays great attention to showing what has happened to the mental condition of the protagonists since the traumatic experiences and the extent to which it is possible to overcome the trauma. The feeling of the constant danger of radioactivity causes the families to develop neuroses, compulsive behaviours, and anxieties. For example, Izumi Ono (Megumi Kagurazaka), the wife of Yoichi Ono (Jun Murakami), is obsessed with protecting her body from contact with radioactive objects or places. When she realizes that she is pregnant, Izumi not only covers her whole house with aluminium foil, but also compulsively checks the radiation level on a Geiger counter—everything to protect her unborn child. By showing three generations of protagonists fighting for survival, the director undertakes a discourse about the future of the country[25]. Even though it is a farmer Yasuhiko Ono (Iaso Natsuyagi) and his wife Chieko Ono (Naoko Otani) whose fight is depicted in the most dramatic way, it is the child yet to be born that will bear all the consequences of the situation. The actions taken by Izumi to protect her child, depicted in an almost humorous way, show the desperate attempts the Japanese people undertook to preserve their health. In this case, Sono demonstrates that it is impossible to escape the fate and every desperate attempt seems to be grotesque in the face of the inevitable consequences of the radiation.

Leji (Homeland, 2014) by Nao Kubota is another film about the results of the Fukushima catastrophe that was mostly appreciated abroad. Even though the director has more documentary pictures than fictionalized dramas on his account, he made a feature film to discuss the post-catastrophe issues. However, the critics observed that Kubota’s film differs from the aforementioned Kibō no kuni in terms of the presentation of emotions. The critics accused the director of creating a narrative which “perversely refuses to engage on a dramatic or emotional level, or to look its unavoidable political context in the eye”.[26] The picture, screened in 2014 at the Berlin Film Festival, mostly explores the toxic relations between the characters, thus resembling Shohei Imamura’s narrations about the dark blood ties that led to the tragedy in the rural, apparently idyllic setting[27]. Kubota focuses on the topic that returns in almost every post-Fukushima drama: the ancestors’ attachment to the land. Here, the Japanese concept of furusato, a mythologized picture of a traditional birthplace situated in the beauty of nature, appears as a lost part of Japanese culture. The characters are trapped in the world between—it is impossible to return to the cradle because the furusato is lost and, at the same time, they cannot start new lives. Their longing for the lost safety leads them to transgressive behaviour, as in the case of Soichi (Seiyo Uchino), who spends his days loitering around the entertainment district, unable to find a new job[28].

Manifesting a literal-minded approach to constructing a plot that resembles documentary films, the director especially focuses on the daily routines of the people influenced by the catastrophe[29]. Paradoxically, the most striking scenes in the film are not those presenting the dynamic actions of the characters, but the ones depicting rural labour or food preparation. There, Kubota emphasizes the attempts of the protagonists to maintain social order, even though, together with the houses, the bonds of the family have been destroyed.


Monsters reactivated


Cultural anxiety about radiation and the fear of nuclear fallout appeared on Japanese screens right after World War II. Among the science fiction films featuring a variety of monsters, mysterious creatures, and physically changed people, the greatest popularity was won by Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla series. Except for its similarity to Ryūjin—the deity of the sea that appears in the scriptures of the ingenious Japanese religion, Shinto—the dragon-like creature that emerged from the ocean symbolized the fears of the sudden development of deadly technology and the results of its use in warfare[30]. The appearance of the monster emerging from the water was described in the first film of the series, Gojira (Godzilla, 1954), as the result of the H-bomb experiments[31]. What is more, Honda’s films, especially the first one, bring together unnamed fears of a mystery that comes from ‘the outside’. As Toni A. Perrine observes in her publication concerning the cultural anxieties of the nuclear age, both the appearance of nuclear energy and the cinematic Gojira can be perceived as acts of “transformation of matter into an unimaginable destructive force”.[32]

It is not surprising that the rubber monster came back to screens again after the Fukushima catastrophe and its symbolic connections to the destructive power of nuclear energy were reactivated. Shin Gojira (New Godzilla, 2016), directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, at the same time breaks with both the familiar schemes from the previous productions and the references to the canonic appearance of the monster. However, what is most significant in terms of researching the ways in which the Fukushima disaster is depicted in Japanese film is that Gojira is no longer a result of nuclear experiments. It comes with a tsunami wave, earthquakes and radiation, but the origins of the creature remain unknown. Furthermore, the role of the Americans in the narrative has changed: in the newest production, they are the most important allies in the deadly fight[33]. It is also worth mentioning the focus on the reactions of the catastrophe victims presented in Anno and Higuchi’s film. As happened on the streets of Japanese cities, in Shin Gojira the people measure the radiation and share information on social media websites. Also, the bitter portrait of the government and the news resembles real life: the officials, under the burden of bureaucracy, are unable to cooperate and the transmitted meetings are filled with clichés and jargon[34]. The nuclear debate in the newest Gojira film is concluded with optimism: even though severe damage was done to the metropolis and uncountable deaths resulted from the officials’ reluctance, the monster is finally defeated. It turns into a concrete monument, remaining in the heart of the city as a testament to the victims of the tragedy.

It is also interesting yet surprising that the appearance of a monster in post-Fukushima narration can be found in Takashi Murakami’s film Mememe no kurage (Jellyfish Eye, 2013). The director’s debut, although kept in the light comedy tone, raises a question that was overlooked in other productions: how can children’s trauma after the catastrophe be minimized? Even though the tragedy that hit Japanese society is not explicitly named, the viewer realizes that the young Masashi Kusakabe’s (Takuto Sueoka) father died because of a catastrophe somehow related to nuclear power. Together with his mother, the youngster moves to a rural area—escaping both the damaged environment and the painful memories. However, soon it turns out that the children in the village are obsessed with a smartphone app that allows them to control fantastic (animated) pet monsters and organize ‘dog fights’ between the creatures. Here, the director uses comedy to tell a story about mysterious scientists who study how to control catastrophic forces by manipulating students’ emotions[35]. The pets, called F.R.I.E.N.D.S., are vessels that transmit the feelings of their little masters to the control centre. The fact that the children put a lot of energy into the game leads to the birth of a huge monster that tries to destroy the area.

The film was negatively reviewed and the ending was considered naive; it was also dismissed for its camera work and ragged special effects[36]. It was also observed that the coming-of-age story mixed with philosophical themes of fighting with trauma, evil, and self-limitations was incomprehensible for younger viewers and too infantile for adults[37]. However, Murakami’s film resembles his artistic pursuits: as a contemporary painter and sculptor, he is recognized for combining high art with pop-cultural aesthetics[38], which is also visible in the visual style and plot of his debut. The author tried to introduce a fresh style of talking about the Fukushima catastrophe—a remedy for the children’s trauma hidden under a layer of family cinema. Even though it was too soon to combine the painful memories with cute animated characters, Murakami’s film remains a unique and thus creative and brave way of presenting the catastrophe in Japanese cinema.


From the Western point of view


Fukushima-related narrations and the nuclear technology debate since 2011 have appeared not only in Japanese cinema. A critical comment on the catastrophe also comes from Western directors, among who should be mentioned Alain de Halleux’s Welcome to Fukushima (2013), Doris Dörrie’s Grüße aus Fukushima (Fukushima, My Love, 2016) or Matteo Gagliardi’s Fukushima: A Nuclear Story (2015). Through their works, these filmmakers from abroad share their compassion and feelings of being greatly moved by the tragic events. It is worth mentioning here that Doris Dörrie, the author of Kirschblüten – Hanami (Cherry Blossoms, 2008), was motivated by the fact that she felt a strong connection with the Japanese nation. She visited Fukushima right after the tragic events and almost anthropologically gathered the testimonies of the victims, which she later used in constructing the plot of her film. Dörrie’s Fukushima revolves around the problem of mutual understanding between Western and Japanese culture, which was also a central subject in Kirschblüten…. In the post-Fukushima narrative, the relation that emerges between a young German woman, Maria (Rosalie Thomass), and the elderly geisha, Satomi (Kaori Momoi), casts new light on the collective experience of an entire generation of Japanese people who suffered the catastrophe and the fear of radiation[39]. When the women protagonists by chance move in together to the Satomi’s partly destroyed house in the closed Zone, a subtle bond develops between them. Depicting Maria’s struggle to understand a different culture while trying to be helpful in rebuilding the retired geisha’s life, the director aimed to emphasize how difficult it is for foreigners to cope with unfamiliar traditions. In one of the interviews, Dörrie admits that her main purpose was to answer the question: Can the Westerner, who does not understand Eastern mentality and culture, in any way help Japanese people?[40] Even though the narrative revolves around the post-catastrophe trauma, the central part of the film is the relations, based on the author’s autobiographical references, between women symbolizing disparate cultural backgrounds.

Documentary insights can also be found in the films presenting the catastrophe from the Western point of view. Here it is worth mentioning the pictures by Alain de Halleux and Matteo Gagliardi, who combine their original footage with scientific explanations of the causes of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and personal commentaries. The first author visits the city of Minamisōma, situated 25 kilometres from the reactor, in order to present the everyday struggle of the population of that area. Many of the inhabitants want to be evacuated, while others wish to stay in their homeland and rebuild the city; this results in increasing conflict within the community. Moreover, the Tepco company, which is financially responsible for compensation, refuses to pay their fines; this forces the victims to search for funds globally[41]. The author uses the contrasting Eastern characters of a Zen master and a samurai as a metaphor of the two attitudes towards the rebuilding of a new social order after the tragedy. From this perspective, the victim can choose the course of action in Halleux’s film: he can either accept his fate and stay in his furusato, or fight for a better future for the next generations. The purpose of Halleux’s film was to present the problem to international viewers to encourage financial support from the worldwide community.

However, while the Belgian director restrains himself to the presentation of interviews with victims that were mostly recorded two years after the incident, it is Gagliardi who demonstrates a greater diversity of cinematic techniques. In his film, this Italian filmmaker combines footage recorded when the events started with animated sequences, fragments of TV programs, and experts’ commentaries. Gagliardi balances the need to remain objective against the personal emotions and assessment of the journalist Pio d’Emilia, who experienced the fear of being in Japan during the catastrophe. The Italian Sky TV reporter decided to leave Tokyo the day the earthquake struck and move to the areas affected by the tsunami with the intention of being the first foreign observer to document the tragedy[42]. Except for an unreleased interview with the former Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, which casts new light on the government’s actions[43], Gagliardi’s film also offers a unique approach to the understanding of the viewer’s perception. The animated manga-style sequences are used to make the material more comprehensible and visually attractive.

Taking into consideration the examples presented above, it can be observed that a post-Fukushima current also appeared in the West and these foreign filmmakers have added new insights into the discourse about nuclear power. The narrations provided by Western filmmakers could also be starting points for further academic research, such as comparisons of films by authors from distinct cultural backgrounds, analysis of the approach to nuclear energy, as well as the techniques and genres chosen to cover the issue.




The nuclear power debate that returned after the Fukushima catastrophe has not faded in film-making. Even though the Japanese films concerning the issue seem to be more appreciated abroad, filmmakers such as Takashi Murakami and Hiroyuki Kawai consider deliberating on the problem to be part of their artistic missions. Possible answers to the questions of whether the Japanese nation should rely on nuclear energy in the future are presented by the directors in documentary or family cinema form, thus aiming to give the viewer a way to understand the complex causes, results, and political issues related to the tragedy. Others, such as Sion Sono and Nao Kubota, try to show the problems of particular members of the traumatized society to a wider audience and, as Doris Dörrie has done in the West, focus on the emotions accompanying the loss of the homeland. What is more, monster films such as the aforementioned Shin Gojira, also play a key role in presenting the problem on the screen, albeit in symbolic form. Therefore, no matter the motivation of the individual artists, it should be emphasised that there are many voices and sides in the discussion about nuclear energy. In this case, films help to express the points of view of the directors and communicate their findings to a wider audience.

As Małgorzata Sadowska observes, Fukushima deprived the Japanese people of the illusion they could use to think about atomic energy. Since 2011, it has no longer been possible to recognize atomic energy as simply bad (the bomb) or good (the power plant), as it was the latter that brought about annihilation[44]. For the people who survived the catastrophe, as well as those who observed it on TV screens abroad, cinema can become not only a source of information (in the case of the documentary productions), but also a medium that helps in understanding the influence of the catastrophe on the inhabitants of Japan.




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Fukushima: A Nuclear Story (2015, Matteo Gagliardi)

Gojira [Godzilla] (1954, Ishiro Honda)

Grüße aus Fukushima [Fukushima, My Love] (2016, Doris Dörrie)

Kibō no kuni [The Land of Hope] (2012, Sion Sono)

Leji [Homeland] (2014, Nao Kubota)

Mememe no kurage [Jellyfish Eye] (2013, Takashi Murakami)

Nuclear Japan (2014, Hiroyuki Kawai)

Shin Gojira [New Godzilla] (2016, Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi)

The Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1946, Ito Sueo)

Welcome to Fukushima (2013, Alain de Halleux)

[1] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, Fukushima and the Arts: Negotiating Nuclear Disaster, (London: Routledge, 2017), p. 2 – 3.

[2] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 3.

[3] Deamer David, Deleuze, Japanese Cinema, and the Atom Bomb: The Spectre of Impossibility, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 31.

[4] See: Broderick Mick (ed) Hibakusha Cinema : Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Nuclear Image in Japanese Film, (London, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

[5] Deamer David, p. 31.

[6] Loska Krzysztof, “Tożsamość traumatyczna w filmach o bombie atomowej” [Traumatic identity in the films about the atomic bombing], in Poetyka filmu japońskiego [The Poetics of the Japanese Film], ed. Idem. (Kraków: Rabid, 2009), p. 352 – 353.

[7] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 3.

[8] Mikuriya Takashi, Sengo ga owari, saigo ga hajimaru [Sengo era ends, saigo era starts], (Tokyo: Chikura Shobō, 2012).

[9] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 3.

[10] Geilhorn Barbara, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, p. 10.

[11] Eckersall Peter, “Performance, Mourning and the Long View of Nuclear Space,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 7:2 (2015), p. 4.

[12] Eckersall Peter, p. 6.

[13] Eckersall Peter, p. 6.

[14] Eckersall Peter, p. 6.

[15] Nuclear Japan Official Site, http://www.nihontogenpatsu.com/english, date accessed 18 April 2017.

[16] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[17] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[18] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[19] Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, http://www.cnic.jp/english/?p=3424, date accessed 16 April 2017.

[20] Nuclear Japan Official Site.

[21] Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center.

[22] Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center.

[23] Shōshimin-eiga is a Japanese film and TV genre which aims at depicting of the everyday existence of the working class people.

[24] See: The Japan Times: Culture, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2014/03/06/films/film-reviews/ieji-homeland/#.WQeCrsakJhE, date accessed 9 April 2017. As it can be observed, Sono’s film was mostly appreciated by the foreign critiques, because the Japanese ones stated that it was too soon to for a fictional treatment of the national tragedy.

[25] The Hollywood Reporter, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/land-hope-film-review-406354, date accessed 7 April 2017.

[26] Variety, http://variety.com/2014/film/asia/berlin-film-review-homeland-1201109899/, date accessed 19 April 2017.

[27] Variety.

[28] Variety.

[29] Variety.

[30] Perrine Toni A., Film and the Nuclear Age: Representing Cultural Anxiety, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), p. 77.

[31] Perrine Toni A, p. 77.

[32] Perrine Toni A., p. 84.

[33] The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/life_and_entertainment/2016/08/07/1-japans-latest-godzilla-movie-draws-on-1954-original-fukushima-nuclear-disaster.html, date accessed 18 April 2017.

[34] The Columbus Dispatch.

[35] The Hollywood Reporter: Jellyfish Eyes, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/jellyfish-eyes-mememe-no-kurage-727224, date accessed 19 April 2017.

[36] See: The review written by Roberta Smith, a co-chief and critic of the NY Times. The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/15/movies/review-jellyfish-eyes-a-childrens-film-from-takashi-murakami.html?&_r=1, date accessed 21 April 2017.

[37] The New York Times.

[38] Takashi Murakami’s profile on Artnet: Artnet, http://www.artnet.com/artists/takashi-murakami/, date accessed 17 April 2017.

[39] Sadowska Małgorzata, “Fukushima, moja miłość” [Fukushima, My Love], Kino 2:2017, p. 79.

[40] InteriaFilm, http://film.interia.pl/wywiady/news-doris-dorrie-hold-dla-kobiet-fukushimy,nId,2347171, date accessed 5 June 2017. The interview with Doris Dörrie was conducted by Piotr Czerkawski during the 68th Berlin International Film Festival in 2017.

[41] To read more about Halleux’s film, see: Cinergie.be, http://www.cinergie.be/webzine/welcome_to_fukushima_d_alain_de_halleux, date accessed 4.06.2017.

[42] See: Fukushima A Nuclear Story [official website], http://www.nuclearstory.com/, date accessed 4.06.2017.

[43] Fukushima A Nuclear Story. In the interview Naoto Kan admits that Japan avoided a bigger catastrophe not because of the planned government actions but thanks to sheer luck.

[44] Sadowska Małgorzata, p. 79.

War rape in the face of heroic narrative. The case of Polish cinema

Magdalena Podsiadło-Kwiecień

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 132-149.


Magdalena Podsiadło-Kwiecień

Jagiellonian University



War rape in the face of heroic narrative.

The case of Polish cinema



War rape seals the status of women as passive victims and excludes them from heroic narratives. Despite women’s suffering and their active resistance against the invaders, film representations reduce their subjectivity through a narrative of shame based on silence, exclusion, or the removal of women from the real course of events, all of which dominate in Polish cinema. Phenomena that are highlighted in the text—talking about rape on one’s own terms, using it as self-defence, bearing resulting offspring, active resistance or creating an approving community—may become a way to the empowerment of heroines and reformulation of the traditional symbolic field.


Key words: rape, abject, Polish cinema, oral history, women




Piotr Zwierzchowski, in his book on heroic death, writes that “the death of a hero is decidedly a male motive. This is no different in contemporary cinema; it is men who are awarded the right to be heroes and perish in a way full of pathos. The final moments of Thelma and Louise are among scarce exceptions confirming the rule”.[1] On the one hand, it seems highly unfair that the author—in his over 200-page-long deliberations dedicated to heroic deaths—acknowledged just one film with female protagonists. On the other, the disproportion between male and female representation signals difficulty in associating heroic narrative with female experience.

Even in wartime narratives in Polish cinema, which are seemingly predestined to discuss heroism, the presence of women is troublesome, although “the participation of women in resistance against invaders was much more significant here than in the West”.[2] Natalia Jarska points out that, in most cases, the female experience does not appear in dominating narratives on war. Even if women are mentioned, these stories are stereotyped and their true experiences often left untold.[3] Especially resistant to historical narrative are experiences related to gender, the effect of which is the tendency—both among witnesses and researchers—to bypass the gender category, supposedly to guarantee the universal image of wartime events. “The symbolic allocation and social evaluation of both features («personal» to women; «objective» to men) is not random”[4] and, as a result, leads to the bypassing of the specifically female experience.

However, it is impossible to attribute rape—the most gender-determined form of wartime violence[5]—solely to the personal sphere, even from the perspective of traditional historical narratives focused on events from the battlefield. On the one hand, rape touches the private realm, while on the other, it is a manner of conducting military operations. “Rape cannot be understood as «just» a deplorable side-effect of war provoked by soldiers’ sexual frustration. Rape is, literally, a weapon of war”.[6] Hence, according to researchers, it is not only sexual violence, but also sexualized violence, for which satisfying one’s desire is neither the key nor the sole goal.[7]

Treating rape as a tool of war does not mean, however, that this traumatic women’s experience finds its place among heroic narratives. Generally sexual violence reinforces the division into active aggressors symbolically annexing new territories through women, and passive victims colonized by the invaders. Moreover, as noticed by Yana Hashamova: “the predominant Western scholarship on war rapes explores the victimisation of women”.[8] Marzena Sokołowska-Paryż adds that the reflection of academics corresponds to attempts at remembering rape victims by artists. Examples of artwork analysed by her are representations that show “the woman’s suffering visually subjugated by male aggression. The victim [is] completely dominated by [a] towering soldier figure”.[9] This method of placing emphasis shows women as passive victims of violence and thus excludes them from heroic narratives usually dominated by active battle.

Perceiving rape as a weapon, however, allows us to focus on its double-edged character. Naturally, this does not signify analogous revenge that female protagonists could take on their oppressors, but it means rape as a tool for protecting your loved ones or yourself. In most cases, film representations do not present women as passive victims devoid of agency, but as active subjects who, in a critical moment, attempt to fight and defend themselves with the means available to civilians and women. Just a glance at the film representations of war rape in Polish cinema allows us to allege that most female protagonists—due to the lack of other means of conducting war—use rape as a way of doing battle. In the films How to be loved (1962, dir. Wojciech Jerzy Has), The Columbuses (1970, dir. Janusz Morgenstern), The Ring with a Crowned Eagle (1992, dir. Andrzej Wajda), Sekal has to die (1998, dir. Vladimír Michálek), Deserter’s Gold (1998, dir. Janusz Majewski), Joanna (2010, dir. Feliks Falk), Rose (2011, dir. Wojciech Smarzowski), Manhunt (2012, dir. Marcin Krzyształowicz), and Life Taken [Zerwany kłos] (2016, dir. Witold Ludwig), the female protagonists not only fight to save their own lives but act much more heroically—they attempt to save others by scarifying themselves. In this manner, they protect their daughter (Rose), a Jewish girl (Joanna), a loved one (How to be loved, The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, Deserter’s Gold, The Columbuses), a sister (Manhunt), their family (Sekal has to die), their father (Life Taken). The female protagonists decide that the rape to which they consent is a lesser tragedy than the death of a loved one.

Paradoxically, however, the raped women, by the very fact of using rape as a tool of battle or survival, do not fulfil the principle desired in the traditional historical narrative of the “ideal Other”, or a victim as a passive subject whose “role comes down to actually being a suffering victim. The system will take care of her and make sure she remains such a victim”.[10] The female protagonist who does not accept full victimisation—not only by the oppressor but also by the dominating national narrative—chooses her own salvation or that of her loved ones above chastity, and does not fulfil the role of the “good Other”. In traditional patriotic narratives, this type of sexualized agency disagrees with the status of the unblemished victim and requires further interventions to render it again a symbol of the suffering subject. The acceptance of rape as a form of salvation is problematic in the Polish context as it contradicts the postulate of chastity. Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska mentions this when writing about forced prostitution related to rape presented in A Year of the Quiet Sun (1984) by Krzysztof Zanussi. The researcher shows that, in common opinion, “women chose work in the puffs willingly, and were not victims”,[11] hence they were undeserving of compassion. Bożena Karwowska writes about this phenomenon in a similar way when describing female camp testimonies. The authors of recollections negatively mark all sexual behaviour and expect prisoners to behave in a way incompatible with the inhumane camp conditions in which, according to them, “women should remain modest and possess a sense of shame”.[12]

Using sexuality as a weapon brings to mind the figure of the biblical Judith, “the heroic liberator of the non-heroic oppressed”,[13] whose horrendous nature was the result of a scandal consisting in the merger of such contradictions as traditionally female attributes and the ability to commit murder. However, the raped protagonists do not murder their enemies like Judith but, similarly to her, use their sexuality as a weapon. Meanwhile, as Małgorzata Czermińska argues: “in the tradition stemming from Polish romantic thinking, the victim is morally and not cognitively privileged”.[14] Thus, does the female protagonist consenting to rape remain a morally privileged victim in this dominant model of thinking about history?

The impossibility of experiencing rape, surviving, and simultaneously remaining a dignified victim is presented ostentatiously in the 2016 film Life Taken, which is dedicated to the blessed Karolina Kózkówna and is clearly addressed to a Catholic audience. In 1914, a Red Army soldier murdered 16-year-old Karolina during a rape attempt. After her death, the girl was announced a martyr, she was venerated and later pronounced blessed. The fictional story compares the fate of Karolina with the story of her pregnant neighbour Teresa, who was excluded from the community precisely because of rape. She is simultaneously the victim of a Red Army soldier and of her co-residents who persecute her and consider her to be a slut, as proven by her pregnancy. The film, whiling aiming to show the magnanimity of Karolina leaning over the victim, accidentally reveals an irreconcilable dichotomy. The title protagonist was blessed because she kept her “virgin’s purity”, defending it desperately until death. Teresa is condemned because she survived the rape, which means that she was not sufficiently determined in her resistance. Hence, the film excludes the innocence of a rape victim, especially one who survived, thus sentencing her to ostracism.

This manner of thinking about sexual violence may be related to the difference between the contemporary understanding of shame and guilt. “Shame […] pertains to a trait or feature of the person, whereas guilt pertains to an act”,[15] hence only the latter is subject to punishment. “In other times and places, things were not so: religious minorities, heretics, and people with «deviant sexuality» were punished by public shaming without a conviction for any criminal act”.[16] Even though Teresa’s behaviour can hardly be considered a crime, she is punished by public shaming, from which the film distances itself only partially.

Even though not all images of film rape bear such a clear-cut nature, most of them in fact become a story about shame which does not correspond with the heroic narration. “The narrative of the dignified victim and the narrative of shame owing to the victim’s condition are contradictory, their co-existence is almost impossible since they cancel one another out”.[17] Shame characterized by Hanna Gosk refers to complicity, which in this case is reserved for the rape victim as such who experienced it and survived. The female protagonists who use rape as a survival strategy place life above the chastity of victims, thus rendering them accomplices. The elimination of shame as a feature and not an act may take place solely through death, which in turn means absence, thus excluding the possibility of redefining the traditional heroic narrative. Hence, paradoxically, instead of becoming a testimony to heroism, film depictions of rape are a sign of its impossibility both in film diegesis and in social awareness. On the one hand, they show the renouncement of ethical norms and, on the other, incompatibility with traditional historical narratives.


Oral history


Ewa Domańska, when analysing the status of a victim who escapes the role of the “ideal Other”, shows that the victim resists victimisation when she has a chance to speak for herself.[18] Owing to their actions as well as to their survivor status, the raped protagonists do not give in to total victimisation, which at least potentially allows them to tell their story.[19] Bożena Karwowska, when writing about the figures of the victim and the survivor, indicates that only the latter has a chance to speak. The author adds that “This is also related to the complex passivity of the victim manifesting itself, for example, in her inability to (rationalize and) verbalize the experience, and thus to the fact that the victim remains mute. Regaining a voice is a survivalist gesture and thus the victim never speaks; only the survivor can speak”.[20] By remaining alive, the protagonists have a chance to speak about their experience and build a type of diegetic oral history, which—as Paul Thompson puts it—“can be used to change the focus of history itself and open up new areas of inquiry. [Oral history] can give back to the people who made and experienced history, through their own words, a central place”.[21] Ordinary citizens are called on as witnesses, various positions are presented, and this is a way to tell stories outside of dominant historical discourse. “Witnesses can now also be called from the under-classes, the unprivileged, and the defeated. It provides a more realistic and fair reconstruction of the past, a challenge to the established account”.[22] This perspective makes it possible, inter alia, to hear women’s voices and stories concerning their specific experience.

Activity based on speaking about one’s experiences restores agency and dignity to the films’ protagonists, and sometimes helps transform traditional historical narratives. Felicja from How to be loved attempts to speak, but does not do so publicly. When answering a question about wartime asked by a random co-traveller to Paris, Felicja involuntarily turns to banality—an easy lie—as if used to the fact that her testimony is usually questioned, as has indeed been the case. First, her friend did not believe her, then the underground movement, then the post-war peer tribunal, and finally “those who considered her a whore”, as disclosed to her with full cruelty by Rawicz, whom she had saved. Meanwhile, the man encountered while travelling does not hesitate to speak directly about the defeats suffered. Teresa is also a film survivor—the raped protagonist of Life Taken. The piece begins and ends with her story, which the protagonist—the witness of Karolina’s holiness—tells (which is important) in a locked house. It would seem that this is a woman’s voice about a woman, presenting the common experiences of both protagonists. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her story is followed directly by a commentary—the words of a supra-narrator—explaining how a simple girl like Karolina Kózkówna became the Church’s blessed, revered by many followers. There is no more overwhelming contrast than this between the raped Teresa, who tells her story alone, enclosed within the four walls of her house, and Karolina, who “saved her virginity” and became blessed and praised by the official voice of the Church. Teresa not only does not speak of her own traumatic experience but—similarly to Felicja from How to be loved–—is subject to trial by the community, which questions her version of events relating to the rape.

A kind of a female film story is also the voice of the protagonist of The Gateway of Europe (1999), a film by Jerzy Wójcik that is based on the autobiographical recollections of Zofia Wańkiewiczówna.[23] The protagonist, Zosia, keeps a journal in which she records the events related to her service in a military hospital during WWI. The motive of rape was added to the film by the director, which helps to deprive the protagonists of the status of soldiers for the benefit of the image of victims.[24] What seems significant, however, is the choice of a protagonist who would experience rape. The division of between the silent victim (Ira) and the one who gives testimony by writing it down (Zosia) is maintained by the director. The raped one is depicted as a passive victim, and the activity that is writing does not correspond with her status. Zosia, who is appointed the heroine of this story, must remain pure.

The remaining protagonists remain silent. The mother from the series The House (1980–2000, dir. Jan Łomnicki), who lives with her adult son, the fruit of rape, does the same. Mietek Pocięgło knows about his origins but hides this information, along with his mother, from his uncle. Joanna (the title protagonist of the film by Feliks Falk) also remains silent, accused of intimate relations with a German, and condemned by the community to which she belonged. Her loved ones will never learn that the rape on the protagonist was the price for saving a Jewish child. The discretion, which was to protect the family from the consequences of hiding a Jewish girl, is replaced by shame, excluding the protagonist from both the family and the national community. It is important that it was not the rape itself, but the feeling of shame caused by the condemnation of the community with which Joanna identified that pushed the protagonist toward suicide.

The raped nuns from the Polish-French co-production titled The Innocents (Les Innocentes, 2016, dir. Anne Fontaine) also remain silent due to the trauma they experienced and the fear of social degradation. Maryśka, the only one to know about the rape of her sister, is forced into silence by the protagonists of God’s Lining (1997–1998). Anusia dies of diphtheria, but in her family’s memory she must remain untouched: good, profoundly religious, and pure. Immediately after the rape, Anusia forces her sister to remain silent precisely due to the expectations of the community, saying: “Say nothing to anyone or I will cut out your tongue”. Right after that she surprisingly abandons her role of victim by adding: “Don’t tremble like that. You won’t die from it”. Hence, what proves more important than the rape itself is the seemingly justified fear of its discovery by the family. When, following her sister’s death and against her will, Maryśka attempts to speak about the rape, she is told off by another sister, Józia: “You invented all of the dirty and disgusting story. Don’t breathe a word of this to our parents. She was pure and she died pure. Like a saint”.

The obligation to remain silent means that the experience of rape becomes neither a heroic narrative nor an alternative narrative in the face of traditional male depictions. Even when, in How to be loved or Life Taken, the protagonists speak for themselves, they do so in isolation, thus making it impossible to include these experiences in a shared narrative. Despite the support in Has’s film for the silent heroism of Felicja, this image also becomes a representation of secrecy and experience of shame, which in fact excludes a dignified victim. Even though the protagonists do not submit to passive victimisation—they battle and survive—they are finally punished for that three times: by the oppressor, by the film community, and by the inability to exist in the national heroic narrative. The silence seals their status as victims and thus repeats the gesture of the oppressor.


Children of war


A visible sign of the said silence is the lack of representation of the progeny originating from war rapes, survival prostitution, or even illegal relationships with the enemy. In its extensive comments on events related to the 20th century wars, Polish cinema very rarely tackled the subject of the consequences of forced sexual relations. This inability was visualized in the film The Innocents, in which the trace of rape in the form of pregnancy is erased by a prioress in subsequent acts of child murders, which represents in caricature the aforementioned principle that chastity is more important for society than human life. As argued by Yana Hashamova, maternity is not only the area in which the activity of raped women is revealed, but also a chance to overcome victim status by “taking control over their lives”,[25] hence the absence of this topic makes the objectification of victims easier.

Even though intimate relations between the invaders and the invaded were a part of everyday life during the war, according to Maren Roger: “predominantly German–French intimate war relations exist in Europe’s historical awareness”.[26] This topic has been particularly poorly elaborated by historians in reference to Poland, exacerbated by serious restrictions threatening both men and women in the case of breaching of the race-mixing ban. Polish women deciding on prostitution in order to survive risked more since, for such acts, “they could receive both serious punishment from the invaders and experience ostracism from compatriots”.[27] The effect is a lack of testimonies, historical research, and images dedicated to these types of relations and their consequences, i.e. war children.

Aside from the aforementioned series (The House), war children were presented in two films: the religious Life Taken and The Innocents, both of which are removed from the Polish context. In the first film, maternity is reduced to an almost surreal fantasy. Teresa, a raped single mother excluded from the community, watches a rosy, well-fed child playing in a plush illuminated room. The child born from rape was reduced to a pathetic poster promoting maternity without any regard for social context. The film avoids answering the question of social ostracism, the poverty of the protagonist, her loneliness (Teresa is an orphan), and the psychological consequences of the sexual violence she experienced. It confirms the isolation of the mother and child, showing the protagonist enclosed within the walls of the house. Even after Kozakówna’s intercession, Teresa (as she is impure) keeps at a certain distance from other mourners forming the funeral procession.

The Polish–French co-production The Innocents shows the progeny of rape whose identity, nevertheless, remains secret. The film is divided into the French perspective, i.e. represented by the main protagonist Mathilde Beaulieu, bravely fighting for the partial opening of the convent to the world to save the pregnant nuns and the children being born there. The protagonist risks her life and is close to rape, but is spared since this fact would not correspond with the heroic narrative reserved for her. The Polish perspective equals silent Polish nuns, who are ready to sacrifice their lives and the lives of their children in order to contain the shame within four walls. On the one hand, the film introduces themes absent in Polish cinema, such as war children; its title emphasizes the fundamental problem the victims struggle with, it supports life (not sexual purity) and, above all, it includes the children of nuns in the social tissue. The nuns are freed from the burden of shame with a trick: hiding the progeny of rape among war orphans taken in by the convent. In the final scene, the children, the nuns, and their families create an idyllic community, although once again it is at the price of silence. On the other hand, rape and its consequences in the form of maternity concern only Polish women, placing them on the side of silent victims. They are freed by an active French heroine from the Red Cross who, like the director, Anne Fontaine, breaks the silence. Thus, the film consolidates the stereotypical division of almost colonial character into the passive, submissive, silent, “raped” East, and the active, heroic West.

The lack of images of maternity resulting from rape stems from the tendency to eliminate the suffering of women from authentic history by taking away their specific future—the actual continuation of their lives—for the benefit of symbolic representations. This tendency corresponds with the phenomenon that Elżbieta Ostrowska wrote about when analysing the death of women on screen. The protagonists described by the author are removed, in film, “from the realm of historical experience into the realm of the mythic”.[28] The second reason for the reluctance to represent war children is the consolidation, through their presence, of abject relations. Julia Kristeva defines abject as something that “disturbs identity, system, and order that does not respect borders, positions, and rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite”.[29] In the war child, the line between what belongs to the national symbolic community and what threatens its identity becomes blurred. Moreover, “perverse interspace”[30] combines with the feminine, the woman’s body, fertilized by the enemy, which constitutes a threat to the symbolic order of the father.

The child remains a trace of abject contamination, and its status is emphasized by the conviction of inheriting the biological features of the enemy. Even though Mietek Pocięgło. the protagonist of The House series is an oppositionist dedicated to Poland, as a rape child from the era of the Warsaw Uprising he becomes an exceptionally talented Germanist as if he’d been genetically determined and inherited the linguistic competence of the unknown father in his DNA. The protagonist’s origins are in fact the reason for his inferiority complex; he considers himself a foundling even towards those whose fathers are communist dignitaries.

As Danish researchers note: “War rape aims to devalue the women and thus the wealth of the men. A precious object is turned into an abject”.[31] The authors point out that expelling the raped woman from the community becomes a necessity, for she threatens the order of the community she belonged to.[32] “He spoiled my woman” is what the protagonist of Rose says about his raped wife, on the one hand indicating the irreversible impurity attributed to the protagonist and, on the other, thinking of his raped wife as an object. The heroine becomes guilty twice: according to ethical principles (through the loss of sexual purity), and in relation to social norms (because she divided the community).

When defining “abject”, Kristeva refers to Lacan’s psychoanalysis and points out that it is precisely “on account of that Other, a space becomes demarcated, separating the abject from what will be a subject”.[33] As discussed above, the decision of the heroines to remain silent is an act of submitting to the requirements of Lacan’s Otherthe Law, the Name of the Father—and adopting an attitude that will remove the troublesome abject from the field of view. In the films discussed, the distracted observing gaze of the Big Other takes the form of constant control over the characters by “their own people”—by members of their community. Hiding in their homes, Joanna (Joanna) and Felicja (How to be loved) are continuously bothered not only by the Germans, but also by the gaze of their neighbours, family, representatives of underground organisations, and peer courts, which become an emanation of the power of the Other.

The recalled abject dimension was perversely emphasized in the film by Has, How to be loved. Felicja’s experience is juxtaposed with the heroic fate of the man encountered on her journey. During the war, as a pilot he flew high, as opposed to the “mundane” battle of Felicja who—as she claims—was not made to fly. Moreover, the contrast between sublimity and dirt is emphasized by the man’s profession: he is an epidemiologist, a specialist in the prevention of contagious diseases.




Erasing offspring is solely a consequence or side effect of removing abject protagonists and cleansing the historical narrative. The disappearance has either a symbolic (in the form of silence or isolation) or physical dimension (death), which is also subject to the principle of absence since, according to Elżbieta Ostrowska, cinema avoids representations of women’s deaths on screen.[34] Joanna (Joanna) dissolves in the Tatra mist, where she will surely freeze to death. Biedronka (Warsaw ’44) and Niteczka (The Columbuses) die out of frame. Rose disappears: first she is moved to the private sphere where Tadeusz takes care of her, and later she dies.

The abject is expelled beyond the symbolic and social order that is responsible for identity and order and becomes subject to the law of the symbolic Other.[35] Its principles are reproduced through depictions and methods of describing historical events in which the given community recognizes itself. Rape, as an abject, while seeking its position in the symbolic order, becomes part of this order under two paradoxical conditions. The first of these corresponds to Lacan’s order of metonymy, i.e. striving to evade the forbidden object (abject) and multiply its depictions as if in its stead. The metonymy principle, which remains outside of symbolic depiction, corresponds to absence, concealment, and lack. Another mode of expression is transforming the unwanted object into a metaphor. In historical narratives, which are strongly subjected to a patriarchal dictate, this figure is responsible for the disempowerment of women and of the deprivation of their agency. They are thus limited to metaphors: instruments that humiliate the national community, means of the symbolic castration of its male representatives or, at best, symbols of the tortured homeland. For all these reasons, women are reduced in the symbolical order to the role of passive, disempowered victims.

The order of metonymy multiplies representations according to the principle of adding or speaking “instead of”, because “the Other (…) continues to resist the speaking subject, throws a spanner in its works”.[36] Metonymical multiplication characterizes Life Taken as it depicts the fates of two women of which only the suffering of one deserves holiness, while the other is isolated and stigmatized with shame. As Felicja from How to be loved says, the protagonists who have suffered trauma “hide behind the decorations” so their place can be taken by those who possess features more appropriate for the collective narrative. Rose saves her daughter from rape; she will marry Tadeusz at the altar and give herself into his care. Zosia from The Gateway of Europe remains pure, solely becoming a witness to Ira’s suffering. In Manhunt, the sexually abused Pestka, betrayer of the insurgents, saves her younger sister, a 16-year-old imprisoned by the Gestapo for distributing leaflets. According to Nancy Isenberg, “the creation of true womanhood is always contrasted to the countervailing notion of female vice: submission is contrasted to superiority, piety to heresy and irreligion, purity to pollution, and domesticity to disorderly public behaviour”.[37] Thus, the traumatized female body is replaced with one that guarantees the retention of national order and community.

The metonymical replacement also allows us to replace the image of the raped with the image of a suffering man or his heroic act. In Rose, the death of the protagonist and the rapes she experiences become the reason for Tadeusz’s suffering and stimulus to show his indomitable attitude. In Life Taken, despite the martyr’s death of Kózkówna and the rape of Teresa, it is the suffering of the blessed’s father that takes the central place in the film and is exposed in its final sequences. In The Columbuses, Niteczka sacrifices herself for the boy called Kolumb and, in order to keep him alive, pursues the rapist. After a montage cut, Kolumb, woken from delirium, crawls up the stairs to escape the basement in which Niteczka had hidden him. Instead of her suffering we have a scene reminiscent of the path to Golgotha, at the end of which the protagonist finds the girl’s dead body. The rape scene (or rather its suggestion) in Warsaw ’44 has a similar structure. Following the scene in which a repugnant pervert, a member of the Dirlewanger brigade, inspects Biedronka from head to toe, there is a cut to the part dedicated to Stefan’s escape across the destroyed city and his dramatic reaction to the girl’s death. The story ends with the vision of the boy (who likely survived) recalling the image of the already dead protagonist. We can also find similar metonymical theft in The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, in which the rape of Wiśka leads to the death of one of her defenders. Instead of the protagonist’s story, we are presented the story of the impact of her sacrifice and indomitability on her beloved, while she herself appears as Marcin’s vision and a prick of conscience. In Sekal has to die, despite the film’s criticism of the degeneration of the patriarchal system, it is the suffering of Sekal, who is in love with Agnieszka, that is exposed—not the suffering of the girl who is raped upon his orders behind closed doors.




The figure of the metaphor, consisting in intensification and juxtaposition of sense, includes the female protagonists in the symbolic order, i.e. the traditional historical narrative. They are reduced to a symbol; they disappear in the allegory taken from religious repertoire. According to Hans Mayer, “Theological allegoresis and allegorical meaning relegate history. (…) Allegorisation means the annihilation of the individual”.[38] Protagonists subjected to metaphysical transgression and religious purification are transformed into religious allegory (The Gateway of Europe, Joanna), or the desexualized figure of a mother (The Ring with a Crowned Eagle). In Joanna, the protagonist actively fights for survival, but her sublimity is ensured by the final scene (stylized as the Assumption)[39] in which the protagonist becomes a victim—silent, hounded, disappearing into the whiteness of the clouds. Ira from The Gateway of Europe is returned to her friends on a horse after the rape, clothed in a red robe. On the one hand, the red of the coat reminds us of a courtesan’s clothes, on the other, of the scarlet coat of Christ insulted by Jews.[40] In both films, the protagonists are reduced to victims and disarmed, but in the religious context their images hide a certain contradiction: apart from her sublimity, Joanna is also a suicide, and Ira’s naked breast becomes the source of her shame and degradation.

The same religious context is also offered to raped protagonists by purification through desexualisation and transformation in the allegory of maternity. This principle works, among others, in The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, Life Taken, or The Columbuses, as often noted by researchers analysing the presence of women in historical narratives.[41] The escape from sexuality, however, makes it impossible to deliberate upon sexual violence and pushes it into the sphere of silence.

At the same time, however, the films discussed here present a feminine version of heroism that, in spite of the aforementioned operations, does not merely realize the victim model. At the centre of the cited stories are women who are heroic, active, and who resist the enemy, marking their presence in the historical narrative. This aspect is often overlooked due to the aforementioned strategies that downgrade female protagonists as part of the community story. Analysing the masochism of female protagonists (and potential female viewers) that dominates in film melodramas, Linda Williams pointed out that it is possible to interpret films in this genre oppositely to the victim pattern inscribed in them. According to the researcher, the pathos contained in the films does not merely lead to identification with the victim and her masochism, but is also an encouragement to “a complex negotiation between emotion and thought”.[42] War narratives with women in lead roles also welcome critical reception rather than simply identifying oneself with the position of a victim. The resistance that the female protagonists of traditional historical stories put up in spite of everything may end up forming an introduction to their taking a place in the heroic narrative, provided that the symbolic field of these stories is reformulated.


Without shame


In one of the scenes from How to be loved, the German officer shows the café employees a wanted notice which threatens anybody hiding a fugitive with the death penalty. Special words addressed to Felicja are “I would like to emphasize that, according to what is written here, you are also a person”. This short exchange underscores the relationship between subjectivity and agency. As much as the protagonist maintains her subjectivity, the context in which she has to act brings her—as she says—respect in her eyes only.

The analysed films rarely present a semblance of community which would also enable privileges from the creators of collective memory. In The Gateway of Europe, it is the group of sympathetic nuns who wash their raped friend together. We can perceive this simply as a symbolic ritual, or as an emphatic community that is unhindered by shame. In The Innocents, the women create a support group with various opinions and life goals, which—as the film suggests—allows them to abandon their traumatic experience and find acceptance in the group. Also, Felicja appeals to the community, reaching a wide audience each week through her radio program. She works on social awareness, correcting on her own the radio drama scripts by referring to her personal experiences. Instead of condemning an illegitimate child (as in the script), she points to the common nature of such events. Another voice addressed to the public is the memoirs of Ola Watowa concerning her exile to Kazakhstan during WWII, which were adapted by Robert Gliński in All That Really Matters… (1992).

Surpassing the story of shame is the condition for heroic narrative and hence the need for the creation of an alternative collective memory based on an accepting community which would award heroines instead of seeking religious redemption for them. Thus, the victim status would not degrade female protagonists and would not mark them with shame. In the Polish symbolic field, a raped woman is subject to very strong victimisation; hence, it is impossible to avoid analytical thought focused on this particular aspect. At the same time, it is worth paying attention to the elements that give empowerment and agency back to the victims: using rape as self-defence or with the intention of saving a loved one, active participation in the battle, talking about the rape on their own terms, bearing offspring, creating an accepting and empathic community, or even the status of the abject, which undermines the dominant symbolic narrative. All these aspects fail to meet the criteria that traditional historical stories require of women, hence the problem with their expression in the aforementioned depictions. In spite of victimising and disempowering film strategies, the presence of the abovementioned motifs—even if only partial—may show the direction for future depictions. Leaving the sphere of privacy, referring to the authenticity of experience, or accepting agency free from punishment: all are a path toward appreciating the specifically female experience. The process of co-creating the story of the past, in which sexual violence would not degrade its victims, is a long one because it assumes the evolution of all actors involved in the undertaking, which is involved in building a collective memory.




Czermińska Małgorzata, “O dwuznaczności sytuacji ofiary” / “On the ambiguity of the victim’s situation”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością. Polski dyskurs postzależnościowy – konteksty i perspektywy badawcze / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011).

Diken Bülent, Laustsen Carsten Bagge, “Becoming Abject: Rape as a Weapon of War”, Body & Society 1, vol 11 (2005).

Domańska Ewa, “O poznawczym uprzywilejowaniu ofiary (uwagi metodologiczne)” / “On cognitive privileges of the victim (methodological remarks)”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, ed. Hanna Gosk, (Warszawa: Dom Wydawniczy Elipsa) (2008).

Dybel Paweł, Urwane Ścieżki. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan / Broken Paths. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan, (Kraków: Universitas) (2000).

Gosk Hanna, “(Nie)obecność opowieści o wstydzie w narracji losu polskiego” / “The absence of the story of shame in the narrative of Polish fate”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… /  Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011).

Hashamova Yana, “War Rape: (Re)defining Motherhood, Fatherhood and Nationhood”, in: Embracing Arms: Cultural Representation of Slavic and Balkan Women in War, ed. Helena Goscilo, (New York: Central European University Press) (2012).

Isenberg Nancy, “Second Thoughts on Gender and Women’s History”, American Studies 1, vol. 36 (1995).

Jarska Natalia, “Women and Men at War. A Gender Perspective on World War II and its Aftermath in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Maren Röger, Ruth Leiserowitzn (review)”, Pamięć i Sprawiedliwość. Pismo naukowe poświęcone historii najnowszej 2 (2014).

Karwowska Bożena, “«Kult ofiary» w oczach polskich pisarek emigrantek a «kult ocaleńca» w refleksji krytycznej na temat dyskursów wyzwoleńczych” / “«The cult of the victim» seen by Polish migrant female writers and «the cult of the survivor» in critical reflection on liberation discourses” in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… /   Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011).

Karwowska Bożena, “Zatarte sensy prozy łagrowej: Seweryny Szmaglewskiej «Dymy nad Birkenau» wtedy i dziś” / “The blurred senses of labour camp prose: Seweryna Szmaglewska «Smoke over Birkenau» then and now”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, ed. Hanna Gosk, (Warszawa: Dom Wydawniczy Elipsa) (2008).

Kristeva Julia, Powers of horror. An essay of abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, (New York: Columbia University Press) (1982)

Laplanche Jean, Pontalis J.-B., Słownik psychoanalizy / Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, trans. Ewa Modzelewska, Ewa Wojciechowska, (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Szkolne i Pedagogiczne) (1996).

Mazierska Ewa, Ostrowska Elżbieta, Women in Polish Cinema, (New York: Berghahn Books) (2006).

Mayer Hans, Odmieńcy / Outsiders, trans. Anna Kryczyńska,  (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Literackie Muza) (2005).

Morstin Agnieszka, “Mocne filmy i głębokie kompleksy. Róża Wojtka Smarzowskiego wobec Jak być kochaną Wojciecha J. Hasa” / „Strong Films and Deep Complexes. Rose by Wojtek Smarzowski compared with How to be loved by Wojciech J. Has”, Kwartalnik Filmowy 77-78 (2012).

Morstin-Popławska Agnieszka, “Ziemie odzyskana – życia utracone. O Roku spokojnego słońca Krzysztofa Zanussiego” / “Reclaimed land – lost life. On  A Year of the Quiet Sun by Krzysztof Zanussi”, in: Kino polskie wobec II wojny światowej / Polish cinema and WWII, ed. Piotr Zwierzchowski, Daria Mazur, Mariusz Guzek, (Bydgoszcz: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Kazimierza Wielkiego) (2011).

Nussbaum Martha C., Hiding from Humanity. Disgust, Shame, and the Law, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2004).

Ostrowska Elżbieta, “Invisible Deaths: Polish Cinema’s Representation of Women in World War II”, in: Embracing Arms: Cultural Representation of Slavic and Balkan Women in War, ed. Helena Goscilo, (New York: Central European University Press) (2012).

Ostrowska-Chmura Elżbieta, “Polka – dumny przedmiot pożądania” / “Pole – a proud object of desire”, in: Ciało i seksualność w kinie polskim / Sexuality and the Body in Polish Cinema, ed. Sebastian Jagielski, Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2009).

Röger Maren, “(Nie)codzienność podczas niemieckiej okupacji w zachodniej i wschodniej Europie: prostytucja, stosunki intymne i «dzieci wojny» we Francji, Belgii i w Polsce” / „(Not)everyday life during German occupation in Western and Eastern Europe: prostitution, intimate relations and “war children” in France, Belgium and Poland”, trans. Katarzyna Chimiak, in: Okupowana Europa. Podobieństwa i różnice / Occupied Europe. Similarities and differences, ed. Waldemar Grabowski, (Warszawa: IPN) (2014).

Sokołowska-Paryż Marzena, “War Rape: Trauma and the Ethics of Representation”, in: Traumatic Memories of the Second World War and After, ed. Peter Leese, Jason Crouthamel, (New York: Springer International Publishing) (2016).

Thompson Paul, The Voice of the Past. Oral History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (1988).

Zwierzchowski Piotr, Spektakl i ideologia. Szkice o filmowych wyobrażeniach śmierci heroicznej / Spectacle and ideology. Sketches on film conceptions of heroic death, (Kraków: Rabid) (2006).

Williams Linda, “Melodrama Revisited”, in: Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, ed. N. Browne, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (1998).


[1] Piotr Zwierzchowski, Spektakl i ideologia. Szkice o filmowych wyobrażeniach śmierci heroicznej / Spectacle and ideology. Sketches on film conceptions of heroic death, (Kraków: Rabid) (2006), p. 184.

[2] Natalia Jarska, “Women and Men at War. A Gender Perspective on World War II and its Aftermath in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Maren Röger, Ruth Leiserowitzn (review)”, Pamięć i Sprawiedliwość. Pismo naukowe poświęcone historii najnowszej 2  (2014), p. 505.

[3] Ibid., p. 510

[4] Bożena Karwowska,  “Zatarte sensy prozy łagrowej: Seweryny Szmaglewskiej «Dymy nad Birkenau» wtedy i dziś” / “The blurred senses of labour camp prose: Seweryna Szmaglewska «Smoke over Birkenau» then and now”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, ed. Hanna Gosk, (Warszawa: Dom Wydawniczy Elipsa) (2008), p. 253.

[5] We rarely encounter war images that present the rape of men (Kornblumenblau, 1988, dir. Leszek Wosiewicz). In Polish cinema, we can indicate homosexual or heterosexual survival prostitution (Kornblumenblau, 1988, dir. Leszek Wosiewicz) (Down Carrier, 1983, dir. Stefan Szlachtycz and Warsaw: Year5703, 1992, dir. Janusz Kijowski) that is related to this experience.

[6] Bülent Diken, Carsten Bagge Laustsen, “Becoming Abject: Rape as a Weapon of War”, Body & Society 1, vol 11 (2005), p. 112.

[7] Natalia Jarska, op. cit., p. 506.

[8] Yana Hashamova, “War Rape: (Re)defining Motherhood, Fatherhood and Nationhood”, in: Embracing Arms: Cultural Representation of Slavic and Balkan Women in War, ed. Helena Goscilo, (New York: Central European University Press) (2012), p. 235.

[9] Marzena Sokołowska-Paryż, “War Rape: Trauma and the Ethics of Representation”, in: Traumatic Memories of the Second World War and After, ed. Peter Leese, Jason Crouthamel, (New York: Springer International Publishing) (2016), p. 223.

[10] Ewa Domańska, “O poznawczym uprzywilejowaniu ofiary (uwagi metodologiczne)” / “On cognitive privileges of the victim (methodological remarks)”, in: (Nie)obecność: pominięcia i przemilczenia w narracjach XX wieku / Absence: omissions and concealments in 20th-century narratives, op. cit., p. 32.

[11] Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska, “Ziemie odzyskana – życia utracone. O Roku spokojnego słońca Krzysztofa Zanussiego” / “Reclaimed land – lost life. On A Year of the Quiet Sun by Krzysztof Zanussi”, in: Kino polskie wobec II wojny światowej / Polish cinema and WWII, ed. Piotr Zwierzchowski, Daria Mazur, Mariusz Guzek, (Bydgoszcz: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Kazimierza Wielkiego) (2011), p. 223.

[12] Bożena Karwowska, “Zatarte sensy prozy łagrowej…” / “The blurred senses of labour camp prose…”, op. cit., p. 263.

[13] Hans Mayer, Outsiders, trans. Anna Kryczyńska,  (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Literackie Muza) (2005), p. 75.

[14] Małgorzata Czermińska, “O dwuznaczności sytuacji ofiary” / “On the ambiguity of the victim’s situation”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością. Polski dyskurs postzależnościowy – konteksty i perspektywy badawcze / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past. Polish post-dependence discourse – research contexts and perspectives, ed. Ryszard Nycz, (Kraków: Universitas) (2011), p. 94.

[15] Martha C. Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity. Disgust, Shame, and the Law, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2004), p. 229.

[16] Ibid., p. 176-177.

[17] Hanna Gosk, “(Nie)obecność opowieści o wstydzie w narracji losu polskiego” / “The absence of the story of shame in the narrative of Polish fate”, in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past…, op. cit., p. 90.

[18] Ewa Domańska, op. cit., p. 24.

[19] Agnieszka Morstin compares Rose by Wojciech Smarzowski with How to be loved by Wojciech J. Has; she emphasizes the role of the subjective narrative used in the latter film as a strategy for abandoning the victim status. See: Agnieszka Morstin, “Mocne filmy i głębokie kompleksy…” / “Strong Films and Deep Complexes. Rose by Wojtek Smarzowski compared with How to be loved by Wojciech J. Has”, Kwartalnik Filmowy 77-78 (2012), p. 206.

[20] Bożena Karwowska, “«Kult ofiary» w oczach polskich pisarek emigrantek a «kult ocaleńca» w refleksji krytycznej na temat dyskursów wyzwoleńczych” / “«The cult of the victim» seen by Polish migrant female writers and «the cult of the survivor» in critical reflection on liberation discourses” in: Kultura po przejściach, osoby z przeszłością… / Culture that has undergone hardship, people with a past…, op. cit. p. 327.

[21] Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past. Oral History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (1988), p. 26.

[22] Ibid., p. 28.

[23] The recollections of Zofia Wańkowiczówna were used by her grandson, Melchior Wańkowicz, to create the short story titled Hospital in Cichinicze. Based on this story, Jerzy Wójcik made the film The Gateway of Europe.

[24] Elżbieta Ostrowska writes in detail about the adaptive changes and femininity under the rule of nationalist ideology (Elżbieta Ostrowska-Chmura, “Polka – dumny przedmiot pożądania” / “Pole – a proud object of desire”, in: Ciało i seksualność w kinie polskim / Sexuality and the Body in Polish Cinema, ed. Sebastian Jagielski, Agnieszka Morstin-Popławska, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2009), p. 139-153).

[25] Yana Hashamova, op. cit., p. 235.

[26] Maren Roger, “(Nie)codzienność podczas niemieckiej okupacji w zachodniej i wschodniej Europie: prostytucja, stosunki intymne i «dzieci wojny» we Francji, Belgii i w Polsce” / „(Not)everyday life during German occupation in Western and Eastern Europe: prostitution, intimate relations and “war children” in France, Belgium and Poland”, trans. Katarzyna Chimiak, in: Okupowana Europa. Podobieństwa i różnice / Occupied Europe. Similarities and differences, ed. Waldemar Grabowski, (Warszawa: IPN) (2014), p. 77.

[27] Ibid., p. 87.

[28] Elżbieta Ostrowska, “Invisible Deaths: Polish Cinema’s Representation of Women in World War II”, in: Embracing Arms…, op cit., p. 56.

[29] Julia Kristeva, Powers of horror. An essay of abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, (New York: Columbia University Press) (1982), p. 4.

[30] Ibid., p. 16.

[31] Bülent Diken, Carsten Bagge Laustsen, op. cit., p. 117.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Julia Kristeva, op. cit., p. 10.

[34] See Elżbieta Ostrowska, “Invisible Deaths…”, op. cit., p. 30.

[35] Jean Laplanche, J.-B. Pontalis, Słownik psychoanalizy / Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, trans. Ewa Modzelewska, Ewa Wojciechowska, (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Szkolne i Pedagogiczne) (1996), p. 317.

[36]  Paweł Dybel, Urwane Ścieżki. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan / Broken Paths. Przybyszewski-Freud-Lacan, (Kraków: Universitas) (2000), p. 268.

[37] Nancy Isenberg, “Second Thoughts on Gender and Women’s History”, American Studies 1, vol. 36 (1995), p. 99.

[38] Hans Mayer, op. cit., p. 74 and 77.

[39] The vertical direction can be found also in such films as: The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, The Columbuses, Life Taken.

[40] Elżbieta Ostrowska describes this scene as “a feminine allegory of Poland”. See: Elżbieta Ostrowska-Chmura, „Polka – dumny przedmiot…” / „Pole – a proud object…”, op. cit., p. 148.

[41] See Ewa Mazierska, Elżbieta Ostrowska, Women in Polish Cinema, (New York: Berghahn Books) (2006), p. 15-54.

[42] Linda Williams, “Melodrama Revisited”, in: Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, ed. N. Browne, (Berkeley: University of California Press) (1998), p. 49.

Eat like a Republican and you won’t get AIDS – a conversation with Barbara Hammer

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2017, vol.2, no. 1, pp. 150-160.


Andrzej Pitrus

Jagiellonian University



Eat like a Republican and you won’t get AIDS

– a conversation with Barbara Hammer



Andrzej Pitrus: In 2009 I had the honor to speak to Jonas Mekas. Many people consider him the father of American avant-garde. Do you agree?

Barbara Hammer: I don’t agree. Should I tell you why?

Yes, sure.

I think Jonas Mekas did a lot to contribute to avant-garde film in the United States and internationally, but in terms of American avant-garde, I think we have to look to Maya Deren, and even before – to James Sibley Watson, his Fall of the House of Usher in 1928. His Lot in Sodom was shown,—I was shocked to read this—in Times Square in 1933 without any censorship at all.

Before Mekas there were many American experimental filmmakers, but he was a person  promoted their works. Of course I asked Jonas: “Do you feel more Lithuanian or American?” He answered “No, I’m not American, I’m from New York. When I go outside the city, I’m a foreigner again.”

I also asked him for his definition of experimental film and he said: “There’s no such thing! Scientists make experiments, I don’t really believe that there’s something like experimental film”. It was a difficult conversation in a way. I wonder if you agree with him?

I definitely think there’s something like experimental film. In Sanctus (1990), which is composed of moving x-rays of a human body that Dr. James Sibley Watson showed in the 50s, my experiment was to try to put a halo around the body, the skeletons, and to use secondary colors, like orange, lavender, turquoise, not red, blue and yellow. I wanted a subtle celebration of the bones and organs with these muted colors. If you look inside the interior of the body, which is mostly water, and see organs floating around, it seems very quiet and meditative. I wanted to celebrate the body, not the way we usually see it. That was an experiment, I had to do many trials, and fail, and try again, to get everything the way I wanted it… So I think there is experimental film, yes.

I was quite ‘disappointed’ with his answer, because what I do for living is teach experimental film. Should I quit my job?

Mekas replaced this idea with a notion of ‘cinema of the authors’. He said, “I’m an author, I’m a person, who, in a way, uses a camera like a pen”.

He is speaking for his own kind of cinema. He doesn’t see his work as experimental. After all, I don’t know what the word is in English… ” a writer of images”.

How do you see yourself in the tradition of the American avant-garde? In your early career you made a film on Stan Brakhage. Unfortunately I haven’t seen it. Then, you made another film about his wife, so I wonder if Brakhage is important for you and in which way?

Thank you for that question. I was very drawn to international film. When I was just 30 years old, I saw Bergman’s movie with subtitles and I thought, “Oh, here’s intellectual cinema”. Then, I went to Cinematheque in San Francisco and I saw Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man (1961-1964), in which he walks up a mountain to cut down a tree. It’s more than 60 minutes long, I think, and it changed my world view. When I left the cinema theatre, I saw the street around me, the lights, the trees growing, the pavement differently. That was fascinating to me. I also was taking a class where we saw everything Brakhage made up until then. An early film dedicated to Brakhage is The Song of a Clinking Cup (1972). It’s not ever been transferred from 8mm, so there’s no way you could probably see it. I’ve never shown it.

Yes, it is very hard to find.

Jane Brakhage was my thesis film, and it only exists in 16mm. We are writing some grants to get money for digitizers so it can be made available. Another film that hasn’t been released is an interview I did with her parents asking about her relationship with Stan, as well as herself of course, and this exists as a video transferred to DVD, but it hasn’t been edited, so I want to go back and work on it. I think I will call it Jane Brakhage, too or Jane Brankhage Two.

Speaking about Brakhage… Maya Deren, who’s certainly important for you, once said that his film about his baby being born was too much. I wonder if you agree with it?

This is amazing, because Window Water Baby Moving (1959) is exactly why I made Jane Brakhage, but I never knew Maya Deren had any commentary about it. Where did she say that?

I am not sure, but I have found these words of Brakhage himself: ‘It was Maya Deren’s contention that the film was a blasphemy… because it permitted men to see what they’re not supposed to see’. 

In Window Water Baby Moving he shows childbirth in a very explicit way.  And it was made in the late 50s when it wasn’t that common not only to share images of childbirth on film, but also for a father to participate in it.

We can thank him for that film and for another, when he went to the morgue to capture The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971). I really objected to that birth film, especially after I met Jane Brakhage, because he shows her as an earth goddess: you see her in a bathtub with her pregnant belly and she’s celebrated as if she was on a pedestal, as if she was extraordinary in terms of mythology. So I decided I wanted to meet her. We invited Stan and Jane to the San Francisco State University, where I was a graduate student. She was so not a goddess; she was a very practical person. She collected seeds from trees in San Francisco when we were walking to the school, and she was going to plant them and see if they would grow. I made my thesis film on her and I went to Colorado, high up in the mountains in Rollinsville, and I found the most amazing woman. She wrote an alphabet of dog language. She could play on her recorder songs to the birds and they would answer her. She put out the laundry and then opened her hand without any food in it and birds landed on it. She took a walk through the snow—I was there in January—and her donkey and goats, besides her dogs, followed us on the walk. She was an extraordinary woman, who was abused in a way by Stan Brakhage.  He talked all day, she had to sit there and listen to him.

And also she had to be in his films!

And she didn’t get credit! Who shot him when he was cutting down the tree? It was Jane Brakhage, she told me.

There was a problem with his second wife, who didn’t want to be filmed. So he started making non-camera films, painting and scratching, and once he said that this was because his second wife didn’t really want to be shown, especially giving birth or having sex with him…

Well, I think he was being clever, because he did make Mothlight (1964) a year before which is a cameraless film though not hand painted or scratched; it’s a wonderful film. He takes moths and takes their wings and puts them on celluloid—16mm film—and then has it re-photographed in a lab, so you are seeing moths ‘flying’, bringing reality into projection in a way nobody had done before.

We’ve just watched Dyketactics (1974). It was made when the approach to explicit sex on the screen changed. On one hand, there’s your experimental film, and on the other there’s Deep Throat (1972), a mainstream porn flick and a feature film at the same time. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the sex in Dyketactics is said to be staged, so there’s no pleasure involved. How it is to stage a sex scene?

I think it’s wonderful to perform… In my opinion, when you’re shooting sex, it’s always staged, it’s always a performance. In terms of shooting sex without performance I guess you could put a camera on the wall and let it run for a week, and maybe you would forget it. But I think there’s pleasure in performance and there can be pleasure in a stage set, but you’re very aware of the camera being there, and besides, with the Bolex you only get 19 feet, so it’s going to stop. You can giggle and then wind it again. Anyway, I’m in the film and I’m directing it, so I know it was staged, I know it was pleasurable. I had the idea that the best shot in the film is the most intimate. The Bolex can run by itself, so you wind it and you put it between the two bodies and you just take your hand away. It shoots the scene of the two women pulling their hands up along the body. You have three-dimensionality, depth, sensuality, hand touching. If I may interject, my cinema is about connecting touch and sight. It was perfect to make the screen a sexual haptic experience, so I hope the audience feel in their bodies what they see with their eyes. My research shows that we all touch as infants before we see. For two months your eyes don’t focus. That’s why I have 110 images in these four minutes, and every image has a sense of touch in it.

Dyketactics was certainly a breakthrough and probably the first arthouse film in which an explicit lesbian sex scene is shown. But obviously, before that there were many pornographic films with both heterosexual and homosexual scenes. This was a very important and interesting moment, because in the 70s porn films went mainstream, and at the same time, there were also people who wanted to use pornography in a different way. Do you believe it is possible to use pornography in a decent, proper way and make some kind of value out of it?

When you say “a proper way”, do you mean for pleasure, for sexual arousal?

Actually no… Mainstream pornography is an exploitation of mostly female bodies and female sexuality made for men’s pleasure. But there were feminists who wanted to redefine pornography. I’m asking this question, because your film is certainly not pornography in a proper sense, but it is as explicit as some well-known, soft-core pornography films. The borderline is really obscure.

This is a fun question. We could probably talk about it for hours. I have no objection to people being stimulated in whatever way they want: visually, texturally, with their imagination or with the real thing, but I think I was very concerned that my work would not be possible to voyeur. So when you come to some other films, like Nitrate Kisses (1992), when you have four different couples making love throughout the feature documentary, I make sure that I interrupt the film. There’s the rupture, not only to show the loss of gay history, which was my intention, but also to say that this film was not made for sexual pleasure and stimulation, although it’s ok with me if you are stimulated. The whole film is about censorship of queer history, but when I looked at my own community I had to ask: what are we censoring? We’re censoring the sexual practices of old women—we never see them on the screen—or black and white couples, or young women who shave their heads and tattoo their bodies. We’re censoring sadomasochistic sex practices—this was at the time of the sex wars in the feminist community. I wanted to say: “hey, we’re not holier than you,  we have our own censorship”.

I really enjoyed your Menses (1974), because it’s so affirmative. In many films or feminist performances the problem of menstruation was shown as a kind of a curse. I don’t really know much about it, I wish I could…

I encourage students and filmmakers to make work that is gender specific.  For example, many times when I’m teaching I have young Caucasian men in my class… I haven’t seen a film of a wet dream yet! There are different expressions that our gendered bodies have, so I’m happy to tell you about menstruation.

The girls who are buying massive amounts of tampax and stuff… It is funny and affirmative. This is a kind of radical happening, but like nothing else on the subject.

I made that film because I had seen Walt Disney films. When we were children, the girls were separated from the boys to see films about menstruation. It was all about flowers, it wasn’t at all about the experience of dripping blood between your legs. There are some serious points in Menses. For instance, I researched menstruation in history. I had a slumber party and I shared my research with the young women who are in the film, and one of my sources was from the Roman author Pliny, who said that if a woman is menstruating and she touches a pregnant horse, its milk will go sour. Historically, women have been banned in different cultures during menstruation: you have to go to a house outside the village. That the impetus plus my own personal history with my mother telling me about menstruation—which she didn’t—that made me make that film.

Another film made in the 70s, Superdyke (1975), is also funny. It shows girls attacking institutions and taking over. But I wonder if experimental or avant-garde cinema is the best ‘weapon’ for an activist? Once a German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder said that he had realized the audience he wanted to address really enjoyed melodramas and Hollywood film rather than his revolutionary works. So, in a way, his avant-garde and experimental cinema made very little sense. People he wanted to reach preferred mainstream culture. You make experimental films, and you are probably seen as an activist…

I’m functioning as a visual artist.  I can make what I want if I’m self-funding my films. I think I made my films out of my own pocket for 15 years at least. So I have to be giving myself pleasure, I have to be doing what I want for the reasons that I have, and they don’t necessarily have anything to do with activism. My audience is the same as Fassbinder’s: they want a narrative, they want a lesbian happy ending. In the 70s or the 80s, the queer audience wasn’t used to experimental film any more than the straight audience. I can’t say that my films were always well attended. Sometimes they were, when my name became known or if there were a celebration and we could dance afterwards. The times were different then. The thing is, Fassbinder isn’t alive today, and I am. So I’m wondering about his change of direction. You see what I mean? If we don’t do what really pleases us, maybe we get depressed and choose an ending.

What killed him was drugs and alcohol…

But we can ask – why the drugs and alcohol?

In Women I Love (1976) you used slightly different imagery. In the early films you were explicit, and I think at that time it could be quite shocking to some people. Then, in Women I Love you opt for Georgia O’Keefe-style imagery, more metaphorical and poetical: fruits and vegetables evoking sexual organs.

You could say that the film Women I Love was in 1976, just two years after Dyketactics, and then in ‘93 I’m showing explicit sexuality again. In History Lessons in 2000 I’m showing pornography of lesbians made by men. I don’t think there’s some adverse reaction that I was having toward sexual expression. I was interested in animation, and also these were six or seven of my lovers that I had no intention of making a film about. When I started, I was just shooting our relationship without intention to put it in a film for others.  Then it seemed to me on one rainy day, when there was nothing to do but make a film, that each woman could represent a different fruit or vegetable. I only had that material that I had shot to work with, and that became Women I Love.

You mentioned lesbian pornography made by men. I wonder why it is so popular among men to watch lesbian pornography.

Well, I have to ask you that! But let me talk about History Lesson, if I may. I made three feature documentaries about ideas rather than a person or persons. These are essay films. They’re all about queer history. After Nitrate Kisses (1992), I made a post-postmodern autobiography called Tender Fictions (1995), and that was followed by History Lessons (2000). If you look for lesbian cinema when I started making film there wasn’t any and I felt that we needed to have a foundation to build our culture.  My plan was that I would take what was already there: medical films made about lesbians, educational films—‘oh, don’t let your daughter get to close to her schoolmate’—and pornography made by men. Going back to the 1920s, I found pornographic film and made a comedy out of those. My idea is that these manmade negative or fantastical ideas of what lesbian sex was like could be our history—and that became very queer as I took something that already existed, turned it around, made it malleable and flexible, and reclaimed it. That’s making queer cinema space, and I didn’t have that language for it when I made it, but I knew I wanted to make a foundation of what was there and I could do it through being humorous.

Heterosexual men would never go and watch homosexual pornography with males, but on the other hand many of them would enjoy lesbian scenes in pornography. Why?

Because if they watched male homosexual sexuality, that might implicate them, but a woman—soft, gentle and a lesbian? Maybe they could convince her to have sex with them. It isn’t threatening, it doesn’t threaten their masculine construction. You and I were brought up by our parents, school and educational system. You and I could have exactly the same feelings if we were brought up in a non-sexist environment. I think it’s possible and I think young people today are experiencing that. It’s not about me changing the world, it’s about the world changing.

Today your visit is really important. You probably know that in 2015 Poles elected a new government. Quite a disaster, I think. Our new minister of higher education once said that we had ‘to do something’ with all those gender studies, because they are not a real academic subject. I am quite concerned since I am an academic and I do deal with gender studies a lot.

Just a few days ago, there was a huge conflict over abortion. You probably know that the Polish law is quite restrictive at the moment, but there was a fight in the Polish Parliament over the right to abortion. The party called Prawo i Sprawiedliwość that has a majority there wanted to ban it completely. Even if the child is an effect of a rape or is dead, not able to live, or has severe medical issues, you cannot abort. You said once that we still have to fight for feminist issues; if we win, then feminism is not necessary. How do you see Poland in this context?

On one hand it is shocking what the government is prescribing in the legislature, and on the other hand it is amazing to the world to see the activism of the public, 24,000 on the streets, men and women. Men can be feminists too. I know more demonstrations were planned, because my Polish friends are directly involved in that. The power of the people on the streets can immediately change the minds of mostly men in the legislature to reconsider. And it did! I think it’s very successful. Feminism is certainly still necessary and not only in Poland, but in every country on this small planet. We haven’t arrived. Certainly you know that.

I think it’s successful, but on the other hand I also have some doubts about it. Maybe they really didn’t want to change the law in the first place, but just played it to make people come to the streets and protest. Abortion has always been a ‘replacement topic’ in Poland. Now they can say, “Well, we are listening to you! You will have what you want”.

I don’t think they’re that smart.

They’re not too smart in one way, and very smart in another. Well, I’m not sure if they are listening, but if they are, they are going shut Mocak down pretty soon.

That really surprises and shocks me and it’s the first time I’ve heard that so I don’t know what to say, except to listen to you and be open. Maybe that’s possible, but I have the feeling that if the legislature hasn’t changed and they really haven’t fixed the law—yet it is too soon to see—that it could become a global imperative, that people from all over Europe, Australia, the southeast Asia, the US, South America would be come to Poland to protest. I had this vision. I think it will happen if things aren’t changed.

Let’s hope so. I think that the people who protested were really honest, but the government knows the statistics: over seventy percent of Polish society does not expect change in the abortion law. They support the status quo. Yet, some Polish people are more progressive and they want abortion on demand. But only some of them.

My next question is related to a film that I really like. It’s called Pools (1981) and it’s really different, since it does not seem to have a feminist subject. But underneath there’s something, because actually it’s a film about a female architect who designed this strange palace for ‘Citizen Kane’. In this film you manipulate the film stock. What made you interested in the very substance of cinema?

I began to identify as an artist when I was 27 and when I was 30 I was taking a painting class. I thought I’d be a painter. My teacher came up to me and said, “You are more interested in movement than you are in putting the paint on the canvas”. Our subject was a woman on a motorcycle. She came right into the studio and I painted her with four arms and four legs. I’d never seen Duchamp, I didn’t know that much about art at the time. In any case, that’s what he told me and he brought in some clear film without any image on it and a projector, and he told me I could paint on the film, so I started painting and projecting the painted film onto the canvas. Then I started painting with fluorescent paint and used a black light that I would turn on and off during projection so the images would flicker. I think he was right: I used to paint all the way around the room.

In Pools though it was a different technique.  I made the film with Barbara Klutinis whose work as a still photographer who hand painted her photographs I appreciated.  We took stills during the shoot at the swimming pools at the Hearst Castel and we filmed with stop motion our hand painting of the printed black and white photographs later in my studio.  Of course, this led to some abstractions of the original photographic image.

Do you feel attached to this tradition of abstraction?

I love abstraction, but I don’t feel attached to it.

I was thinking about Stan Brakhage. His handmade films were like Jackson Pollock’s paintings in miniature…

Yes, I love many of those films. But societal injustices often pull me back from abstraction.  For example, in Snow Job: The Media Hysteria of AIDS (1986), I’m talking about media and how it has distorted the truth. For instance, I found bumper stickers in the United States that say “Eat like a Republican and you won’t get AIDS”… Really crazy things. “Don’t let your hairdresser sneeze on you”. Full of stereotypes. In 1985  I turned to a critical cinema that was led not by my body, but by my mind. There are stages in the entire body of my oeuvre and I think those changes should be considered  when an idea is addressed.

Sanctus (1990) is based on x-ray film. You discovered it in Rochester, in George Eastman House.  Before you were showing the surface of the body; here you go deeper. In a way it is a manipulated found footage film, but you use it to understand something very substantial. What was so interesting in those x-ray films to you, and why did you want to interact with stock itself?

I am using images of the basic body structure and it was intuitively right to work with the basic physical structure of film. Theme and process made a handshake. The fact that film is chemically based I love and exploit:  it can burn, you can drop acid on it, you can make the most beautiful circles just with water drops, you can throw salt on it which is a crystal formation that creates facets of light. I’ve taken film and put it through the sewing machine, then re-photographed it in Endangered (1988), where I talk about life on the Galapagos Islands being endangered and really all of us, because it is a material form.  That’s the reason, and because—approaching it as a painter originally—I want to put my hands on film stock and move it around, but now it’s digital.

The next film I want to discuss is one of my favorites: Nitrate Kisses from the early 90s. There is some kind of relationship between Sanctus and this one. In this film you combine two subjects: cinema that passes away, and lesbian sensuality and its memory. What is the link between them? The film is about something that we lose in terms of cinema, its material aspect, and also in terms of memory of lesbian history.

Both films are about loss. In Nitrate Kisses (1992) I am working with the loss of lesbian and gay history whereas in Sanctus I am interested in the loss of the healthy body due to medical practices. I was really influenced by Roland Barthes’ and Walter Benjamin’s studies of history. Benjamin says that you can understand a culture by its fragments. This is what made me think that the fragments of queer history can be brought together and made into a whole. We don’t need to have the entire bottle here to understand it. It could be broken and if we have one piece of glass, we can understand that this culture was based on heat, perhaps coal. We can surmise a lot about the culture from the fragment. Also, I like the audience to become the archeologist of the cinematic fragments. They have to make the meaning rather than me spoon feeding them with my ideology.

In A Horse is Not a Metaphor (2008) you relate to your experience with cancer. The film is very personal, so I wonder if you made it to break another taboo or just for yourself?

I think about all my films going back to Dyketactics and even before (for example, a film called A Gay Day (1973)) are to make what is not seen visible. I have never seen a film or read a book about going through chemotherapy; that’s why I made that film. And also because people don’t know about ovarian cancer, which is the kind of cancer that I have, and I wanted to share the knowledge and experiences I’ve had.  Ovarian cancer is often misdiagnosed. If you knew what the symptoms were, you would be able to survive it if you caught it in the first few stages. At the end of the film I mention the symptons: bloating, frequent urination, back pain and so on. There are many doctors who have misdiagnosed ovarian cancer saying: ‘oh, you have gastrointestinal issues’, they don’t go and take a scan where they could see that there’s a tumor growing on the ovary, remove it and go through a complete hysterectomy, which is required if you’re going to survive. I learned these things during my cancer, because I had frequent urination, but I was in Cambodia, hiking up the temples, thinking “oh, I’m drinking a lot of water, that’s the reason”. If I knew the symptons perhaps I would have caught the cancer earlier. I never thought I’d make a film on that, I didn’t mean to shoot it. My friend and fellow filmmaker Barbara Klutinis shot all the footage of me with a bald head and walking nude in the forest, my spouse shot me in the waiting room and getting the chemo dripped. Then, the last day of treatment I decided to take the camera myself because the light was so beautiful, coming through the chemistry that was hanging by the window in all those bags. That is how I got the footage. It was only maybe a year or two later that I decided to make the film. People said to me right away, ‘You’re gonna make a film about it, aren’t you?’, and I said ‘no” never thinking I’d show something as awful as going through chemotherapy.

You said that Maya Deren is a key figure in American avant-garde cinema? In what way is she still important to you?

She’s important for all of us! Back in 1972 I’m taking a film history class. I hadn’t heard of Truffaut etc. During the semester class every film shown was made by a male director. I couldn’t believe it! This class was almost over and we hadn’t seen a woman director. Suddenly on the screen there was this 15-minute black-and-white film. I knew it was made by a woman, because the images were entirely different from what a male would shoot and because she was working from the inside out. She was showing her emotions through her directing the enigmatic imagery.  I thought, “Aha! I’m sure I should make cinema now”. If they don’t show anybody for the entire year except for this one short film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1945) by Maya Deren, there’s a blank screen in terms of women cinema, and in terms of lesbian cinema, there’s absolutely nothing. Later when I studied Maya Deren I learned  she was much more than a filmmaker. She showed her films at universities, she set up lectures and screenings, she wrote theory that is just as valid and relevant  today  as when she wrote it, and she set up a distribution system, so that people could rent the films. This was really remarkable. She made films, she lectured, she distributed. What a powerhouse of a woman! I never met her. She died before I even began to think about film. If you read her writings, they continue to inspire, and as for her work, it’s incredible what she’s left us.

I also think she was very powerful, because technically the film was not only directed by her, but also by Alexander Hammid, who was her husband at that time. Whenever I discuss it with my students, they always say it’s Maya Deren’s film, they never mention Hammid. I think it shows her power. I always use The Meshes of the Afternoon as an example of great avant-garde cinema, and how to make it.

But if you look at her other works—it’s not as strong as her first work and I think that is due to  Sasha Hammid’s contribution. He was schooled in cinema in Czechoslovakia. Maya had never shot with a camera before. He was very experienced. One can only conjecture today, but I think she would talk about her ideas, what she wanted, and he would have an idea of how it could be filmed. She learned from that, but then they divorced, so she worked with a female cinematographer in her other films. They are a little bit stagey, not as fluid as Meshes. She lost more than her husband when she divorced.

Thank you very much for the conversation.


Transnational Turn in Film Studies (Editorial)

Krzysztof Loska

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 1-7.

Krzysztof Loska

Jagiellonian University


Transnational Turn in Film Studies (Editorial)


Contemporary researchers emphasize the widespread use of “transnational” in humanistic discourse; some even speak of the “transnational turn”, or a kind of theoretical reorientation in the debate on the nature of global links. In contrast to the paradigm shift, the turn, as understood by Doris Bachmann-Medick, involves recognizing methodological pluralism, going beyond the limits, while at the same time transforming the earlier concepts and accepting the contingency of knowledge, which means embracing the fact that there are many possible ways of looking at the same object[1].

On the other hand, Mette Hjort has noted a growing tendency for excessive and uncritical use of the concept of transnational “as a largely self-evident qualifier requiring only minimal conceptual clarification”[2]. The idea of transnationalism plays an important role in the social sciences; I do not intend, however, to refer to sociological or economic theories, as in this area the idea of “transnational” functions primarily as a specific modification of the concept of globalization (as Steven Vertovec convincingly states in his book). I would rather focus on film studies that introduced such a category, namely Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu’s research of Chinese cinema and that of Andrew Higson in relation to British cinema[3].

In the latter case, the aim was to undermine a dominant perspective in film studies and to understand the limitations of “tendency to focus only on those films that narrate the nation as just a finite, limited space, inhabited by a tightly coherent and unified community, closed off to other identities besides national identities”[4]. Higson’s concept had two basic weaknesses: firstly, the author focused on the relationship between Hollywood and British cinema; secondly, the idea of transnational was considered primarily in terms of production, distribution, and reception, completely overlooking the existence of diasporic and postcolonial themes, which became important components of transnational turn.

Higson’s proposal was the starting point for Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden, who in the introduction to the anthology titled Transnational Cinema, wrote that „a key to transnationalism is the recognition of the decline of national sovereignty as a regular force in global coexistence, (…) dissolution of any stable connection between a film’s place of production and/or setting and the nationality of its makers and performers”[5]. However, Ezra and Rowden went much further, and placed the concept of transnationalism in other contexts associated with migration and the functioning of the modern diasporas. At the same time, they understood why it was so important to take into account the relationship between global and local dimensions, and the postnational version of the imagined community, in which one’s identity is suspended between the different spaces.

The issues of migration and development of contemporary diasporas play a leading role in the so-called accented cinema. The notion, introduced by Hamid Naficy, refers to transnational films made by migrants or political refugees, who describe the experience of living in a host country, trying to cope with loss, a state of being torn apart, and being homesick. Naficy’s concept is by no means limited to a set of particular themes or the ethnic origin of filmmakers, but seeks a common denominator linking the various works in terms of style or narrative. It indicates the privileged function of landscapes, the importance of multilingualism in the dialogue, voice-over narration, and the use of road movie conventions[6].

Diasporic films are most frequently made outside the mainstream cinema, as they are independent productions in which the artists put an emphasis on a personal aspect of the stories being told through the use of epistolary narration (which is common e.g. in the films by Atom Egoyan, Chantal Akerman, and Ann Hui). The main theme is usually the search for identity that transcends national and cultural boundaries, the construction of certain images of home, and showing the problematic nature of such representations in the context of nostalgia.

“Transnational cinema has the potential to both reveal the diasporic experience and challenge the privileged site of the national as the space in which cultural identity and imagined communities are formed”[7]. Diasporic cinema may be „defined as transnational in the sense that it brings into question how fixed ideas of a national film culture are constantly being transformed by the presence of protagonists (and indeed film-makers) who have a presence within the nation, even if they exist on its margins, but find their origins quite clearly beyond it”[8].

We discover that the concept of a nation as a coherent entity gradually gives way to hybridity and transculturality, which seem to be the categories that best describe the essence of modern life, based on the free movement of people, goods and services, porosity of contemporary borders, and the interpenetration of cultural influences. Hybridity should not be understood as the abolition of contradictions, erasing of the differences or unification, because “it is not a third term that resolves the tension between two cultures, or two scenes of the book, in a dialectical play of recognition”[9].

Modern theorists highlight the link between the concept of hybridity and such related terms as mestizaje or métissage, because all of them reject the idea of a coherent and unified culture expressed by organicistic metaphors. A hybrid subject exists at the frontiers, meeting points, or at the crossroads of different cultures. Sometimes hybridization is associated with the process of borrowing and exchange, thanks to which it undermines the process of thinking in terms of simple binary oppositions.

The formation of a hybrid identity is a symptom of cultural transformation, the result of the instability of existing categories; however, it does not always involve the colonial experience. On the contrary, it is more often linked with different forms of movement and migration that help build transnational culture. In this way, it is possible to make a significant shift in emphasis from the study of the subjugated ones who lived in former colonies toward the analysis of diasporic communities operating in European countries. Thanks to this shift, one may also notice the links between discontinuity, rupture, and rootlessness that characterize contemporary immigrants, as well as see similar processes of deterritorialization and the expropriation of cultural heritage in postcolonial countries.

The latest research clearly shows that the concept of transnationality cannot merely concern the issues of co-production, global distribution, and reception; on the other hand, it should include political and social factors that enable a better understanding of contemporary cinema and the surrounding world. Perhaps that is why Will Higbee, when searching for a less ambiguous term, suggested the concept of transvergence to describe the diasporic and postcolonial cinema, in order to leave behind “potentially problematic contemporary notions of globalization”[10]. In his understanding, transvergence cinema is connected with instability, lack of continuity and consistency, and involves undermining of such dichotomies as home/exile, centre/periphery, self/other.

Another solution helping to overcome the problems resulting from the excessive use of the concept of transnationality may be the one offered by Wolfgang Welsch, who uses the concept of transculturality: an idea inspired by the writings of Fernando Ortiz. The Cuban anthropologist in his book on the cultivation of tobacco and sugar used the word “transculturality” to describe the processes occurring in the colonial countries, in an effort to explain the impact of migration on the formation of a culture[11]. This concept allows one to go beyond the understanding of the national culture as a closed and separate entity, and uncover relationships between seemingly distant areas by revealing the benefits of the process in which many possible ways of life are merged together.

“It is, I think, the advantage of the transculturality concept over competing concepts that it explains uniformization and intermixing processes on one side and the emergence of new diversity on the other side at the same time and by means of the same formula”[12]. Therefore, transculturality means life in suspension, moving on the margins, coming to terms with casualness and instability. „Transness describes a moment of in-betweeness, a liminal status that may represent a point in process of transformation from one category to another”[13]. The concept of transculturality is not based on binary oppositions, but consists in combining the elements and crossings: „transcultural identities comprehend a cosmopolitan side, but also a side of local affiliation (…) It promotes not separation, but exchange and interaction”[14].

The prefix trans-, which is borrowed from Latin, indicates crossing the borders and going beyond; that is why the papers collected in this issue of our magazine suggest that a transnational approach involves accepting methodological pluralism and seeking the links between the phenomena that were previously regarded as separate. Adopting this perspective allows one to look at the seemingly distant concepts and to go beyond the national paradigm in reflection on media.

One should mention that although in the past Polish cinema was considered primarily in the national perspective, the last few years have brought the publication of several papers on its transnational character. This fact was emphasized by Ewa Mazierska and Michael Goddard, who claimed that it “has always been, in a sense, transnational, thanks to the strong presence of Polish directors on the international scene; [which unfortunately] is barely reflected in the studies of transnational or world cinema”[15]. This is, for example, the perspective taken by Sebastian Jagielski in his essay, in which he analyses the on-screen images of Elżbieta Czyżewska.

Most of the presented papers, however, concern world cinema, with a special emphasis on the relations between East and West: Jane Hanley analyses performances of Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi in two transnational films: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013). The author’s principal aim is to characterize the changing images of Asian people in Hollywood cinema and the possibility of cross-cultural communication.

Łukasz Plesnar, when choosing two movies produced by Clint Eastwood in 2006 (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima), focuses on the question of stereotypical images of the Japanese in American films and stresses the attempts of going beyond such a simplified image. “[Letters from Iwo Jima] is the only American combat movie made from a Japanese point of view and the only one in which the author tries to understand and show respect to old Japanese customs and the contemporary contradiction of Japanese ego”. Kaja Łuczyńska, in turn, examines a shift in the image of race and ethnicity after 9/11, when focusing on screen images of South Asian in New York (2009, Kabir Khan), My Name Is Khan (2010, Karan Johar), and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012, Mira Nair).

Bartłomiej Nowak and Bilge Golge, respectively, offer interesting views of the relations between East and West. The former studies how contemporary film adaptations relate to literary texts, and how certain adaptations expand the boundaries of the original readership and audience by including new locations and contexts. Nowak stresses a hybrid dimension of some films based on Jane Austen’s books as they are transferred in the context of Indian culture, while Bilge Golge analyses representations of yoga practices in Western media.

Aesthetics and film theory play an essential role in the texts presented in the final part of the magazine. Miłosz Stelmach starts from the theoretical findings of András Bálint Kovács, John Orr, and Rafał Syska, and characterizes the neomodern film as a transnational phenomenon. The paper by Bolesław Racięski offers a peculiar development of these proposals, showing how the creators of contemporary Mexican cinema use the minimalist approach to express ideas about the local social and cultural issues, whereby linking transnational narrative strategies of neomodern cinema with national history and mythology. In his analysis of BabaKiueria, Rafał Nahirny uses the postcolonial perspective to describe the process of taking control over their own image by the indigenous people of Australia.

Numerous authors study the phenomenon of transnational in the context of identity and include both aesthetic and political aspects. The researchers are convinced that it is necessary to go beyond a Eurocentric perspective and overcome the limitations stemming from the opposition between a national and transnational point of view. What is more, it is crucial to see the links between the local and the global aspects, and to embrace a transcultural exchange. Following the assumptions of Will Higbee and Song Hwee Lim, we should accept that „in the study of films, a critical transnationalism does not ghettoize transnational film-making in interstitial and marginal spaces, but rather interrogates how these film-making activities negotiate with the national on all levels: from cultural policy to financial sources, from the multiculturalism of difference to how it reconfigures a nation’s image of itself”[16].



Bachmann-Medick Doris, Cultural Turns. New Orientations in the Study of Culture, translate by Adam Blauhut, (Berlin and Boston: Walter de Gruyter) (2016).

Bhabha Homi K., The Location of Culture, (New York: Routledge) (1994).

Clark Christopher, „Transculturation, Transe Sexuality, and Turkish Germany: Kutluğ Ataman’s Lola und Bilidikid”, German Life and Letters 59:4 (2006)

Ezra Elizabeth, Rowden Terry, Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader, (New York: Routledge) (2006).

Higbee Will, „Beyond the (Trans)national: Toward a Cinema of Transvergence in Postcolonial and Diasporic Francophone Cinema(s)”, Studies in French Cinema 7:2 (2007).

Higbee Will and Lim Song Hwee, „Concepts of Transnational Cinema: Towards a Critical Transnationalism in Film Studies”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010).

Andrew Higson, „The limiting imagination of national cinema”, in: Cinema and Nation, ed. Mette Hjort and Scott Mackenzie (London and New York: Routledge) (2000).

Hjort Mette, „On the Plurality of Cinematic Transnationalism”, in World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, ed. Nataša Ďurovičová and Kathleen Newman (London and New York: Routledge) (2010).

Lu Sheldon Hsiao-peng, „Historical Introduction. Chinese Cinemas (1896-1996) and Transnational Film Studies”, in Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender, ed. Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press) (1997).

Mazierska Ewa, Goddard Michael, Polish Cinema in a Transnational Context, (Rochester: University of Rochester Press) (2014).

Naficy Hamid, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2001).

Vertovec Steven, Transnationalism (London and New York: Routledge) (2009).

Welsch Wolfgang, „Transculturality: The Puzzling Form of Cultures Today”, in Spaces of Cultures: City, Nation, World, ed.  Mike Featherstone and Scott Lash (London: SAGE (1999).


[1] Doris Bachmann-Medick, Cultural Turns. New Orientations in the Study of Culture, translate by Adam Blauhut, (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter) (2016), p.11-12.

[2] Mette Hjort, „On the Plurality of Cinematic Transnationalism”, in World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, ed. Nataša Ďurovičová and Kathleen Newman (London and New York: Routledge) (2010), p. 13.

[3] Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu, „Historical Introduction. Chinese Cinemas (1896-1996) and Transnational Film Studies”, in: Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender, ed. Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press) (1997), p. 1-31. Andrew Higson, „The limiting imagination of national cinema”, in: Cinema and Nation, ed. Mette Hjort and Scott Mackenzie (London and New York: Routledge) (2000), p. 57-68.

[4] Andrew Higson, p. 60.

[5] Elizabeth Ezra, ‎Terry Rowden, Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader, (New York: Routledge) (2006), p. 1.

[6] Hamid Naficy, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) (2001), p. 24-26.

[7] Will Higbee, Song Hwee Lim, „Concepts of Transnational Cinema: Towards a Critical Transnationalism in Film Studies”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010), p. 11.

[8] Ibid., s. 11.

[9] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, (New York: Routledge) (1994), p. 162.

[10] Will Higbee, „Beyond the (Trans)national: Toward a Cinema of Transvergence in Postcolonial and Diasporic Francophone Cinema(s)”, Studies in French Cinema 7:2 (2007), p. 80.

[11] Wolfgang Welsch, „Transculturality: The Puzzling Form of Cultures Today”, in Spaces of Cultures: City, Nation, World, ed. Mike Featherstone and Scott Lash, (London: SAGE) (1999), pp. 194-213.

[12] Ibid., p. 204.

[13] Christopher Clark, „Transculturation, Transe Sexuality, and Turkish Germany: Kutluğ Ataman’s Lola und Bilidikid”, German Life and Letters 59:4 (2006), p. 558.

[14] Welsch, p. 205.

[15] Ewa Mazierska, Michael Goddard, Introduction. Polish Cinema beyond Polish Borders, in Polish Cinema in a Transnational Context, (Rochester: University of Rochester Press) (2014), p. 9.

[16] Will Higbee, Song Hwee Lim, „Concepts of Transnational Cinema: Towards a Critical Transnationalism in Film Studies”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010), p. 18.

Clint Eastwoods’s Letters from Iwo Jima as a transnational film

Łukasz A.Plesnar

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 51-67.

Łukasz A.Plesnar

Jagiellonian University


Clint Eastwoods’s Letters from Iwo Jima as a transnational film


We may consider Letters from Iwo Jima as a typical transnational film. Its concept is based on Eastwood’s discovery of a General Kuribayashi’s book of letters and drawings, Picture Letters from Commander in Chief, collected and translated into English by Tsuyuko Yoshida (the original title: Gyokusa soshikikan no etegami). The script for Letters was written by a Japanese-American writer, Iris Yamashita, and Paul Haggis, Eastwood’s previous scripter. Despite having been produced by American companies (DreamWorks Pictures, Warner Bros Company, Malpaso Productions, and Ambling Entertainment), almost entire movie is in Japan.

The film functions as the second panel of the war diptych, being a twin to Flags of Our Fathers. Both movies depict the battle of Iwo Jima, but from the different perspectives: Flags from the American point of view, and the Letters from the Japanese one. Shooting his diptych, Eastwood decided to “show the two sides of a battle”, presenting the consequences of war on both sides. It was a feat that had never been attempted by any other filmmaker (except perhaps Lewis Milestone in All Quiet on the Western Front). Eastwood refutes the decades when the Americans demonied the Japanese, which began at the start of the war on Pacific. The director portraits the Japanese soldiers as “young and powerless and driven to madness or suicide” human beings, who are to be pitied, not hated. He tries to escape from stereotypical images of the Japanese society, Japanese soldiers, and Japanese culture, often presented in the American cinema. Main roles are cast with the Japanese while in the earlier Hollywood movies Japanese characters were generally performed by Chinese-Americans or Asian-Americans). This makes the film more authentic.

Letters was released in Japan and was commercially successful, receiving warm reception from critics and audiences. An English-dubbed version came out sixteen monts after its Japanese premiere.

Key words: transnational film, war movies, combat movies, representation, stereotypes, suicide, Japan, Clint Eastwood

Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, two movies produced by Clint Eastwood in 2006, are atypical and unusual works. “It was the first time a director made two films at the same time about the same event, which here is the battle over Iwo Jima in 1945”.[1] According to historians, this was one of the deadliest fights in the Pacific Campaign. Over the course of 36 days in February and March, the invasion forces of 110,000 Marines fought 22,000 entrenched Japanese infantrymen. Only 1,083 Japanese survived, while 6,821 Americans were killed and almost 20,000 wounded. The Imperial Army troops were commanded by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, “a unique man, a man of great imagination, creativity and resourcefulness”[2], a soldier who went far beyond the traditional model of a Japanese officer, and who is one of the main characters of Letters from Iwo Jima.

Originally, Eastwood planned to make one film devoted to the battle of Iwo Jima: an adaptation of James Bradley’s book about six Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi. However, while the director was working on Flags of Our Fathers, he discovered General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s book of letters and drawings, Picture Letters from Commander in Chief, which had been published posthumously in Japanese in 1992 and then translated into English by Tsuyuko Yoshida.[3] It contained the General’s letters to his wife and children, including those written on Iwo Jima. “In the letters Eastwood found a Japanese voice”, Rikke Schubart writes. “He first considered adding a Japanese point of view to Flags, but then decided on making a second film instead. A film entirely dedicated to the Japanese point of view. And so, while doing post-production on Flags, Eastwood shot Letters from Iwo Jima in 32 days”.[4] Both Flags and Letters are independent movies, but at the same time, as Leo Braudy notes, “both are tremendously enriched by their juxtaposition and should be seen as a diptych”.[5]

Apart from many similarities, we can also notice numerous differences between Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Firstly, Flags was shot in English with American actors, while Letters, despite having been produced by American companies (DreamWorks Pictures, Warner Bros Company, Malpaso Productions, and Ambling Entertainment), was kept in Japanese and engaged Japanese actors. Secondly, Flags was a 75 million dollar blockbuster movie, while Letters cost only 15 million dollars. Thirdly, Flags was originally aimed at an international audience, while Letters was directed above all at Japanese moviegoers. It is significant that an English-dubbed version of the film came out sixteen months after its Japanese premiere. The participation of Japanese actors speaking subtitled dialogue led to certain confusions. American spectators regarded the movie as a Japanese production. On the other hand, Letters won the Japanese Academy Award for the best foreign language film, which was an obvious paradox.

Differences between both Eastwood’s movies are not limited to the aspect of production, but go much further, referring also to the content. We could say, quoting the statement of Aaron Gerow, that Flags is “about how to remember the war, giving a new view on an incident everyone knows”, while Letters is “about listening to those who fought it, trying to create a memory tableau of something most people, including the Japanese, know little about”. Flags is also an attempt to deconstruct the Hollywood genre of war and combat films, while Letters “appears more simply as an American effort to understand the complex human beings on the other side, to tell the world that they were brave too”.[6]

Apart from the circumstances of the production process, we can list three reasons why Letters from Iwo Jima should be recognized as a transnational film: 1) adoption by the director of a Japanese point of view; 2) portrayal of Japanese soldiers—against the tradition of American war films—as simple, normal people, not as barbarians or even bloodthirsty wild beasts; 3) setting up the audience’s identification with some of the young soldiers by focusing on their individual stories and their unfolding relations.[7]

We may say that the way Eastwood builds the plot of Letters, describes its characters, and defines their motives leads him to the denial of a number of stereotypes that exist in American culture. Although these stereotypes primary refer to images of an enemy, they also relate indirectly to images of every „other”, whether racial or national. Nonetheless, the director is famous for the blunt attitude towards such stereotypes that he has demonstrated a number of times. He fought against the stereotype of a Native American as a tomahawk-wielding savage thirsty for the white man’s blood and living in the wilderness or on reservations (men) and a beautiful maiden (women) in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). He questioned various stereotypes of Afro Americans (as thugs, domestic workers, or a best friend of a white man) in Bird (1988) and that of an African as a naked black guy brandishing spears and fighting with their neighbours in White Hunter, Black Heart (1990). Finally, he waged a war with the stereotypes of Hispanic American women as maids, sexpots, or immigrants in Blood Work (2002) as well as with the stereotypes of Asian Americans as kung fu fighters or a technical experts (men) and prostitutes (women) in Gran Torino (2008).

The majority of stereotypes are of national nature in two senses of the word. Firstly, they frequently come into existence and are formed within a group we call a nation. Secondly, they often refer to nations. Obviously, stereotypes differ according to both their subjects and objects (for instance, Poles have quite different stereotypes of Russians than do Serbians [8], just as Jews see Palestinians completely unlike Egyptians or Saudi Arabians). I want to stress that stereotypes might sometimes be modified over the course of time, but usually they are relatively stable.

Cinema is a domain where stereotypes occur very often. We may even say that the history of film is the history of disseminating stereotypes. Rejection of national and racial stereotypes is not so easy when you consider viewers’ expectations and their cultural training as well as a filmmaker himself being trapped in the stereotype network of his own culture. However, success means something special: the transition from the sphere of national to the sphere of transnational. To paraphrase the words of Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden, we may say that the key to transnationalism is the recognition of the decline of national stereotypes as a regulatory force in global cinema.[9]

I have already mentioned the extremely stereotypical images of the Japanese in the American films produced during World War II. This subject will be discussed in more detail in a later part of this study. However, it is interesting whether the images of Americans and other enemies of the Empire were equally stereotypical in the Japanese films from the same period. The answer is surprising: no. Japanese films, including war and combat movies, rarely presented or even mentioned the enemy; battles were often filmed simply from the Japanese side, showing no opposing soldiers. Even the leading propaganda movie, Kajirō Yamamoto’s The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malay (Hawai Marē oki kaisen, 1942)—made to commemorate the first anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor—paid little attention to the Americans. The main reason seems to be simple: “Japanese racism was less concerned with the denigration of others than with the elevation of themselves, with affirming their status as an allegedly superior and chosen people”.[10] As a result, on-screen Japanese soldiers were depicted as living in an exclusive world of camaraderie and racial affinity. Images of enemies were needless.

Obviously, this was not the absolute rule. A number of jidaigeki movies stirred up “a passionate hatred among the populace against Japan’s ‘historic enemy’ (shukuteki), the Anglo-Saxon powers”[11]. Some films, for instance Tomotaka Tasaka’s Mud and Soldiers (Tsuchi to heitai – 1939) and Yoshimura Kōzaburō’s The Legend of Tank Commander Nishizumi (Nishizumi senshachō den – 1940), presented the “inhuman” qualities of the Chinese, and Imai Tadashi’s Suicide Troops of the Watchtower (Bōrō no kesshitai – 1943) depicted the Korean communist guerrillas as bloodthirsty beasts (though the image of “normal” Koreans was relatively positive).

Paradoxically, the most negative image of American soldiers, politicians and culture can be found in Taku Shinjō’s For Those We Love (Ore wa, kimi no tame ni koso shini ni iku – 2007), a quite recent production about the kamikaze pilots of World War II. The movie has triggered many controversies in the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zeeland as it portrayed pilots’ suicides as courageous and honourable, whereas the Allied forces, the victims of their attacks, were shown as brutal aggressors with no honour or sense of duty.

Let us return to Letters from Iwo Jima. The “soul” of Eastwood’s film and one of its main figures is the baker-turned-soldier, Private Saigo (played by pop star Kazunari Ninomiya), who has promised his young pregnant wife not to kill himself, to return home alive, and to never fire a shot. His name is symbolic, as it means “the last” in Japanese. Indeed, he is the only Japanese character who has survived the bloody slaughter on Iwo Jima. Saigo is not only a Japanese baker or soldier, but also an “everyman”, one of us, somebody who loves his family and profession, thinks about his future, and primarily wants to live. He cannot adapt to military life, he does not accept the callousness of the Japanese army based on a strict hierarchy and the absolute obedience of soldiers, and he cowers under the stare of fanatic and indoctrinated officers. He feels the absurdity of being forced into a battle in which “only death awaits”.[12] Ikui Eikoh notices that “a hero like Saigo is exceptional less in Japanese history than in the history of Japanese film”[13], because he is weak, frightened, defenceless, and lost, or using the words of Lars-Martin Sorensen because “he is … normal”.[14]

Saigo is not the only “normal”, unheroic, and rational Japanese soldier in Letters from Iwo Jima. Private Nozaki (Yuki Matzusaki), accused of treason by an over-zealous officer, and Private Shimizu (Kase Ryo) are other ones. They, as Saigo, fight the rules and customs common in the Imperial Army: absolute hierarchy, ruthless obedience, and fanaticism inspired by the highest command. In one of the few scenes in the film that take place in Japan, we see a military police officer (Kempeitai) who orders Shimizu, a young recruit, to shoot a child’s pet dog as a test of his toughness and loyalty. When Shimizu tries to save the dog, he is dismissed and sent to Iwo Jima to face inevitable death. There his comrades accuse him—unjustly, of course—of being a Kempeitai informer. Fortunately, a conversation with Saigo clears up the misunderstanding. Both soldiers notice they have very similar opinions and attitudes. They consider the war in the name of the Emperor and abstract ideas of love of the country, honour, and imperial patriotism absurd. They also feel that they are too young to lay down their lives in a doomed war. They refused to commit suicide (after the others in their platoon had all killed themselves) and decided to surrender to the Americans. Shimizu goes first but is killed by two American guards. Saigo fails to move and preserves his life.

The killing of Shimizu by American guards reverses elementary Hollywood conventions of combat films: U.S. Marines, usually presented as good guys, perpetrate a crime on a Japanese soldier, shown usually as a bad guy. This murder is committed for no apparent reason, in fear of Shimizu and the reputation of the Imperial Army. The crime makes no sense: it is a savage and purposeless act that was most often attributed to the enemies of America in Hollywood movies. Therefore, Eastwood eventually overturns repartition of values: U.S. Marines are bad guys while Shimizu turns out to be a good guy.

Shimizu has bad luck. On the contrary, Saigo is lucky. Late in the film, Saigo and other Japanese soldiers are told by their commanding officers to defend Mount Suribachi with their lives. Desperate and distraught men begin committing suicide. However, Saigo refuses to kill himself, escapes the mountains, and goes to the base of operations where he meets General Kuribayashi. The General orders Saigo to burn all the documents whilst he leads the surviving soldiers for one final nighttime attack on the American troops. Saigo, fulfilling the order, burns the military documents and buries the pouch containing thousands of letters written by the soldiers and never delivered to Japan. In the bloody assault, Kuribayashi is fatally wounded and asks Saigo for a last favour: to bury him where he would not be found. In the closing shot of Letters, we see Saigo, captured by the U.S. forces, lying amongst many wounded American soldiers. His face is turned toward the camera. As Rikke Schubart writes, “This man—no hero, no saviour, no decorated corpsman or admired general—survives. He is the future, not to honour or mourn, but to emulate. He returns to his wife and child”.[15]

This scene also contains another message reconstructed by Ian Buruma: “Lying under his army blanket”, he notes, “waiting to be taken off the island of death, Saigo is no different from the Americans lined up beside him, and yet it is unmistakably him; and that is the point of Eastwood’s remarkable movie”.[16] This construction can be, and in fact should be, easily extended. It seems to me that the director makes it clear that all national, ethnic, racial, cultural, and religious distinctions are not important because in fact we are all alike. Alternatively, in other words, differences between people do not depend on national, ethnic, cultural, and religious factors. As Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg sums up: “Eastwood seems to suggest, we are all simple human beings endowed neither with the sadistic urge to kill nor with a fervent desire to fight for some abstract notion of ‘love of country’”.[17]

However, Zangenberg in his generalization takes things too far because in Letters Eastwood portraits not only “simple human beings”, but also soldiers and civilians brainwashed by the military government and the tradition of the bushido code. Lieutenant Ito (Shido Nakamura) is a good example. He is obsessed with driving his men to honour suicide; ironically, he fails to kill himself and is imprisoned by U.S. Marines. In addition, many other officers, educated in strict military discipline and samurai tradition, are soulless, cruel, and ignorant, and seem more concerned with achieving a glorious suicidal death than defending Iwo Jima. Some of the civilians are indoctrinated too. When Saigo is conscripted into the Imperial Army, his neighbours and friends keep congratulating him and repeating that he is lucky to be chosen to die for his country.

Eastwood presents the problem of indoctrination as a conflict between simple soldiers and officers. While the soldiers are primarily concerned with survival and comradeship among themselves, the officers are caught in the trap of ideological thinking in terms of patriotism, honour, self-sacrifice, and fate. Nevertheless, not all of them are fully incapacitated by ideology, upbringing, and traditional samurai code. The director shows two senior officers who are exceptional: General Tademichi Kuribayashi and Colonel Baron Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara).

General Kuribayashi left his post as head of the Emperor’s Palace Guard “to lead what would turn out to be the suicidal defence of Iwo Jima, with all naval air support withdrawn”.[18] After he arrived at the island, he deviated from traditional Japanese war strategy that “dictates that an island should be defended by pillboxes on the beaches”.[19] Instead, he ordered his men to hew in the rocks of Mount Suribachi 28 kilometres of tunnels and 5,000 caves, which turned the Japanese infantry positions into nearly impregnable fortress. As a human being, Kuribayashi was a caring person. He protected his men against abusive officers, ordered equal food rations for officers and simple soldiers, and shared his water. Besides, he had the best qualities of the real warrior: he was tough, manly, courteous, and good-looking.

Kuribayashi is a cosmopolitan figure. He knows the United States well because he spent five years there as a military attaché. He likes this country, has American friends, and respects American values and the American way of life. One flashback shows his memory of a banquet dinner held in his honour at Fort Bliss in the late 1920s. Sitting in the dark cave on Iwo Jima, he recalls the moment when an American officer presents him with a Colt .45 “as a token of friendship”. Rikke Schubart writes, “We understand this is a painful memory of a happy moment. Kuribayashi treasures the gun, which he wears in his belt and with which he will commit suicide. Now, 54 years old, time is testing him. The commander’s conflict is obvious to us, torn as he is between his own convictions and those of his nation. Because, alas, they are not the same”.[20] The General “is no longer an enemy. Having travelled back in time and into his thoughts, we feel that we know him and that he is now a fellow being”.[21]

Besides Saigo, Kuribayashi is the main character of Letters from Iwo Jima. Both are similar in a way; but at the same time, both are quite different. They experience internal conflict between the demands of the intrusive rationality of war (survival above all else) and the cultural obligation to die for the country and the Emperor. However, they choose different solutions. Saigo decides on life, homecoming, and meeting his newborn daughter. The General, on the other hand, chooses honour death. When he recognizes the situation of his soldiers as hopeless, he orders the general attack on the American lines telling his men to be proud to die for their homeland. Then he takes his sword and leads his soldiers on the last charge.

Kuribayashi is fatally wounded during the assault and he orders his aide-de-camp to behead him with his sword, but the lieutenant is shot before the blow. Because of his injuries, Kuribayashi cannot hold his sword, so he uses the gun. “Ironically, the American gift of friendship leads to Japanese suicide”.[22]

The Colt .45 as a tool of suicide is a symbolic requisite. On the one hand, it represents American mythology and violence (as a well-known object of the history of the United States and many cultural texts, for example numerous literary or cinematographic Westerns); on the other hand it symbolizes friendship, honour, valour, pride, and politeness (as a gift). Nevertheless, it also symbolizes death, war, destruction, and self-destruction (as a weapon). For Kuribayashi it is an important bond with his happy past, days of peace, a time of innocence. It is also a tool of suicide that differs from the traditional Japanese tool used for that purpose. We may say that the gun is an object in which elements of the American and Japanese cultures meet. Maybe, more precisely, it is an agent of westernisation of Japanese culture.

Kuribayashi is not the only character in Letters from Iwo Jima with any personal knowledge of America and Americans: Colonel Baron Takeichi Nishi is another. He is an aristocrat and an equestrian who had won the gold medal in the individual jumping event of the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. As a well-known and rich man, he entertained Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, the famous actors of the era, at his home. His attitude to an enemy does not resemble traditional Japanese customs. Instead of killing a wounded young U.S. Marine soldier, Sam (Lucas Elliot Eberl), Nishi treats him with the last dose of morphine and reminisces about happy old days and his Hollywood friends. After the GI dies from his injuries, Nishi reads out a letter from the boy’s mother, “Remember what I said to you: always do what is right because it is right”. The letter enlightens Japanese soldiers that the Americans were just like them. Later despite bushido code and opinions of other officers, Nishi orders his infantry men not to commit suicide.

The Colonel seems to be even more cosmopolitan than Kuribayashi. He was a ladies’ man, attracted to the glamour of society life. As Ian Buruna writes, “Nishi has the hearty manners of a sporting Englishman. He is rather like the Erich von Stroheim character in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, a member of the international aristocracy, in home in any place where wine, horses, and women have an acceptable pedigree”.[23] However, when Nishi is blinded by an explosion and unable to lead his soldiers, he commits suicide. His cosmopolitism turned out to be a coat covering deeply hidden nationalism. I think this way because I agree with Rikke Schubart, who notes, “Letters makes it crystal clear that suicide is a perverted nationalism”.[24] This means that Kuribayashi was a kind of nationalist too. Or rather, he was loyal to the national ethos he did not share, but obeyed. In his last message to the Imperial Headquarters, he wrote, “Our ammunition is gone and our water dried up. Now is the time for us to make the final counterattack and fight gallantly, conscious of the Emperor’s favour, not begrudging our efforts though they turn our bones to powder and pulverize our bodies. I believe that until the island is recaptured, the Emperor’s domain will be eternally insecure. I therefore swear that even when I have become a ghost I shall look forward to turning the defeat of the Imperial Army to victory. I stand now at the beginning of the end. At the same time as revealing my innermost feelings, I pray earnestly for the unfailing victory and security of the Empire. Farewell for all eternity”.[25]

General Kuribayashi and Colonel Nishi are the tragic heroes in an Aristotelian sense of the term. Firstly, they face the insoluble conflict. As we already know, this is a conflict between the rationality of war and a cultural or ideological obligation to die for the country and the Emperor. Kuribayashi and Nishi have Free Will, so they can choose. Each choice, however, leads to suffering and disaster. To choose survival means to be disloyal to military oath, to the Emperor, to the State, and to the Japanese tradition, and eventually to lose everything that is of great worth: face, honour, respect, and a place in history. On the other hand, to choose self-sacrifice means to lose life on earth, worldly possessions, family, happiness, and future; in other words, everything that a human being knows empirically. Every choice is wrong. The tragic hero is a victim and a culprit at the same time. He is guilty of so-called hamartia, meaning that he has made a bad decision or miscalculation because of “poor reasoning” or an external stimulus (e.g. interventions of Gods or divine madness in ancient tragedy). I enclose the expression poor reasoning in quotation marks because a tragic hero, ex definitione, does not use “proper reasoning”; his reasoning is always poor. It results from circumstances and limited knowledge of human beings. A typical tragic hero makes a bad decision because he sees only one way. For instance, many Japanese infantrymen on Iwo Jima chose death over surrender because, as Robert S. Burrell writes, “most soldiers believed Americans massacred and tortured prisoners. In particular, the Japanese were taught to despise Marines, who purportedly had to murder their own parents to qualify for enlistment”.[26] However, Kuribayashi and Nishi were broadminded men with extensive knowledge partly based on their personal experiences. That is why they were double guilty of hamartia and thus double tragic; they must have seen more than one way out.

By building the figures of Kuribayashi and Nishi as tragic heroes, Eastwood precludes our privilege of judging their proceedings in terms of right and wrong. Certainly, it does not mean that they do not participate in the Manichean conflict between good and evil: it only means that their individual decisions do not influence the ultimate result of that eternal struggle, as it must continue until the end of our world. Kuribayashi and Nishi are only insignificant puppets in the theatre of life. They are fated to fail; in other words, they have to die.

Nevertheless, the character of Kuribayashi seems to be somewhat internally contradictory. Initially, he forbids his soldiers to use banzai charges and counterattacks, but at the end of the film, he leads his men to a suicidal assault on American lines. He likes and understands Americans. During the ceremonial banquet dinner at Fort Blass he says, “The United States is the last country in the world Japan should fight”. However, on Iwo Jima he writes the following order to his men: “Each of your shots must kill many Americans. We cannot allow ourselves to be captured by the enemy. If our positions are overrun, we will take bombs and grenades and throw ourselves under the tanks to destroy them. We will infiltrate the enemy lines to exterminate them. No man must die until he has killed at least ten Americans. We will harass the enemy with guerrilla actions until the last of us has perished”.[27]

Eastwood does not question Kuribayashi’s command. “He shows the despair of some of the Japanese soldiers who are ordered to die, admittedly, but he does not critically engage Kuribayashi’s orders to die defending the island, or his heroic character for that matter”.[28]

Aaron Gerow wonders whether Eastwood, in honouring soldiers like Kuribayachi, “may be unwittingly engaging in the same process of creating ‘heroes’ that Flags of Our Fathers criticized, albeit for another country”.[29] This is even truer because the practice of honour suicide in form of seppuku or banzai seems to be Eastwood’s most important tool to humanize Japanese characters. That praxis is also, as Robert Burgoyne notes, “the key to the film’s tragic tone and the act that carries the strongest anti-war charge”.[30] The author notices that Eastwood does not depict self-sacrifice “as a weapon, a tactic or strategy of war”, but rather “as a means of bearing witness to a cause”.[31] Such treatment of self-destruction is nothing new: Ancient Romans used it as a means of protest; ancient Israelites as a message to their contemporaries and descendants that Jews would never be “servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself”[32]; early Christian martyrs as a way to follow in Jesus’ footsteps; and present-day Buddhist monks in Tibet as a call of protest against Chinese occupation. Even Americans had an experience with something like banzai in the defence to the last man of Alamo Mission in 1836. Polish moviegoers remember the case of Michał Wołodyjowski and Hassling-Ketling of Elgin who blew themselves up in Kamieniec Podolski in 1672, which was described by Henryk Sienkiewicz in his famous novel Pan Wołodyjowski and shown in its adaptation for the screen by Jerzy Hoffman.

In Eastwood’s movie, the acts of self-sacrifice are of great importance. As Robert Burgoybe writes, “Seen as an instance of testimony—a speech act—the suicides depicted in Letters from Iwo Jima can be associated with the ‘letters’ of the film’s title. The film reframes the act in a way that emphasises the body of the soldier as a site of competing message, a text that exceeds its culturally sanctioned meanings in the coded discourses of war, becoming instead a site of self-authorship”.[33]

The first ritual suicide scene in Letters from Iwo Jima is demonstrative and moving. Let me once more quote Burgoyne: “The officer in charge … decides to disobey General Kuribayashi’s order to retreat and orders his men to ‘die with honour’ … Each soldier draws a grenade, struggles to fight back on overwhelming sense of fear and sorrow, and then blows himself up. The care, shown previously in the monochrome colours of pewter and charcoal, suddenly erupts into a sickening orange-red as the bodies of the soldiers burst open … As the camera observes each soldier’s internal agony in extended psychological close-up, the powerful sense of identification and empathy that the collective suicides elicit is countered by an equally strong sense, underscored by the character’s behaviour, lighting and sound, of suicide as profoundly ‘Other’, as transgression, as taboo”.[34]

I would like to stress that, showing the scenes of honour deaths and banzai, Eastwood deprives individual and collective suicide of connotation with something barbarian, uncivilized, and primitive. While self-sacrifice is primarily motivated culturally, it is also a question of being true to oneself and to individual values, of loyalty to commanders and soldier fellows, and of inflexibility and courage. We may acknowledge those who commit suicide as victims of traditions, ideology, or upbringing. However, we may also acknowledge them as heroes because they are able to overcome fear, to give their life to a cause and to show extremely strong will.

As I have already mentioned, in Letters from Iwo Jima Eastwood tries to escape from stereotypical images of the Japanese and to refute the decades when the Americans demonized them as a result of the war on Pacific. Since Pearl Harbor, American films have built an extremely negative image of the Japanese as aliens, traitors, barbarians, and creatures unworthy of the name of human beings. They were accused of sadism, brutality, fanaticism, perversity, dishonesty, indecency, lack of dignity, and shortage of empathy, as well as of hatred and contempt for their enemies. What is very important is that these attributes belonged to almost all of the Japanese. “On American screens”, Wang Xiaofei notes, “Japanese soldiers were repeatedly shown torturing POWs, killing civilians, and raping Chinese women. Japanese soldiers laughed when they were killing (Ray Enright’s Gung Ho! The True Story of Carlson’s Makin Island Raiders, 1943), when they were raping Chinese women (John Farrow’s China, 1943, Harold S. Buckuet’s and Jack Conway’s Dragoon Seed, 1944), or when they knew other soldiers had won a bloody battle (Lewis Milestone’s The Purple Heart, 1944). They smiled when they tried to ‘persuade’ American prisoners to speak (Edward Dmytryk’s Behind the Rising Sun, 1943 and Purple Heart). Japanese soldiers were also portrayed as sons of the jungle. They shot American soldiers in the back and they pretended to surrender only in order to kill GIs”.[35]

         Kathryn Kane notices that in American combat films, Japanese soldiers were shown as nameless and faceless, not people who could think and act as individuals.[36] They were anonymous masses specially created to be killed by American heroes. If some Japanese survived, they would probably commit seppuku (this ritual was presented in Edwin S. Martin’s Invisible Agent, 1942, in Behind the Rising Sun, Purple Heart, and in Frank Lloyd’s Blood on the Sand, 1945). Sometimes the presence of Japanese soldiers was only suggested. Xiaofei quotes the excerpt from the program to Tay Garnett’s Bataan (1943): “the Japs are totally impersonal; we don’t even see the planes—only their bombs and bullets and the damage they do”.[37]

         Ian Buruma explains why we encounter faceless enemies in many combat films: “More war movies have been about heroes, and individual differences among the enemies were irrelevant, since their villainy could be taken for granted … The whole point of feel-good propaganda is that the enemy has no personality; he is monolithic and thus inhuman”.[38]

         It is obvious that Eastwood does not use such a strategy in Letters from Iwo Jimia. On the contrary, he individualizes his characters: Saigo, Kuribayashi, Nishi, Shimizu, and even Ito. We get to know a lot about their lives, families, likes and dislikes, and systems of values. They are human beings to the core. They have their distinctive features so that they are easily recognizable by the audience. They are no more “Others”: they are like our friends and people around us.

The viewers find out a lot about the characters from flashbacks. Three of them belong to Kuribayashi (his visit to the United States as a military attaché), one to Saigo (call-up), and one to Shimizu (the incident with a pet dog and a Kempetai officer), and all are memories of a past prior to the war. They differ from the remaining fragments of the film in higher colour saturation; the scenes on Iwo Jima are almost drained of colour, restricting themselves to “an attenuated palette of pewter greys and pumice browns”.[39]

The use of flashbacks allows viewers to get into the minds of characters and to come to know their thoughts, emotions, and way of reasoning. In building such images of the Japanese characters, Eastwood breaks and deconstructs the conventions of war and combat films (although to a lesser degree than in Flags of Our Fathers). This does not mean the director ignores and rejects the whole genre’s tradition. Letters of Iwo Jima also preserves some of the fundamental tenets of combat movies. It follows the track of films such as Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s Westfront 1918: Vier von der Infanterie (1930), Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), William A Wellman’s Bastogne (1949), and Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951), all works that are distinguishable by a high degree of realism. However, absolute realism is impossible as combat movies contain acts of violence. As Stephen Prince writes, “the cinema cannot present violence in other than a pleasure-inducing capacity … The medium inevitably aestheticizes violence. The arousal and expression in cinema of ‘negative’ emotions—fear, anxiety, pain—typically occur as part of a pleasure-inducing aesthetic experience”. The reason is simple: “It seems likely that representations of violence on screen that are unrelentingly horrifying, nauseating, or disgusting will fail to attract viewers”.[40] Authentic images of combat violence are horrifying, nauseating, and disgusting.

Eastwood sets a high value on psychological realism. Sometimes, however, he abandons visual realism in favour of aesthetization of images that intensifies the film’s influence. This is true, among others, of battle scenes and those presenting ritual suicides and banzai. I have already mentioned, quoting Robert Burgoyne, the sequence showing the first collective suicide. This fragment is tragic and startling but it is extraordinarily beautiful at the same time. The aesthetization of death, wounds, and blood gives the audience pleasure in seeing the film. If the viewers looked at those horrors in reality, they would never feel satisfaction. Most of them would probably have to close their eyes.

I believe Letters from Iwo Jima is an almost standard example of a transnational film, both on production and plot levels. However, it does not mean it is an absolute turning point in American-Japanese cinematographic relations. As we already know, during the Second World War and the next decade Hollywood directors portrayed the Japanese as brutal and barbarian villains representing a lower and more primitive human race. However, in the mid-1950s they began to hint, in movies like Daniel Mann’s The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) and Joshua Logan’s Sayonara (1957), that the Japanese were not so alien and uncivilized. By the 1960s, even the war on Pacific was represented as more humane and noble. As Michael Paris writes, in Frank Sinatra’s None but the Brave (1965) and John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1969), “it is even suggested that some Japanese soldiers were not very different from Americans”.[41] Both films were American-Japanese co-productions, as was Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) directed by Richard Fleischer, Kinji Fukasaku, and Toshio Masuda, which was “a detailed examination of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but told with remarkable fairness”.[42] In subsequent years, a number of films appeared which were sympathetic to Japanese culture, tradition, and way of life. For example, movies such as Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza (1975) (“the first serious attempt of Western filmmakers to depict code-driven, context-driven interactions between peoples in Japan”[43]), John G. Avildsen’s The Karate Kid (1984), Fran Rubel Kuzui’s Tokyo Pop (1988), Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai (2003), Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), and Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha (2005).

However, Letters from Iwo Jima is an exceptional film. It is the only American combat movie made from a Japanese point of view and the only in which the author tries to understand and show respect to old Japanese customs and contemporary contradictions of Japanese ego. Eastwood reveals intense empathy towards the perfect cultural strangers who, by virtue of a government decision, became enemies of the United States. However, looking at somebody as at an enemy does not mean regarding him as a being deprived of humanity: a barbarian and a wild beast. Eastwood admits the very term “enemy” to be shady. Saigo, Shimizu, Kuribayashi, Nishi, and even Ito are not enemies. They are “trapped in a narrative of the primacy of patriotism, honour, and fate”[44] and led by cynical political leaders. Therefore, the true enemies are “politicians—the ones who are never seen in battle, but who willingly send soldiers off to die for a cause whose underlying rationale is virtually inscrutable”.[45] Japanese soldiers are victims, not perpetrators. They are to be pitied, not hated.



Braudy Leo, “Flags of Our Fathers / Letters of Iwo Jima”, Film Quarterly 60: 4 (2007).

Budd David H., Culture Meets Culture in the Movies: An Analysis East, West, North and South, with Filmohraphies (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland) (2002)

Burgoyne Robert, “Suicide in ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press) (2013).

Burrell Robert S., The Ghost of Iwo Jima (College Station: Texas A&M University Press) (2006).

Buruma Ian, “Eastwood War: The Battle of Iwo Jima”, Japan Focus, 5,  http://www.apjjf.org/-Ian-Buruma/2360/article.html, date accessed 28 July 2016.

Eikoh Ikui, „’Letters from Iwo Jima’: Japanese Perspectives”, Japan Focus, 2,  http://www.japanfocus.org/-Ikui-Eikoh/2417, date accessed 28 July 2016.

Ezra Elizabeth and Rowden Terry, „General Introduction: What is Transnational Cinema? [in:] Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (eds.), Transnational Cinema. The Film Reader (London and New York: Routledge) (2006)

Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus, the Learned and Authentic Jewish Historian, translated by William Whiston, A.M., vol. II (London: Henry G. Bohn) (1845).

Freiberg Freda, „China Nights (Japan, 1940): The Sustaining Romance [in:] John Whiteclay Chambers II, David Culbert (eds.), World War II, Film, and History (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press) (1996).

Gerow Aaron, “From ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ to ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’: Clint Eastwood’s Balancing of Japanese and American Perspective”, http://apjjf.org/-Aaron-Gerow/2290/article.html, date accessed 26 July 2016.

High Peter B., The Imperial Screen. Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press) (2003).

Kakekashi Kumiko, Letters from Iwo Jima (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson) (2007).

Kane Kathryn, Vision of War: Hollywood Combat Films of World War II (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press) (1982).

Paris Michael, “‘What Happened was Wrong!: Come See the Paradise’ and the Japanese-American Experience in the Second World War” in Repicturing the Second World War: Representations in Film and Television, ed. Michael Paris (London: Palgrave Macmillan) (2007),.

Prince Stephen (ed.), Screening violence (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press) (2000).

Schubart Rikke, “Eastwood and the Enemy” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press) (2013).

Schubart Rikke and Gjelsvik Anne, “Intruduction: Know Your Enemy, Know Yourself” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press)  (2013).

Sorensen Lars-Martin, “East of Eastwood. Iwo Jima and the Japanese Context” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press) (2013).

Vaux Sara Anson, The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood (Grand Rapids, Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) (2012).

“Tadamichi Kuribayashi”, http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Tadamichi_Kuribayashi, date accesed 4 August, 2016).

Xiaofei Wang, “Movies Without Mercy: Race, War, and Images of Japanese People in American Films, 1942-1945”, Journal of Amrican – East Asian Relations 18 (2011).

Zangenberg Mikkel Bruun, „Humanism versus Patriotism? Eastwood Trapped in the Bi-Polar Logic of Warfare” in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, ed. Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik (New York: Columbia University Press) (2013).


[1] Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik, “Introduction: Know Your Enemy, Know Yourself” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’ (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), p. 1.

[2] Eastwood quoted from the press material for the film Letters from Iwo Jima, “Letters from Iwo Jima Production Information”, 4.

[3] Another book that influenced and inspired Eastwood was Kumiko Kakekashi’s Letters from Iwo Jima (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007), originally published as Chipuzo Kanashiki (Tokyo: Shinchosha, 2005).

[4] Rikke Schubart, “Eastwood and the Enemy” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 174.

[5] Leo Braudy, “Flags of Our Fathers / Letters of Iwo Jima”, Film Quarterly; Summer 2007; 60, 4; p. 17.

[6] Aaron Gerow, “From ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ to ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’: Clint Eastwood’s Balancing of Japanese and American Perspective”, online: http://apjjf.org/-Aaron-Gerow/2290/article.html (accesed 26 July, 2016).

[7] See Sara Anson Vaux, The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood (Grand Rapids, Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), p. 157.

[8] The Poles consider the Russians to be the threatening barbarians, as „Asians” who want to conquer Poland and the whole Europe, as the rude, backward, conceited and always dead-drunk nationalists, poor and with no future before them. Meanwhile, the Serbs perceive Russians as the Slav brothers and the close friends.

[9] Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden, „General Introduction: What is Transnational Cinema? [in:] Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (eds.), Transnational Cinema. The Film Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), s. 1.

[10] Freda Freiberg, „China Nights (Japan, 1940): The Sustaining Romance” [in:] John Whiteclay Chambers II, David Culbert (eds.), World War II, Film, and History (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 34.

[11] Peter B. High, The Imperial Screen. Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), s. 421.

[12] Ikui Eikoh, „’Letters from Iwo Jima’: Japanese Perspectives”, Japan Focus, 2, online: http://www.japanfocus.org/-Ikui-Eikoh/2417 (accessed 28 July, 2016).

[13] Ibidem.

[14] Lars-Martin Sorensen, “East of Eastwood. Iwo Jima and the Japanese Context” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 210.

[15] Rikke Schubart, “Eastwood and the Enemy” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 189.

[16] Ian Buruma, “Eastwood War: The Battle of Iwo Jima”, Japan Focus, 5, online: http://www.apjjf.org/-Ian-Buruma/2360/article.html (accesed 28 July, 2016).

[17] Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg, „Humanism versus Patriotism? Eastwood Trapped in the Bi-Polar Logic of Warfare” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 220.

[18] Leo Braudy, “Flags of Our Fathers / Letters of Iwo Jima”, Film Quarterly; Summer 2007; 60, 4; p. 21.

[19] Rikke Schubart, “Eastwood and the Enemy” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 182.

[20] Ibidem, p. 184.

[21] Ibidem, p. 185.

[22] Ibidem, p. 185.

[23] Ian Buruma, “Eastwood War: The Battle of Iwo Jima”, Japan Focus.

[24] Rikke Schubart, “Eastwood and the Enemy” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 189.

[25] Tadamichi Kuribayashi, online: http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Tadamichi_Kuribayashi (accesed 4 August, 2016).

[26] Robert S. Burrell, The Ghost of Iwo Jima (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006), p. 47.

[27] Tadamichi Kuribayashi, online: http://ww2db.com/person_bio.php?person_id=21 (accesed 5 September 2016).

[28] Lars-Martin Sorensen, “East of Eastwood. Iwo Jima and the Japanese Context” [in:] Rikke Schubart &^ Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 197.

[29] Aaron Gerow, From ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ to ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’: Clint Eastwood’s Balancing of Japanese and American Perspective.

[30] Robert Burgoyne, “Suicide in ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 232.

[31] Ibidem, p. 232.

[32] The words credited to Elazar ben Yair, leader of Zealots defending the Jewish stronghold of Masada agains Roman army in 73. See: Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus, the Learned and Authentic Jewish Historian, translated by William Whiston, A.M., vol. II (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1845), s. 490.

[33] Robert Burgoyne, “Suicide in ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’” [in:] Rikke Schubart &^ Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 232.

[34] Ibidem, p. 234.

[35] Wang Xiaofei, “Movies Without Mercy: Race, War, and Images of Japanese People in American Films, 1942-1945”, Journal of Amrican – East Asian Relations 18 (2011), p. 18-19.

[36] Kathryn Kane, Vision of War: Hollywood Combat Films of World War II (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982), p. 56.

[37] Wang Xiaofei, Movies Without Mercy: Race, War, and Images of Japanese People in American Films, 1942-1945, “Journal of Amrican – East Asian Relations” 18 (2011), p. 22.

[38] Ian Buruma, “Eastwood War: The Battle of Iwo Jima”, Japan Focus, 5, online: http://www.apjjf.org/-Ian-Buruma/2360/article.html (accesed 28 July, 2016).

[39]. Leo Braudy, “Flags of Our Fathers / Letters of Iwo Jima”, p. 17.

[40] Stephen Prince (ed.), Screening violence (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), pp. 27-28.

[41] Michael Paris, “‘What Happened was Wrong!: “Come See the Paradise’ and the Japanese-American Experience in the Second World War” [in:] Michael Paris (ed.), Repicturing the Second World War: Representations in Film and Television (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 113.

[42] Ibidem, s. 113.

[43] David H. Budd, Culture Meets Culture in the Movies: An Analysis East, West, North and South, with Filmohraphies (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002), p. 52.

[44] Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg, „Humanism versus Patriotism? Eastwood Trapped in the Bi-Polar Logic of Warfare” [in:] Rikke Schubart & Anne Gjelsvik (eds.), Eastwood’s Iwo Jima. Critical Engagements with ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letter from Iwo Jima’, p. 220.

[45] Ibidem, p. 220.

Łukasz A. Plesnar is a Professor of Film Studies and holds the Chair of Film History at Jagiellonian University (the Institute of Audiovisual Arts). His main research interests, besides general film history, include silent cinema, classical American cinema, theory and history of film genres (particularly Western), as well as theory of film and American culture. He is the author of eleven books and almost one hundred other publications (in Polish, English, French, and Spanish). His books focus on ontology of film, semiotics of film, history of American cinema, Western and combat films, and the image of frontier in American literature.

He is currently completing a new book on Clint Eastwood as a film director.


Depictions of Post-9/11 South Asian Racial Profiling in Indian Cinema

Kaja Łuczynska

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 78-88.

Kaja Łuczynska

Jagiellonian University


Depictions of Post-9/11 South Asian Racial Profiling in Indian Cinema


Events that took place in USA on 11th September 2001 had a profound influence on the American culture, politics and society. It is very often said, that “nothing will be the same after 9/11” and in my article I would like to examine one of many 9/11 consequences, which is a shift in the image of many races and ethnicities. The attacks caused not only a great shift in homeland security, which resulted in many civil right violations, but also a return of large-scale racial profiling. The victims of such practices, apart from Arabs and people of Arabic descent, were also South Asians. In their cases “racial profiling” has become more of a “color profiling” (according to J.Angelo Corlett) which resulted in a series of hate crimes (such as the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi) and other forms of hostility. There are many Indian films concerning the problem briefly described above, but in my article I will focus on three of them: New York (2009, Kabir Khan), My Name Is Khan (2010, Karan Johar) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012, Mira Nair). All of them portray the issue of post-9/11 racial profiling of South Asians, but each focuses on a different aspect of the subject.

Key words: 9/11, USA, South Asians, racial profiling, Indian cinema, Bollywood


 The events that took place in the United States on 11th September 2001 had a profound influence on American culture, politics, and society. It is very often said that nothing will be the same after 9/11 and this is not an overstatement. In this paper, I would examine one of the many consequences of 9/11, which is the return of large-scale racial profiling and a significant shift in the image of South Asians living in the U.S. Until the tragic events of 2001, the phenomenon of racial profiling applied mostly to African-Americans and Mexicans, who were stereotypically considered “a dangerous element” that was prone to violence and criminality. However, after 9/11 the biggest fear was raised by people of Arabic descent and all those who happen to have “Arabic” (in the broadest and most common meaning of the word) features. The problem of racial profiling of American South Asians was depicted many times in films, especially those made in India or by Indian directors. Of the plethora of titles, I have chosen three that will establish a base for my study: New York (2009, Kabir Khan), My Name Is Khan (2010, Karan Johar), and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012, Mira Nair). All of them portray the issue of post-9/11 racial profiling, but each of them focuses on a different aspect.

South Asian Americans

Firstly, it is necessary to explain the term “South Asians” in the title of this paper. The definition below comes from a brochure entitled “In Our Own Words” as a response to the problem of post 9-11 racial profiling by organizations such as: New York City Profiling Collaborative; DRUM – Desis Rising Up and Moving; The Sikh Coalition; United Sikhs; South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!); Coney Island Avenue Project; Council of People’s Organization; and above all SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together). The handbook states, “The South Asian community comprises individuals who trace their ancestry to Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka; in addition, members of Afghan and Pastun communities”.[1]

In time, similarly to other ethnic groups, South Asian immigrants have become important members of American society and worked, studied, and lived in the United States. Many of them felt like fully-fledged U.S. citizens, especially the young generations, which identified themselves both as Americans and South Asians (they had a kind of “flexible citizenship”). However, their perceptions changed in the days after 9/11, which were filled with intolerance, hatred, and prejudice. Subsequently, “flexible citizenship can be a tenuous, or even potentially dangerous strategy for Muslim immigrant youth, for transnational ties and shifting national allegiances are precisely what have come under scrutiny for Muslim Americans by the state in the era of the Patriot Act”[2], writes Sunaina Maira in her study of South Asian Muslim Youth in Post-9/11 America.

American society has essentially been divided into two groups: allies and enemies. Previous modern and progressive views on immigrants’ nationalities have ceased to exist and the world has once again become black and white. This might seem like a simplification, as it is well known that attitudes to immigrants in the US have always been paradoxical.

America is built on immigration, needs immigration, and is at the same time massively suspicious of strangers, in a perfect incarnation of what Derrida calls “hospitality”. There is always a delicate balance of hostility and hospitality in acts of welcome”. Therefore, it can be said, “the stranger-foreigner is always both desired and rejected.[3]

However, the great shift mentioned above was obvious for most Americans, and especially those whose lives totally changed after the attacks on WTC. A great description of this change is provided by the already quoted publication “In Our Own Words”:

In the eyes of the world, New York City serves as the quintessential emblem of the vibrant diversity within the United States and the gateway to the American Dream. Amid the city’s mosaic of residents – including African Americans, Asians, Europeans, Latinos, Middle Easterners, and those from the Caribbean – South Asians have long established an indelible presence in the city. Yet, after the devastating attacks of September 11th, 2001 on the World Trade Center, Muslims and anyone perceived to be Muslim became the public enemy literally overnight. New York City soon shifted to become one of the epicentres of systemic racial and religious profiling against these communities. (…) Since September 11th, South Asian community members continue to encounter government scrutiny based on their race, national origin, and religion in various arenas.[4]

Racial Profiling

Everyday impediments, harmful racial profiling, and even acts of violence that touched South Asian Americans after 9/11 were not directly and unambiguously sanctioned, or inspired by law. Even the infamous Patriot Act, an Act of Congress that was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001 whose full title was “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001”, consisted of many notations on tolerance and peaceful coexistence with Muslim Americans:

Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and Americans from South Asia play a vital role in our Nation and are entitled to nothing less than the full rights of every American. The acts of violence that have been taken against Arab and Muslim Americans since the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States should be and are condemned by all Americans who value freedom. The concept of individual responsibility for wrongdoing is sacrosanct in American society, and applies equally to all religious, racial, and ethnic groups. When American citizens commit acts of violence against those who are, or are perceived to be, of Arab or Muslim descent, they should be punished to the full extent of the law. Muslim Americans have become so fearful of harassment that many Muslim women are changing the way they dress to avoid becoming targets. Many Arab Americans and Muslim Americans have acted heroically during the attacks on the United States, including Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old New Yorker of Pakistani descent, who is believed to have gone to the World Trade Center to offer rescue assistance and is now missing.[5]

The same kind of thought was expressed many times by the President George W. Bush, Jr., who said in the Address to the Joint Session of Congress, delivered on 20 September 2001:

I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It is practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them. [6]

Unfortunately, appeasing statements, such as this, which were ineffectual preventive measures against the outburst of violence towards Muslim Americans, did not sound convincing enough for many Americans, who desired palpable revenge. Apparently, it did not sound plausible for the government itself. For example in June 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a “Special Registration” requirement that all males from a list of Arab and Muslim countries report to the government to be registered and fingerprinted. According to the May 2011 statement by the American Civil Liberties Union, the program has never led to a single terrorism-related conviction despite tens of thousands of people forced to register. [7]

This is why, after 9/11 the security practice known as “racial profiling” began on a large, almost incomparable scale, which is, basically (according to the definition provided by Mathias Risse and Richard Zeckhauser): “any police-indicated action that relies on the race, ethnicity, or national origin and not merely on the behaviour of the individual”.[8] It might be also said that racial profiling entails racist stereotyping of those targeted[9], but that actually is not a general rule: sometimes it is just and based on statistics. For example, if the police is looking for members of a certain gang which is known to include only young Mexicans, that is the group which naturally should be targeted first in the investigation. [10]

However, the current cases of intolerance and prejudice that can be observed all around the U.S. are (in the majority) not just; moreover, according to J. Angelo Corlett, they are not really racial profiling, but rather colour profiling.[11] “So strictly speaking, not only is racial profiling not taking place in law enforcement, it ought not to, that is, so long as it is conceived in popular terms. What is really happening is colour (and/or other morphological) profiling, which is believed erroneously by many to indicate the “race” of a suspect. However, at best it is a prima facie indicator of race. At worst, it is rather misleading”.[12]

Corlett draws the attention to a very important issue. Not many people are experts at indicating someone’s race and ethnicity and what is more, even the concept of “race” itself is very problematic.[13] This is why it also enfolded people of South Asian descent, who were frequently taken as Arabs. An excellent (and at the same time gruesome) example of such mistakes was the treatment of Sikhs after 9/11, who were taken for Muslims (or even Islamic terrorists) because of their traditional headgear dastaar, which is a certain kind of turban covering their uncut hair (kesh).

The targets of their post-September 11 bias incidents have included anyone who is perceived to be Arab or Muslim. Thus, non-Arabs such as Indians, Pakistanis, and other South Asians have been affected, as have non-Muslims such as Indian Sikhs and Hindus and Arab Christians. Sikh men in particular, readily identifiable by their turbans and long beards, have borne a disproportionate burst of the violence (…).[14]

The most well-known case was the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh-American gas station owner from Arizona, which was officially acknowledged as the first of several cases across the United States that were supposed acts of retaliation for the 9/11 attacks. Balbir was murdered by 42-year-old mechanic Frank Silva Roque, who mistook him for an Arab American. “In a series of racist statements that began when the World Trade Centre collapsed, Roque announced his murderous plans and told a co-worker that he had been treated rudely at a gasoline station on University Drive by «a towel-head or a rag-head»” [15]

Racial profiling has grown to an impressive scale. The total number of reported hate crime incidents in the US decreased by over 18 percent between 2000 and 2009, but during the same period, the percentage of hate crime incidents directed towards Muslims increased by over 500 percent. The number of hate crimes against Muslims has been increasing more slowly since 2010.[16] This kind of crime also involves another, paradoxical feature: egalitarianism. It affects both affluent and poor members of society, so it does not matter if somebody is a well-educated doctor, IT specialist, shopkeeper, or unemployed. The only thing that counts is the skin colour and other aspects of appearance.[17]

American South Asian themselves listed expressions of racial profiling directed towards them:

  • South Asians are frequently questioned about their faith or national origin by government officials.
  • South Asians are often questioned by government officials about their immigration status, which is used as leverage to pressure individuals to inform on fellow community members.
  • South Asians subjected to profiling often feel being viewed as “suspects” by the general public, within their community, and even within their families
  • South Asians encounter profiling so routinely that many have altered their behaviour in an attempt to avoid additional scrutiny.
  • South Asians report that profiling has caused them to lose faith in the government’s ability to protect them in times of need.[18]

Looking for historical references to the scale of racial profiling after 9/11, it is necessary to move back to the times of Second World War, when a similar mechanism was implemented towards Japanese Americans. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI arrested more than 2,000 Japanese, suspecting them of links to the attackers. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which announced immediate evacuation of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast (many believed that Japan might soon strike there) to internment camps. 110,000 Japanese Americans (2/3 of whom were American citizens) were forced to move and as a consequence suffered great hardships and had to hurriedly sell their homes or businesses and relocate to crowded camps. Although there were more German, and Italian Americans living in the country than Japanese Americans, there was less hostility displayed towards them.[19]

Indian Cinema on 9/11 Racial Profiling

“The Western view of mainstream Bollywood is one-dimensional”,[20] writes Burhan Wazir in his article “Bollywood for Grown-ups”. Extremely differentiated Indian cinema is mostly perceived through masala-movies, produced in Mumbai, but it is a harmful simplification. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that:

The Bombay [Mumbai is official city’s name since 1995] industry actually produces about 150-200 films a year. Feature films are produced in approximately 20 languages in India and there are multiple film industries whose total output makes India the largest film-producing country in the world. The cities of Madras and Hyderabad are homes to the Tamil and Telugu language film industries which are equally, or more prolific that the Bombay industry in terms of the number of films made per year[21].

 Secondly, masala movies, especially recently, are not the only kind of films produced in India, and also look different from what the audience was used to, with titles such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001, Karan Johar). The term masala movie:

Alludes to the whole range of genres and emotions that one can expect to find in a Bollywood film. It is widely accepted that the spices used release different flavours, which find their parallel in what Sanskrit scholars call Rasas or «feelings». (…) The popular Hindi film is a unique blend of different moods and itself composes a specific genre because its constitution is so fixed. From the story line to the direction, these films are entirely grounded in melodrama. (…) The characters are strong stereotypes. These films are pure escapist material, blurring out the hard-knock reality of everyday life and what they do best is to provoke a huge emotional participation from the masses, who loudly manifest their reactions.”[22]

However, contemporary Indian cinema does not entirely look the way it is commonly perceived. Many movies deal with serious political or social issues, and draw public attention to previously ignored matters. “Hindi cinema can be political about the personal. A film that explores homosexuality or religious intermarriage will have an impact. However, it will always be done through the melodramatic form of the film, which should not detract from the argument, as entertainment is the way to reach large audiences”, says Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian cultures and cinema at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.[23] These issues can be immigration (Swades, 2004, Ashutosh Gowariker), gender-based discrimination (Chak De India, 2007, Shimit Amin), social class (English Vinglish, 2012, Gauri Shinde), teenage pregnancies (Teree Sang, 2009, Satish Kaushik), or even the problem of racial profiling after 9/11, broadly described above.

From many Indian films regarding the issue of racial profiling after 9/11, I have chosen three that depict the problem in an exceptionally interesting way. The first was directed by widely acclaimed Indian female film director Mira Nair, known for Salaam Bombay! (1988), Monsoon Wedding (2001), and Vanity Fair (2004). One of her recent films, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012), tells the story of a young Pakistani man who moves to USA and works in a finance company. Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) is a skilled professional who is valued by his supervisors and has a great career ahead, but unfortunately, after 9/11 his life changes completely. As a Pakistani, he is perceived as a danger for American homeland security and this attitude is expressed many times in the film. Changez is subjected to humiliating personal inspection at airports, is called “Osama” by random people on the street, and eventually comes to the upsetting conclusion that “I didn’t have to pick a side after 9/11. It was picked for me”. Surprisingly, in opposition to the domineering tendency, the protagonist does not try to hastily westernize himself and fit into American society after what happened. He grows a traditional beard, resigns from work, and goes back to Pakistan, where he starts to work at Lahore University. Until the very last scenes of the film, the viewer does not know whether Changez is just a random victim of racial profiling or a real, dangerous fundamentalist who was recruited by terrorists. Notwithstanding, Mira Nair is convinced that Changez deserves to be heard, and expresses that by introducing the character of journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), whose basic task is to listen to the main hero’s story.

Another film that depicts the problem of post-9/11 racial profiling is Kabir Khan’s New York, a seemingly typical Bollywood masala-movie, but with a very contemporary and bitter touch. Again (similarly to The Reluctant Fundamentalist), the narrative structure of the film is in the form of a retrospective. Young Indian Omar (Neil Nitin Mukesh) is arrested by an FBI agent Roshan (Irrfan Khan) for illegal possession of firearms. Soon it is unveiled that the detention was just a provocation, done in order to force Omar to inform on his best friend Sameer (John Abraham), who is suspected of terrorist activity. After a long period of persuasion, harassment, and blackmail, Omar finally agrees to report on Sameer, but only in order to prove his innocence. Unfortunately, his friend is not entirely blameless and is, in fact, preparing a large-scale terrorist attack. It may seem impossible and absurd, but in the film Sameer’s motivation is very reliably explained and related to another social problem. At some point he says, “Everything changed after 9/11, people stared at me on the street like I was a terrorist”, which is interesting, because by this point of the plot, Sameer was just a regular young American of Indian descent who was trying to start his own life with a woman he loved (Katrina Kaif). However, things changed after an illegal and accidental arrest, as a result of which Sameer landed in prison, which looked very much like Guantanamo Bay. This innocent film character was subjected to humiliation and torture such as sleep deprivation, water boarding, and music torture. In addition, that was exactly where and when Sameer met for the first time a real terrorist who, through the cell bars, invited him to join a terrorist sleeper cell in New York. After release, broken and mentally changed, Sameer decided that if he is treated a terrorist, he might as well become one and take revenge on the United States, which had treated him so horribly. This interesting plot twist suggests that to some degree it is the U.S. that is guilty in the “War on Terror”.

The third title, My Name is Khan, is definitely the most well-known, also because of the appearance of superstar Shah Rukh Khan in the main role of Rizwan Khan, an Indian immigrant suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. After the death of his mother, Rizwan—unable to live by himself—moves to the USA to live with his brother Zakir, a successful businessman who sells beauty products. While working for Zakir, the protagonist meets a charming single mother Mandira (Kajol), and after some time marries her and adopts her son Sameer (Arjan Aujla). Their happy life is disrupted by the 9/11 attacks, which once again change their lives totally. At some point Rizwan says, “In the western world, history is marked simply by BC and AD. Now however, there is a third distinction: 9/11”. To make matters worse, young Sameer is killed due to racial hatred exhibited by his school colleagues. The happy marriage of Mandira and Rizwan is over, but the husband decides to repair the relationship by visiting the president of United States and telling him in person: “My name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist”. Rizwan starts to follow George W. Bush Jr. and seeks to meet him. Unfortunately, he is taken for a terrorist, arrested, and put in a prison, in which he experiences violence and torture. Even his condition—essentially a mild form of autism—does not help him to be released. Finally—thanks to a crew of student filmmakers—Rizwan is freed and gains the opportunity to meet the president. However, he meets not the distant and cold George W. Bush, but the warm and friendly Barrack Obama, who treats Rizwan as a hero and hails him as an example of human endurance and determination.


Although the films mentioned above are primarily a form of entertainment (especially New York, which is rich in songs and romance, and My Name Is Khan, brimming with great Indian movie stars), they also focus on unpopular and complicated issues related to the life conditions of South Asians after 9/11. They do it in a surprisingly comprehensive and intelligent way, trying to depict different angles of the problem simultaneously. At the same time, they also do not revert to simplifications and one-dimensional treatment of their heroes. They are subordinated to one, maybe a little naïve and idealistic rule: everyone deserves to be heard no matter what their descent, background, religion, or even the crimes they have committed.

However, the problem is that this idea is complementary to the mistakes committed by the USA itself, prior to the tragic events of 9/11. They both represent the same level of naivety and idealism that cannot possibly exist in the real world. The false delusion of a tolerant global village in which all people live happily, are proud of their decent, and can reunite in a world without borders, had fallen alongside the two towers of the World Trade Center. The world was once again reminded that the idea of modern, secularized state is impossible to achieve.

Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize that some issues highlighted by films such as New York, My Name Is Khan, and The Reluctant Fundamentalist are important and should be kept in mind. The focal point of all the movies is not only post-9/11 racial profiling, but also its consequences, such as unlawful and violent treatment of South Asians, who were arrested without any explicit charges and without respect to their human rights. This reflects reality, in which there have been many cases of people detained for several years without charges, legal counsel, or representation. After 9/11, the classic rule of presumption of innocence changed to treating suspects as guilty until proven innocent. This undermined the very foundation of law. This definitely should not be a starting point for rebuilding a country after an enormous tragedy such as 9/11.


American Rhetoric, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/gwbush911jointsessionspeech.htm, date accessed 19 August 2016.

Ahmad Munner, “Homeland Insecurities: Racial Violence the Day After September 11”, Race/ Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, vol. 4, no. 3 (2011).

Chakraborty Chandrima, “Subaltern Studies, Bollywood and Lagaan”, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 38, no. 19 (2003).

Corlett J. Angelo, “Profiling Color”, The  Journal of Ethincs, vol. 15, no. 1 (2011).

Ganti Tejaswini, Bollywood. A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema (New York: Ruthledge) (2004).

Giese James R., Downey Matthew T., Mazón Mauricio (ed) The American Century: A History of the United States in Modern Times, (Cincinnati: West Educational Publishing) (1999).

In Our Own Words, http://www.issuelab.org/resource/in_our_own_words_narratives_of_south_asian_new_yorkers_affected_by_racial_and_religious_profiling , date accessed 19 August 2016.

Maira Sunaina, “Flexible Citizenship / Flexible Empire: South Asian Muslim Youth in Post-9/11 America”, American Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 3, 2006.

Ryberg Jesper, “The Ethics of Racial Profiling: Introduction”, The Journal of Ethics, vol. 15, no. 1/2 (2011).

Simpson David, “After 9/11: The Fate of Strangers”, Americastudien / American Studies, vol. 57, no. 2 (2012).

Swept Up in a Dragnet, Hundreds Sit in Custody and Ask, ‘Why?’, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/25/national/swept-up-in-a-dragnet-hundreds-sit-in-custody-and-ask-why.html, date accessed 22 August 2016.

Watson Institute, http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/social/rights/profiling, date accessed 19 August 2016.

Wazir Burhan, “Bollywood for Grown-ups”, The World Today, vol. 68, no. 6 (2012).

Rediff: India Abroad, http://www.rediff.com/us/2003/sep/03sodhi.htm, date accessed 19 August 2016.


 New York (2009, Kabir Khan)

My Name is Khan (2010, Karan Johar)

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012, Mira Nair)

Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001, Karan Johar)

Swades (2004, Ashutosh Gowariker)

Chak De India (2007, Shimit Amin)

English Vinglish (2012, Gauri Shinde)

Teree Sang (2009, Satish Kaushik)

Salaam Bombay! (1988, Mira Nair)

Monsoon Wedding (2001, Mira Nair)

Vanity Fair (2004, Mira Nair)


[1] In Our Own Words, http://www.issuelab.org/resource/in_our_own_words_narratives_of_south_asian_new_yorkers_affected_by_racial_and_religious_profiling, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[2] Sunaina Maira, “Flexible Citizenship / Flexible Empire: South Asian Muslim Youth in Post-9/11 America”, American Quarterly 60:3 (2006), p. 712.

[3] David Simpson, “After 9/11: The Fate of Strangers”, Americastudien / American Studies 57:2 (2012), p. 201.

[4] In Our Own Words, http://www.issuelab.org/resource/in_our_own_words_narratives_of_south_asian_new_yorkers_affected_by_racial_and_religious_profiling, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[5] The USA PATRIOT Act, https://www.justice.gov/archive/ll/what_is_the_patriot_act.pdf, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[6] American Rhetoric, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/gwbush911jointsessionspeech.htm, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[7] Watson Institute, http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/social/rights/profiling, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[8] J. Angelo Corlett, “Profiling Color”, The Journal of Ethincs 15:1 (2011), p. 25.

[9] J. Angelo Corlett, p. 25.

[10] J. Angelo Corlett, p. 21.

[11] J. Angelo Corlett, p. 25.

[12] J. Angelo Corlett.

[13] J. Angelo Corlett, p. 26.

[14] Ahmad Munner, “Homeland Insecurities: Racial Violence the Day after September 11”, Race/ Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 4:3 (2011), p. 341.

[15] Rediff: India Abroad, http://www.rediff.com/us/2003/sep/03sodhi.htm, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[16] Watson Institute.

[17] Ahmad Munner, p. 344.

[18] In Our Own Words.

[19] James R. Giese, Matthew T. Downey, Mauricio Mazón (ed), The American Century: A History of the United States in Modern Times (Cincinnati: West Educational Publishing) (1999), p. 527.

[20] Burhan Wazir, “Bollywood for Grown-ups”, The World Today 68: 6 (2012), p. 47.

[21] Tejaswini Ganti, Bollywood. A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema (New York: Ruthledge) (2004), p. 3.

[22] The “Masala” Film Recipe, http://www.postcolonialweb.org/pakistan/literature/rushdie/takhar20.html, date accessed 19 August 2016.

[23] Burhan Wazir, p. 47.

Kaja Łuczyńska – graduated Film Studies (BA, MA), American Studies (BA), and is now a PhD candidate at Jagiellonian University. Currently working on a dissertation about post-9/11 American cinema and its connections to the interdisciplinary concept of loss. Her articles have been published in magazines such as “Ekrany”, “Ha!art” and “Fragile”. She works also as a film educator and since 2011 has written a blog, „Orbitowanie bez cukru”.

Postcolonial adaptations of classic British literature

Bartłomiej Nowak

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 79-89.

Bartłomiej Nowak


Postcolonial adaptations of classic British literature



The article is an attempt of re-reading selected film adaptations of the classic British literature. The author confronts them with the images of history, British culture and ‘Others’ that are present in the literary works on which they are based. Is the gaze of the ‘center’ looking at the ‘margins’ present in the books transgressed in the movies or do the movies repeat the historical views of the authors and works unchanged despite different social and political context of the contemporary times?

For example, does Bride & Prejudice (2004), directed by Gurinder Chadha, combining the plot of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice with the form of the Bollywood cinema, reinterpret the text of the novel and let the viewer „read” it through the eyes of the postcolonial subject? How are the themes of slavery and postcolonialism treated in Derek Jarman’s and Julie Taymor’s movie adaptations of Shakespeare’s The Tempest? Is David Lean’s A Passage to India progressive or conservative in its portrayal of the Raj?

The author points to the works of postcolonial theoreticians (such as Frantz Fanon, Edward W. Said), interpretations of the movies and analysis of the literary works on which they are based. He tries to answer the question: is the spirit of the British colonial and imperial history still present in the film culture that is product of the changing (but neocolonial) world? Can this question be answered unambiguously?

Key words: postcolonialism, adaptations, British literature, rewriting history, interpretation

In this short article, I try to analyse a few film adaptations of classic British literature and compare the images of ‘Others’ they contain with those present in the texts on which they are based. I focus on four films: A Passage to India (1984, dir. David Lean), Bride & Prejudice (2004, dir. Gurinder Chadha), and two adaptations of The Tempest (1979, dir. Derek Jarman and 2010, dir. Julie Taymor). I try to answer the question: is the spirit of British colonial and imperial history still present in film culture that is a product of the changing (but neo-colonial) world?

Let me begin with Bride & Prejudice (2004), directed by Gurinder Chadha, which combines the plot of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice with the form of Bollywood cinema. Does this movie reinterpret the text of the novel and let the viewer “read” it through the eyes of the postcolonial subject?

Bride & Prejudice was made more than two decades after the beginning of British cinema’s ‘heritage cinema’ movement (which started with Chariots of Fire, 1981, dir. Hugh Hudson). It depicted the British Empire and the class society of the nineteenth or twentieth century and was frequently accused of being morally and socially conservative and the product of Thatcherism and its politics. Sometimes considered as a smaller part of the movement (and sometimes as a parallel phenomenon), the so-called Raj Revival cinema, which depicted the times of the British rule in India, was described by the British scholar, Andrew Higson, in the appropriately titled text Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film, in the following manner:

the imperialist fantasies of national identity found in the cycle of films and television programmes about the Raj, such as A Passage to India and The Jewel in the Crown, […] can be seen as conservative responses to a collective, post-imperialist anxiety. Retreating from the social, political, and economic crises of the present, they strive to recapture an image of national identity as pure, untainted, complete and in place. Yet like so many nostalgic narratives, they return to a moment of stability and tranquillity in the social order as they themselves chart the process of decay, the fall from this utopian national ideal […][1].

In contrast to this nostalgic cinema of the past, the socially aware movies of the decade, such as Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), depicted the times of Margaret Thatcher and a society of the mixed ethnic groups and sexual orientations. Heritage cinema did not avoid topics such as homosexual orientation (Maurice, 1987, dir. James Ivory; Another Country, 1984, dir. Marek Kanievska), or the situation of women in patriarchal society (A Room with a View, 1985, dir. James Ivory); however, it treated them (at least in the eyes of some scholars) in a conservative manner.

However, contemporary movies did not forget about the changes in the national structure of modern society and this was probably the biggest difference between them and heritage cinema, which usually showed the British nation as homogenous, white, and divided only by class and gender (despite the fact that black people were part of British society as early as the 16th century[2]). The movies and TV series of the Raj Revival movement obviously showed people of colour, but not usually as the main protagonists of their own history. Salman Rushdie in the essay Outside the Whale cites the words of David Lean, director of the movie A Passage to India (1984), which was adapted from the novel written by E. M. Forster in 1924 (some twenty-three years before India gained independence from the British Empire):

 Forster was a bit anti-English, anti-Raj and so on. I suppose it’s a tricky thing to say, but I’m not so much. I intend to keep the balance more. I don’t believe all the English were a lot of idiots. Forster rather made them so. He came down hard against them. […] As for Aziz [the Muslim protagonist of the novel], there’s a hell of a lot of Indian in him. They’re marvellous people but maddening sometimes, you know…. He’s a goose.[3]

Such a statement shows that the Raj Revival movement might be seen as “a revisionist enterprise”[4]: an attempt to change history, conceal its atrocities, and show the empire as a still valuable model for the national and social future of Great Britain.

Gurinder Chadha’s movie was made more than a decade after the end of Margaret Thatcher’s rule as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Jane Austen was not popular with directors in the 1980s, but was rediscovered in the next decade when at least few movies based on her works were made. Her popularity did not end with the beginning of the 21st century but Chadha’s movie differed in more than one way from most of Austen’s adaptations. She changed the setting from 19th century Britain to modern Britain, India, and the United States. Elizabeth Bennet, the main protagonist of the novel, is now Lalita Bakshi and Mr. Darcy’s citizenship was changed to American. If the change of the name of the main heroine is justified mainly by the new setting of the story (India), the fact that Darcy is now a citizen of the United States is the result of the new world order in which the United Kingdom was replaced by the USA in the role of the main world power. It is even said in the movie when Lalita complains about Darcy’s plans to build a new hotel in India for tourists from the West: “I thought we got rid of imperialists like you!” To his words “I’m not British. I’m American” she responds “Exactly”.

It might be said that Chadha clashes here with the nostalgic atmosphere of heritage cinema. By recontextualization of Austen’s text, changing of its time and place, it no longer has the power to evoke the past. At the same time, by using British text as a background for the modern story of cultural clashes, Chadha asks questions about the meaning of nation and cultural identity, about belonging to the national whole. Two of the main characters in the movie are British Asians. Their cultural identity is compared (rather unfavourably) with the identity of Indian people (Lalita and her family), still immersed in Indian tradition.

Lalita accuses Darcy and other rich people of the West of trying to turn India into a ‘theme park’, and Chadha’s movie can be seen as a response to this type of thinking about the Orient and Eastern cultures. There are scenes in the movie that show the colourful world of Indian culture that might appeal (by its ‘otherness’) to Western audiences; for example, scenes of singing and dancing reproducing the style of the Bollywood musical movies (or ‘masala’ movies as they are called), local garba dances and mujra, etc. However, these scenes do not function in the diegesis of the movie as the Oriental attraction, but are the proof that Indian culture still pulsates with life and is much more than a picturesque place from tourist guides of neo-colonial businessmen. The final scene shows Darcy riding on an elephant, clearly being taken by the beauty of India. This might be seen as a symbolic triumph of a postcolonial culture over a neo-colonial power, even if for Western audiences this could also be a phantasmatic neo-colonial dream of wild adventures in the Eastern milieu becoming reality.

When the movie protagonists travel to London, the capital city of the United Kingdom is shown in a sequence of short cuts of landmarks such as Big Ben, Tower Bridge, or the London Eye. Among them is one that is not as known abroad, but here it is treated as just another landmark building: the gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, the Sikh temple situated in Southall. Such editing punctuates the multiculturalism of British society and the British capital city.

Combining the new vision of postcolonial and multicultural Great Britain with one of India—still honouring its traditions and withstanding neo-colonial attempts of new imperial powers to constrain its freedom by global economic forces—Chadha shows a totally different reality than the one seen in heritage cinema and the movies of the Raj Revival movement, and the fact that her movie is set in contemporary times is not the only reason for this difference. As previously mentioned, heritage cinema avoided difficult topic of ethnic diversity and—in the movies of Raj Revival—recreated the image of empire and British rule in India, but turned away from the necessity of dealing with the racist and violent atrocities of the past. When historical movies of the 1980s did touch on the topic of the violent British rule—as was the case with Gandhi, 1982, dir. Richard Attenborough, which shows the massacre of 1919 in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, when many innocent people were killed after orders of the British general Reginald E. H. Dyer to shoot at a peaceful demonstration—this tragedy is shown as an aberration, as an error of one man, not the whole imperialistic system. “The moral mission of imperialism, while certainly discredited in some respects […], is also partly recuperated through an insistence on the essential rectitude of the British national character […]”, notices Bart Moore-Gilbert, author of a book analysing the works of Hanif Kureishi, a British writer, screenwriter and director who wrote screenplays for the aforementioned movies of Stephen Frears. “Whereas Attenborough clearly sentimentalises Gandhi, the more obviously ‘political’ Jinnah is an antipathetic figure, cold, rigid, aloof, and cunning, who compares badly not just with his rival but with many of the British officials.”[5] Such differences tend to show (by contrast) that the British nation did bring civilisation and gentlemanship to the allegedly uncivilised world of precolonial India.

Chadha’s movie contrasts such a presentation of history and India. It is worth noting that it is set in Amritsar, the city of the Amritsar massacre, and this tragedy had an impact on Chadha’s previous work: in her debut short movie I’m British but…, in which she presented the phenomenon of bhangra music and talked with young British Asian people about their national identity, this crime of the British empire is remembered. One of the female protagonists of this document says, I don’t think that one should forget one’s history. […] You can’t forget about events like the Amritsar massacre”. We also hear a song with the words: “Recall that it was these same foreigners | That took their rifles to us – | […] And every corner lies in witness. | O Jallianwala Bagh”. Maybe it is not a coincidence that a city that became a symbol of colonial criminality was chosen by Chadha as the setting for Bride and Prejudice, with all its critique of neo-colonialism.

Not all modern readings of British classic literature are as apparently postcolonial in their interpretations. A lot has been said and written about Shakespeare’s The Tempest and its antagonist Caliban. Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan in the book Shakespeare’s Caliban. A Cultural History notice:

In any event, scholars have wrangled over Caliban’s genesis since at least the middle of the eighteenth century. What did Shakespeare intend when he fashioned his puppy-headed monster? Was his paradigm the American Indian, for example, or an African perhaps, or Europe’s mythical wodewose? And if he had American Indians in mind, were they Montaigne’s noble savages or their ignoble opposites or a combination of both? Or, on the other hand, did the playwright shun obvious exemplars and contrive instead a creature unrelated to existing figures or types? The answer, of course, is elusive and endlessly debatable.[6]

This debate is caused by the constantly valid question of presentation: is Caliban a racist creation, based on all Western presuppositions about the alleged savageness of primitive cultures, or maybe we can say that his “rebellion against Prospero’s control—in whatever form it is represented—embodies issues fundamental to a culture’s ideology”[7]. In our context, “ideology” might mean Western faith in its superiority and supremacy over lands and people colonised through the ages.

There have been more adaptations of The Tempest, but I would like to centre on two of them: the one made in 1979 by Derek Jarman, and the other directed by Julie Taymor in 2010. Taymor did not give up the colonial and racial connotations of presenting Caliban as a black character. In the role she cast Djimon Hounsou, an actor born in Benin, Africa. It might be said that Taymor is not

bound by the post-colonial context of Tempest interpretation. She cast a black actor […] but then coated him with mud and fish scales, his own skin showing through only in a moon-like circle around his left eye. […] Whether improvised by the actor or at Taymor’s behest, her Caliban does a shockingly real impersonation of a gorilla. Taymor returned him to the status of the alien other, a primitive beast, not a human being. His only moment of human dignity is a silent face off with Prospera toward the end of the play in a scene invented by Taymor.[8]

Such moments of human dignity are completely absent from Jarman’s adaptation, but he decided to cast white blind actor Jack Birkett in the role and thus abandoned the more obvious colonial and postcolonial meanings that were important for Taymor more than three decades later. In the Polish monograph of Jarman, Małgorzata Radkiewicz claims that the way in which he is presented in Jarman’s version (of Birkett’s acting is grotesque and full of caricature) makes Prospero more delicate and subtle in comparison (despite his tyranny over Caliban and Ariel)[9]. For both Jarman and Taymor, gender issues are more important than racial ones; however, the subject of slavery, which could not disappear even from Jarman’s version, exists there behind themes of queerness and physicality. Taymor even changed the sex of Prospero and made him Prospera and Jarman spent a lot of time sexualising the sculptural body of David Meyer, who played Ferdinand. However, the theme of disobedience of the enslaved Caliban is still present in both versions and its meanings cannot be ignored despite the stereotypical savagery of both Calibans (and the whiteness of one from the earlier movie).

Frantz Fanon in his famous book Black Skin, White Masks, when writing about the image of blackness or otherness, notices:

The Tarzan stories, the sagas of twelve-year-old explorers, the adventures of Mickey Mouse, and all those “comic books” serve actually as a release for collective aggression. The magazines are put together by white men for little white men. This is the heart of the problem. In the Antilles – and there is every reason to think that the situation is the same in the other colonies – these same magazines are devoured by the local children. In the magazines the Wolf, the Devil, the Evil Spirit, the Bad Man, the Savage are always symbolized by Negroes or Indians; since there is always identification with the victor, the little Negro, quite as easily as the little white boy, becomes an explorer, an adventurer, a missionary “who faces the danger of being eaten by the wicked Negroes”.[10]

Even if these sentences are not as true nowadays as they were when these words were written (there are black comic book writers these days etc.), they show how the proper representation of otherness (or lack thereof) can affect human identity and self-respect. So how is the history of slavery treated in the adaptations of Shakespeare that are being discussed here? In addition, does this correspond with postcolonial thinking about the past or sustain the colonial ideology of race and the superiority of the Western civilisation?

Janja Ciglar-Žanić claims that: “Jarman […] locates the issues of colonization, subordination, and domination on the territory of the human body, and uses The Tempest to speak for those repressed Others, whose subordination and repression has been effected through the deployment of the dominant ideological construct of human sexuality.”[11] I suggest that this might be also the case with Taymor’s version. The unnatural cover of Caliban’s body, these “mud and fish scales”, as Alan A. Stone described them in the previously cited analysis, quite literally transfer the issue of subordination onto the surface of the human being: this cover hides the natural blackness of Hounsou’s body and forces viewers to see him through it. Part of Hounsou’s face is covered with white make-up. This might remind us of the title of Fanon’s book, already cited here: “black skin, white masks”. Despite the fact that Shakespeare’s text and previous interpretations of his play very often treat Caliban as a beast-like creature, I suggest that Taymor’s version is only seemingly similar to them. By casting a woman (Helen Mirren) in the role of Prospero and gay actor (Ben Whishaw) as Ariel, she showed that gender, body, and sexual issues are key to her interpretation of Shakespeare’s play (and this was also the case with her previous movie adaptation of the Bard of Avon’s play, Titus, 1999). “Mud and fish scales” might be read as a veil, a mask (of the whole body) and the wild, ‘primitive’ behaviour of Taymor’s Caliban as the physical, colonial stereotype that is just the normative cover behind which lies the truth about the Other which is as elusive as it is desired (this desire of knowledge and understanding of the Other is also found on Caliban’s body: Hounsou is strong, perfectly built, and indisputably attractive despite the unnatural skin cover). Obviously, this might be read as the stereotypical sexualisation of the bodies of black men, and the fact that Caliban’s sexual force is tamed now by a woman, Prospera, asks questions about the position of genders in the postmodern world: the real one and the one of Taymor’s adaptation. However, it would be deceptive to read Taymor’s movie through conservative glasses, forgetting about all the body issues that are at the same time stereotypical and transgressive. For example, questions about colonialism have to be asked differently when Prospera is no longer a figure of patriarchal power.

As Edward W. Said says in Culture and Imperialism about Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête, which re-writes Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

The core of Aimé Césaire’s Carribean Une Tempête is not ressentiment, but an affectionate contention with Shakespeare for the right to represent the Caribbean. That impulse to contend is part of a grander effort to discover the basis of an integral identity different from the formerly dependent, derivative one. Caliban, according to George Lamming, »is the excluded, that which is eternally below possibility… He is seen as an occasion, a state of existence which can be appropriated and exploited to the purposes of another’s own development.« If that is so, then Caliban must be shown to have a history that can be perceived on its own, as the result of Caliban’s own effort. One must, according to Lamming, »explode Prospero’s old myth« by christening »language afresh«; but this cannot occur »[…] until we make available to all the result of certain enterprises undertaken by men who are still regarded as the unfortunate descendants of languageless and deformed slaves«.[12]

Does a similar attempt to regain Caliban’s history for himself show up in Taymor’s or Jarman’s movie adaptations? I have tried to suggest here that gender and race issues are equivalents in both movies and that by emphasizing the enslaving nature of gender and sexual norms, Taymor and Jarman show the core of Western culture in which the Other (regardless of the reason of his Otherness: his gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion etc.) is tamed by norms that have to be broken, taken off like these “mud and fish scales”, to get to the true (but elusive) nature of his identity. Physicality always was one of the main reasons of intolerance and inequality: queerness and womanhood gain power in both movie adaptations of The Tempest and therefore it might be said that Jarman and Taymor contest patriarchalism: its history and its model of thinking about the Other and its place in the social structure of the past and the present. Non-whiteness is not forgotten, even if it is removed from the diegesis of Jarman’s movie. By casting a white actor as Caliban, Jarman forces viewers to ask themselves questions about power, norms, slavery etc. without connecting them directly with themes of race and ethnicity and therefore making them fundamental subjects of Western culture, significant in all kinds of contexts.

As part of this article, I would like to return to Lean’s A Passage to India. I have cited already Lean’s words about his approach to E. M. Forster’s novel. After all that has been written here about both adaptations of The Tempest, it is worth noting that both E. M. Forster’s novel and Lean’s movie can be interpreted as conservative or progressive, depending on the analysed aspect of the book or film. T. Muraleedharan in the text Imperial migrations: Reading the Raj cinema of the 1980s writes:

The most significant feature of the rewriting of history attempted by A Passage to India and Heat and Dust [another movie of the Raj Revival movement, 1983, dir. James Ivory] is the films’ neat reversal of the oppressor/victim dichotomy. Colonised India—a victim of political and economic oppression and exploitation—ends up appearing in these films as a mysterious and evil force that disrupts the middle-class domesticity of England.[13]

The most recognizable example of such a ‘reversal’ in A Passage to India is the scene in which one of the female protagonists of the movie, Mrs. Moore, during her journey to the fictitious Marabar Caves, loses breath when she becomes surrounded by a group of Indian inhabitants in one of the caves. Such an image suggests that she is a victim of the ‘aggressive, sensual […] physicality”[14] of the Indian people, while she actually is (as a British citizen) one of the imperialistic oppressors.

On the other hand, the gender politics of E. M. Forster’s text (and Lean’s movie) help to transgress the boundaries of the conservative colonial (or postcolonial) content of the book and film. Thus, once again gender politics might be key to a progressive re-reading and reinterpretation of the classic text. Leela Gandhi claims in her book Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction that no one understood the colonial ‘hostility’ between British women and Indian men better than E. M. Forster[15]. This hostility was related to the national identity of Indian men and the stereotypical model of Indian womanhood that was allegedly endangered by European women and their style of living. At the same time, British women were jealous that the bond between their partners and Indian men might be homoerotic[16]. Such suspicions were the results of the Western perception of Oriental sexuality and the stereotypes of the alleged effeminacy of Indian men. Such a bond also found a place in Forster’s novel. Forster was gay and the main protagonist of his novel, Fielding, befriends a local Muslim man, Aziz, and even if their friendship does not have a clear homosexual subtext, Fielding supports Aziz when he is accused of a rape attempt by an English girl, Adela Quested. Fielding does so despite the resistance of his compatriots.

This subtext (regardless of its meaning: whether it is clearly homosexual or not) allows criticism of the colonial discourse that simplifies sexual and gender differences between the East and the West. The mythical superiority of the colonizer (who allegedly should be heterosexual because his homosexuality would ruin the cultural construct of manhood) is questioned because it is revealed that the sexual and gender discourse models of the masculine West and the effeminate East are only constructs that can be (and very often are) transgressed.

This content of Forster’s novel stays intact in Lean’s movie and therefore it might be interesting to watch his film through pink glasses of queerness. I wanted to show that even texts that are usually read as conservative might contain content that can be seen as progressive and anticolonial and that one-sided reading of cultural texts is very often problematic.

To finish this article, let me rephrase the question from the first paragraph: do postcolonial movies reinterpret classic texts of the British literature? Unfortunately, as we have seen, this question cannot be answered in a simple way. However, I have tried to show in this article that modern attempts to read the classics differently, by theory or reinterpretation, let modern cinema cope with the colonial past in a way that contests the old thinking about norms, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.



Bourne Stephen, “Secrets and lies. Black histories and British historical films” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002).

Chari Hema, “Colonial Fantasies and Postcolonial Identities: Elaboration of Postcolonial Masculinity and Homoerotic Desire” in Postcolonial, Queer, ed. John C. Hawley (Albany: State University of New York Press) (2001).

Ciglar-Žanić Janja, “Anti-colonial Tempest: Theory and Practice of Postmodernist Shakespearean Reinscriptions”, Studia Romanica et Anglica Zagrabiensia 42 (1997).

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, (London: Pluto Press) (2008).

Higson Andrew, “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film” in British Cinema and Thatcherism, ed. Lester D. Friedman (London, New York: Wallflower Press 2006).

Lamming George, The Pleasures of Exile, (London: Allison & Busby) (1984).

Moore-Gilbert Bart, Hanif Kureishi, (Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press) (2010).

Muraleedharan T., “Imperial migrations. Reading the Raj cinema of the 1980s” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002).

Nandy Ashis, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of the Self Under Colonialism, (Delhi: Oxford UP) (1983).

Radkiewicz Małgorzata, derek jarman: portret indywidualny, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo RABID) (2003).

Rushdie Salman, Outside the Whale, https://granta.com/outside-the-whale/, date accessed 4 September 2016.

Said Edward W., Culture and Imperialism, (London) (1994).

Stone Alan A., Drowned Out. Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, http://new.bostonreview.net/BR36.2/alan_a_stone_julie_taymor_tempest.php, date accessed 4 September 2016

Vaughan Alden T., Vaughan Virginia Mason, Shakespeare’s Caliban. A Cultural History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (1999).


[1] Andrew Higson, “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film” in British Cinema and Thatcherism, ed. Lester D. Friedman (London, New York: Wallflower Press 2006), p. 104.

[2] Compare with: Stephen Bourne, “Secrets and lies. Black histories and British historical films” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 58.

[3] Cited by: Salman Rushdie, Outside the Whale, https://granta.com/outside-the-whale/, date accessed 4 September 2016.

[4] Salman Rushdie.

[5] Bart Moore-Gilbert, Hanif Kureishi, (Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press) (2010), p. 76.

[6] Alden T. Vaughan, Virginia Mason Vaughan, Shakespeare’s Caliban. A Cultural History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (1999), p. xx.

[7] Alden T. Vaughan, Virginia Mason Vaughan, p. xvi.

[8] Alan A. Stone, Drowned Out. Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, http://new.bostonreview.net/BR36.2/alan_a_stone_julie_taymor_tempest.php, date accessed 4 September 2016

[9] See: Małgorzata Radkiewicz, derek jarman: portret indywidualny, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo RABID) (2003), p.27.

[10] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, (London: Pluto Press) (2008), p. 112-113.

[11] Janja Ciglar-Žanić, “Anti-colonial Tempest: Theory and Practice of Postmodernist Shakespearean Reinscriptions”, Studia Romanica et Anglica Zagrabiensia 42 (1997), pp. 73.

[12] Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, (London) (1994), p. 256-257. Cited in: Janja Ciglar-Žanić, p. 82-83. Said cites Lamming from: George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile, (London: Allison & Busby) (1984), p. 107 and 119.

[13] T. Muraleedharan, “Imperial migrations. Reading the Raj cinema of the 1980s” in British Historical Cinema, ed. Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant (London, New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 150.

[14] T. Muraleedharan, p. 150.

[15] Leela Gandhi, Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction, (New York: Columbia University Press) (1998), p. 97.

[16] Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of the Self Under Colonialism, (Delhi: Oxford UP) (1983), p. 9-10. Cited in: Hema Chari, “Colonial Fantasies and Postcolonial Identities: Elaboration of Postcolonial Masculinity and Homoerotic Desire” in Postcolonial, Queer, ed. John C. Hawley (Albany: State University of New York Press) (2001), s. 281.

Bartłomiej Nowak, prior to completing his Ph.D. in Humanities in Art Studies at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, he studied film studies and computer science. His doctoral dissertation about the presentation of ethnic minorities in modern British cinema and the postcolonial content of British movies was defended in 2015. His academic research concerns, among others, cinema, ethnic and sexual minorities, gender and postcolonial issues.

Mexican Minimalist Cinema: Articulating the (Trans)national

Bolesław Racięski

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 118-131

Bolesław Racięski

Jagiellonian University


Mexican Minimalist Cinema: Articulating the (Trans)national



In the article I aim to identify and analyse the specific elements of the Mexican minimalistic cinema (minimalismo mexicano) in both transnational and national contexts.

Mexican minimalistic cinema is a relatively new phenomenon that arose in Mexico around the year 2002 and is now widely regarded as one of the most important phenomena in the world cinema. It is often considered to be a subdivision of slow cinema, since it utilises similar formal and narrative devices. While the researchers generally focus on the universal, supranational aspects of the slow films, I intend to expose how the Mexican filmmakers make use of the aesthetic and storytelling devices deriving from the slow cinema to comment on Mexican cultural traditions, current social and political issues, notions of national mythologies and history.

The first part of the article focuses on the category of „transnationality” in the context of film studies, and the basic characteristics of Mexican minimalist cinema as the transnational cinema. The last part is devoted to the analyses of „Heli” (2013, dir. Amat Escalante) and „Lake Tahoe” (2009, dir. Fernando Eimbcke) – the two examples of Mexican minimalist films that, despite their transnational appeal, are deeply rooted in national preoccupations.

Key words: transnationality, Mexican cinema, Amat Escalante, Fernando Eimbcke, slow cinema, minimalism



 In the following article I identify and analyse the elements of Mexican minimalist cinema (minimalismo mexicano) in both transnational and national contexts. The most interesting aspect of the topic appears to be the question of how Mexican minimalist films utilize stylistic and storytelling strategies that are commonly identified with the transnational phenomenon of slow cinema[1] in order to comment on strictly Mexican cultural traditions, current social and political issues, the notions of national mythologies, and cinematic traditions.

I start by explaining how I understand the category of transnationality and why it seems fitting to use it in the examination and interpretation of Mexican minimalist films. The next part of the text focuses on the basic characteristics of Mexican minimalism as transnational cinema and simultaneously constitutes a revision of the most relevant characteristics of slow cinema. The last part is devoted to the analysis of two representative examples of minimalismo mexicano: Heli (2013) by Amat Escalante and Lake Tahoe (2009) by Fernando Eimbcke. These two movies, despite their transnational appeal, are rooted in national preoccupations and encompass two extremities of a wide spectrum of Mexican minimalist cinema. Lake Tahoe is rather comical in tone and its national concerns are hidden underneath an apparently simple narrative. On the other hand, Heli tells a grim and shocking story, which is clearly engaged with the current problems of Mexico.

The term “minimalismo mexicano” appeared in Mexican film criticism at the beginning of the 21st century, mainly thanks to the artistic success of such filmmakers as Carlos Reygadas (e.g. Japón, 2002), Amat Escalante (e.g. Sangre, 2005), Enrique Rivero (e.g. Parque vía, 2008), Nicolás Pereda (e.g. Perpetuum Mobile, 2009) and Fernando Eimbcke (e.g. Temporada de patos, 2004)[2]. This term does not determine a clearly structured film movement, but mainly refers to directors’ admiration for aesthetic minimalism and nondramatic narratives deprived of climaxes and focused primarily on an individual.

It is also possible to use this term in the context of the production process: the discussed films were made for a (relatively) small amount of money and mainly feature amateur actors and unknown beginners. At the same time, it is noteworthy that—as observed by Germán Martínez Martínez—the discussed term is not homogenous and refers to films of comedic character (Eimbcke’s oeuvre) as well as to those which penetrate the dark side of human existence[3]. Nevertheless, their clearly visible common features undoubtedly allow for a conceptualization of these individual films as a group. The discussed films are created on the margins of the dynamically developing Mexican film industry and—even if they sometimes appeal to the wider audience (e.g. Temporada de patos, 2004, Fernando Eimbcke)—they are mostly screened at international festivals of art cinema.

The question of ‘transantionality’

In the article “On the Plurality of Cinematic Transnationalism,” Mette Hjort accurately observes that this particular term is surrounded by an “aura of indisputable legitimacy” (by virtue of widespread „transnational arrangements in the world of contemporary filmmaking, and the undeniable transnational dimensions of earlier periods of cinematic production”), which, however, threatens to blur the definition and, consequently, render the term useless as a methodological tool. Hjort claims that „the term <<transnational>> does little to advance our thinking (…) if it can mean anything and everything”[4]. Will Higbee and Song Hwee Lim remark that the term ‘transnational cinema’ is sometimes employed in order to talk about productions created as a result of cooperation between filmmakers from different parts of the world; however, in this case the crucial aesthetic, political, and economic consequences of such cooperation are neglected[5]. Deborah Shaw also says that the problematic term “has often been used without any definition or explanation of what it meant”[6]. The prevalence and the inaccurateness of the term made some researchers question its usefulness in film studies[7].

Due to the threat of methodological uncertainty, it is helpful to consider M. Hjort’s proposal to distinguish between strongly transnational cinema and weakly transnational cinema. She writes that a “given cinematic case would qualify as strongly transnational, rather than only weakly so, if it could be shown to involve a number of specific transnational elements related to levels of production, distribution, reception, and the cinematic works themselves”[8]. Another division is the one distinguishing marked transnationality (the audience pays attention to elements of a film which prompt thinking about its transnational character) and unmarked transnationality (for example, transnationality is not visible until the production process has been analysed)[9]. The present article lacks space for a complex research on transnational aspects of production, distribution, and exhibition of minimalismo mexicano, since it is the analysis of the film text itself which lies at the centre of my attention. Nonetheless, it is important to reflect briefly upon it, in order to demonstrate that many Mexican minimalist films involve forms of the unmarked transnationality and are frequently close to being considered as strongly transnational.

Mexican minimalist cinema as the transnational cinema: production, distribution, exhibition

In terms of the production process, Mexican minimalism is largely dependent on foreign funds. Neoliberal transformations which started to take place in the national film industry at the end of the 1980s led to a situation in which the state virtually stopped supporting non-commercial films. Independent production companies gradually started to emerge (in the middle of the 1990s the art cinema market in Mexico was small, but relatively stable[10]), which, at the beginning of the current century, commenced with the financial support offered by international festivals. Carlos Reygadas and Amat Escalante’s projects are backed by the Hubert Bals Fund (Rotterdam International Film Festival), which also helps other Mexican filmmakers, such as Nicolás Pereda. On the other hand, Fernando Eimbcke was supported by the Sundance Film Festival when he was working on Lake Tahoe. In search for funds, filmmakers take abundant advantage of the possibilities offered in cooperation with other countries, e.g. Amat Escalante’s Heli is a coproduction of entities from four countries, namely Mexico, the Netherlands, France and Germany[11]. Even if certain state mechanisms created to support ambitious artistic productions have been introduced in Mexico (FOPROCINE fund, tax exemption for film investors), many authors of minimalismo are still forced to look for funds around the world.

If a film has been produced, the creators are usually confronted with an inability to release it in Mexico. As the critic Jorge Ayala Blanco observes, the total number of 75 produced films per year is inconsequential if only 45 of them are ever released to cinemas[12]. The director Felipe Cazals compares the situation of the national cinema to “an airport which is deprived of a landing strip”: films are numerous, but few of them are later shown on the big screen to national audiences[13]. As remarked by Ayala Blanco, the production of Mexican cinema is “the worst business in the world” as recovering the money is still almost impossible[14]. Therefore, minimalismo directors have always focused on the international release, which means that films premier at international festivals (Cannes, Berlinale, Sundance, Rotterdam) in order to get foreign distribution firms (Media Luna and others) and reach international audiences. They frequently appear in Mexican cinemas at the end of their journey and in a minimal number of copies, screened mostly in the Cineteca Nacionál complex.

Hence, minimalismo mexicano has undoubtedly a transnational character in terms of production, distribution, and exhibition: the films are often created thanks to international financial support with the goal of reaching audiences around the world.

Mexican minimalist cinema as transnational cinema: style and narrative

The analysis of formal conventions and themes of the discussed films reveals various common characteristics which allow them to qualify them as representatives of the same cinematic phenomenon. Regarding the formal features of the film, there are visibly reduced means of expression: a limited number of editing cuts, deliberately arranged static takes, the absence of soundtrack (which often appears only during the end credits), simplified blocking, location shooting, and inconspicuous lighting.

In regards to narrative, Mexican minimalist films usually focus on individuals, frequently lonely and excluded from mainstream social life and consumed by a poignant fatalism[15] . The stories told by the creators of minimalismo are extremely slow and frequently deprived of clear act breaks, plot twists and climaxes. De-dramatizing techniques dominate, such as pauses and long moments of stillness.

Even such a superficial description of the basic aspects of minimalismo allows it to be associated with slow cinema: a transnational phenomenon, represented by directors from various countries (e.g. China, Argentina, Hungary, Thailand), who make their films thanks to the support of foreign funds, and aim to screen them at international festivals of art cinema. Moira Weigel characterizes slow films as follows: “their narratives are nondramatic or non-existent. The scripts are minimal and repetitive, with little dialogue. They unfold in long takes, captured by still or nearly still cameras. Often the figures in the frames stay still themselves”[16]. The Mexican film movement parallels the characteristics of modernist minimalism, described by András Bálint Kovács, whose contemporary manifestations the scholar finds in slow films[17]. Matthew Flanagan writes about the themes the creators touch upon: “Many individual works by these filmmakers turn their attention to marginal peoples (low-paid manual labourers, poor farmers, the unemployed and dispossessed, petty criminals and drug addicts) subsisting in remote or invisible places”[18]. It is worth emphasising that many scholars researching the phenomenon of slow cinema devote their attention to the authors of Mexican minimalism, mainly Amat Escalante and Carlos Reygadas[19].

Therefore, even if particular representative films of minimalismo mexicano do not fulfil the conditions of transnationality in terms of production, their formal features and themes can easily be identified with a phenomenon of international character. Escalante and Reygadas (as well as Rivera, Eimbcke, Pereda, Yulene Olaizola, and others) use almost all cinematic techniques that are currently treated as artistic and cherished by programmers of international film festivals. They employ codes easily understood by audiences familiar with slow cinema. As a result, when it comes to the reception and critical interpretations of these films, they are commonly situated in the well-established art cinema traditions, compared to the (mostly European) masters of art cinema, and read as touching upon universal thematic motifs (such as notions of spirituality, religiousness, search for transcendence). As noted by Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover, “in mainstream film criticism, films are often lauded as universal stories in order to reduce the threat of unpleasurable difference”[20]. Although I agree with R. Galt and K. Schoonover, who argue that the “move toward the universal does not always have to be simple or naive” and “the problem of universality in art cinema is too complicated to be addressed by a simple dismissal”[21], the most interesting approach seems to be the one which shows how these transnational filmic strategies have been used to articulate the themes and problems directly related to the cultural circle in which the analysed films were made.

The cultural specificity of Mexican minimalist cinema

Minimalismo mexicano is close to being considered as strongly transnational in M. Hjort`s terms: it undoubtedly has a transnational character in regards to production, distribution, exhibition, and formal features. Nevertheless, it fulfils M. Hjort’s condition, which is “a resistance to globalization as cultural homogenization; and a commitment to ensuring that certain economic realities associated with filmmaking do not eclipse the pursuit of aesthetic, artistic, social, and political values”[22]. Mexican minimalists are mainly astute and ruthless commentators of local reality, and only later are they representatives of the transnational phenomenon of art cinema.

It is worth stressing that I perceive the application of filmic strategies and themes associated with slow cinema by Mexican directors as a parallel process and not as a process simply resulting from contact with the achievements of the slow cinema world masters. Associated with slow films, the anthropological turn of cinema, i.e. focus on an individual, started in Latin America in the 1990s and was partly a result of the search for new paradigms of national identity, different from the clearly political “third cinema”, which was concerned mainly with the collective[23]. This minimalistic, contemplative style is used nowadays by directors from the biggest film industries of Latin America. Hence, it is not surprising that it has become an exquisite language used to talk about Mexico. The director Michel Lipkes remarks that “in such a baroque and anarchistic country like Mexico, the act of contemplation is the only way to stop for a moment and to ask some bold questions about the shape of the world surrounding us”[24].

Minimalismo is at the same time engaged with the national traditions and politics of Mexican audio-visual culture. This cinematic phenomenon enters a polemic both against the excessive aestheticization and ideological simplifications of the so-called época de oro, i.e. the golden age of Mexican cinema (dating back to the 1940s, but still present in the popular discourse), as well as elitism and artificiality of both telenovelas and the latest commercial cinema inspired by Hollywood. Minimalismo—paradoxically, in the face of the lack of the local genre cinema’s foreign successes—is popular at festivals (thanks to the use of transnational filmic strategies of art cinema) and is currently the most important ambassador of Mexican cinema.

In the following part of the article, a brief analysis of two Mexican minimalist films is conducted. Its aim is to demonstrate how filmmakers use the transnational style and narrative conventions associated with slow cinema in order to engage with Mexican cultural traditions and current social and political issues. Lake Tahoe and Heli have been chosen because they can be undoubtedly considered as transnational in terms of production, distribution, and filmic strategies, and they represent two extremities of a wide spectrum of Mexican minimalist cinema. In the first film, national preoccupations are hidden underneath an apparently banal anecdote. On the other hand, Heli is clearly concerned with the current problems of Mexico, but only concretization and exposition of relevant contexts reveal the full dimension of its commitment.

Lake Tahoe: the painful transition

The narrative of Fernando Eimbcke’s second film is extremely modest: it centres upon Juan, a teenager who crashes his car into a lamp post. Most of the film shows the protagonist wandering through the dreamy town of Progreso, located on Yucatán Peninsula, in search of parts necessary for the repair of the vehicle. The story becomes more than a banal anecdote only when the audience learns that Juan is dealing with a more serious problem as he mourns his recently deceased father. In order to show this particular story, Eimbcke employs a host of conventions associated with the slow cinema. For instance, the screenplay withholds basic information about the main character, sound has only a practical function, and the long and static shots linger on mundane landscapes.

Lake Tahoe constitutes an intimate story, mainly focused on personal experiences of the protagonist going through a trauma. Its simplicity allows it to be read as a universal story which appeals to audiences all over the world. However, in the article “Beyond Europe: On Parametric Transcendence”[25], Mark Betz argues that, as Joanne Hershfield puts it, “critic must pay particular attention to the geo-cultural context of the circulation and appropriation of art cinema; in other words, to local knowledges and histories”[26]. The topic of Eimbcke’s film, a child struggling with the absence of a parent, is not indifferent to the cultural context in which Lake Tahoe was created. Quite the opposite; this is one of the most important themes appearing in Mexican culture in the first decade of the 21st century[27]. It is strictly related to the transformations in the structure of Mexican society caused by the neoliberal reforms that the authorities have been gradually introducing since the 1980s. A rapidly decreasing number of jobs, lower salaries and disastrous working conditions led to a situation in which one family member, usually a father, is forced to emigrate for economic reasons. It is important to say that these particular changes were accompanied by an epoch-making political transformation: in 2000—the first time in 71 years—the president Vincente Fox Quesada from PAN (Partido Acción Nacional) was elected from a political party other than PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional). But the period of so-called “democratic transition” turned out to be full of ambivalence and contradictions. The country failed to generate the expected economic growth and the new democratic institutions did not fulfil the expectations, burdened with the legacy of the authoritarian regime[28]. The cultural trope of a growing child and absent parent is often interpreted by researchers not only as a reflection of a given social problem, but also as a tool allowing for an examination of the society at a difficult moment of transition, struggling with the challenges of the free-market economy and departure from the protectionist model[29].

The adopted interpretation of the theme is also rooted in the history of Mexican cinema. The authorities, attempting in the period of época de oro to propagate the foundations of national identity with the help of state-produced films, encouraged audiences to interpret cinematic families and father figures as metaphors for, consecutively, society and the government[30]. In the subsequent years, rapid social transformations were frequently reflected in the situation of film families (e.g. En la trampa, 1978, Raúl Araiza[31]). It is worth mentioning that a careful analysis of Lake Tahoe shows that Juan is only one of the many young inhabitants of Progreso who grow up in single-parent families. The intensification of the trope allows Juan’s story to be treated as a synecdoche of a bigger problem.

Juan is a teenager on the verge of adult life, which in the context of Mexican cinema—as remarked by I.M. Sánchez Prado—is a type of “transition in which success means becoming part of the bourgeois mainstream and failure results in being an outcast”.[32] In spite of making the story of Lake Tahoe centred on the popular topic of crossing a threshold, the film constantly postpones culmination. In this film, duration, monotony, and lack of movement replace action, dynamics, and variability.

Strategies associated with this particular approach are clearly visible in the narrative as the protagonist wanders from garage to garage. A garage girl only pretends to look for an indispensable part, a boy who promises to help is not too keen on fixing the car, preferring to demonstrate the arcana of martial arts.

The aforementioned state of suspension, which delays progress and a satisfying conclusion, is constructed with the help of stylistic and aesthetic strategies, such as long takes and de-dramatization. The exposition of time, typical for slow cinema, liberates the film from the necessity of causality (characteristic of mainstream cinema): it is the permanence and duration which become the centre of interest for the camera. This impression is favoured by the repetitiveness of takes (when Juan returns to the crashed car a few times, the audience follows his path every single time), but also, paradoxically, by time ellipses in the form of black-outs. If black-outs may be perceived as a culturally rooted, universal representation of flowing time—typical rather for classical narration than the narration in slow cinema—their subversive use by Eimbcke underlines the state of suspension. When the image fades in again it is difficult for the audience to decide how much time has passed or to notice any visible change in the situation of the characters (with the possible exception of space they are in). The relation between editing and the composition of the frame is also interesting: two separate frames are often juxtaposed so that Juan is located in different spaces, while he holds the same position in front of the camera. On a purely visual level, the change of the spatial situation is not correlated with the movement of the protagonist.

All these strategies are to create a mode of narration which at the beginning may seem incomprehensible and enigmatic, but provides an experience of extended on-screen duration. Juan’s coming of age and his introduction to the neoliberal order have been suspended, whereas a capitalist requirement of constant progression has been replaced by a structure of eternal return.

Eimbcke’s film—if read in the wide context of 21st century Mexican culture, local knowledge, history, and cultural codes—unveils a dialogic potential. It is another voice joining the debate on the topic of the condition of Mexican society, problematizing mainly the question of the abandonment of citizens by the welfare state, and the contradictions and ambiguities of the democratic transition process. The coherent and multi-layered vision presented in Lake Tahoe reveals the tensions resulting from the inability to neither fulfil the requirement of progress nor to restore the previous system. Eimbcke constructs these meanings with the help of filmic strategies associated with slow cinema; the experience of duration on screen replaces a classical narrative, focused primarily on a series of events linked to each other by a cause and effect relation. Lake Tahoe addresses a topic which is culturally and nationally relevant, but examines it with the use of filmic strategies relatively unfamiliar to the local cinema.

 Heli: the horror of drug violence

Heli, the eponymous young protagonist of the third film by Amat Escalante, lives with his father, wife, twelve-year old sister Estela, and a newly-born baby in a small town in the state of Guanajuato. As a result of tragic events, Heli’s family gets involved in the affairs of a local drug cartel, operating under the cover of state Special Forces. The hero’s father dies, his sister gets abducted, and Heli undergoes a series of cruel tortures. After returning home, he attempts to find young Estela with the help of the local police.

In Heli, differently than in Lake Tahoe, the audience easily finds information on the spatiotemporal context of the film. The frames feature national flags and symbols, a public servant speaks to the people, the presence of police and the army shows the functioning of the authorities, whereas TV news bulletins report events in the country. Despite the fact that the story, as suggested by the title, is focused on an individual, “the theme of a nation emerges” because “relevant forms of aboutness are flagged or foregrounded”.[33] At the same time, the director chooses a theme also well-known outside of Mexico, which undoubtedly facilitated the fundraising (as mentioned above, the film is a coproduction of four countries) as well as its distribution (and its election as a Mexican Oscar candidate).

Thanks to Sangre and Los bastardos, Amat Escalante has become the leading Mexican minimalist, associated by critics and researchers with slow cinema, and rewarded at international festivals of art cinema. Surprisingly, the first half of Heli, until the cartel’s attack on the protagonist’s house, resembles a narrative characteristic of mainstream productions. The audience receives sufficient information to get engaged in the fate of the characters, a melodramatic plot emerges; Heli’s and his family’s dangerous situation is obvious for the viewers

If in Lake Tahoe minimalist strategies dictate the structure of the whole film, in Heli they are used more sparingly. Not until the characters’ lives are disturbed does Escalante radically modify the mainstream conventions. The audience expects to see a police investigation or sensational stories on the authorities’ corruption, yet they are confronted with a complete de-dramatization and an absolute elimination of traditional methods of building suspense. Making use of the knowledge of genre conventions seems useless and formulating hypotheses about cause and effect narrative relations is extremely difficult. Peripheral information starts to dominate in the story whereas the investigation does not progress, even when Heli provides the police officers with additional information. Finally, Estela returns home, but the audience will never know why the cartel let her leave. Escalante returns to the principles of minimalism by diluting the story, avoiding obvious solutions and climaxes. A scene in which Heli and Beto (the protagonist’s sister’s love interest) are being tortured is the most haunting departure from mainstream cinema conventions. Escalante abandons any ellipses, whereas the static camera captures the suffering of the protagonists as well as the indifferent faces of their executioners and the children watching the bloodbath.

Heli, similarly to Lake Tahoe, addresses current social problems which have been represented in Mexican culture many times. Drug cartels constitute a challenge with which the authorities and the citizens have to struggle incessantly. It is important though to underline the fact that the scale of confrontation started growing rapidly in 2006 when the president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa assumed power. The most important part of his program was to eliminate the cartels with the help of great military forces equipped with numerous prerogatives that were previously available only to the police. The number of victims in this drug war increased steadily to a total of 100,000 during Calderón`s term; this number includes soldiers, police officers, gang members, and innocent civilians[34].

The war on drugs has become a theme of many Mexican and Hollywood films, which show it in different ways, e.g. as a bitter farce (Inferno, 2010, Luis Estrada), usually using easily identifiable mainstream conventions. Escalante enhances popular methods of talking about the drug crisis by employing strategies characteristic of slow cinema[35]. Hence, he provides an original language which uncovers meanings normally invisible for the audience.

As has been already mentioned, Heli undermines the hypotheses that viewers create based on their familiarity with the conventions of the classical film narrative. Distorting the practices of mainstream cinema equates to a departure from the philosophy related to it; i.e. the belief that reality can be effortlessly understood and conceptualized (using, for example, genre conventions) as a coherent system of cause and effect relations, and the characters’ motivation can be clearly identified. The world of Heli negates these assumptions. Employing minimalist filmic strategies, the director depicts the country consumed by a drug war as a chaotic labyrinth from which it is impossible to escape. The differentiation between good and evil becomes dubious; an unequivocal identification of the sides to the conflict is impossible as there is no clear division between police officers and criminals. The story itself escapes any conventionalized structure. Among all film and media representations of the Mexican war on drugs, Heli might be the most moving and the closest to depicting the real chaos which reigns in some parts of the country. Escalante undermines the thesis represented by many researchers of the problem, convinced that it is only a temporary situation, whereas the country is striving for success. According to this particular narrative, as argued by Marcelo Bergman, it would be sufficient to resolve particular issues for the problem to become easier to solve.[36] The world presented in Heli is too enigmatic and elusive to make the convincing identification of the problem even possible.

Escalante also objects to the model of presenting drug violence in the media, based mainly on sensationalism, dynamic editing and visual attractiveness. The media corporations transform the coverage of the drug war into a spectacle. Escalante refers to the problem by showing in one of the scenes from Heli a fragment from a news program in which the reporters and the police officers present the decapitated heads of three drug cartel members. The scene of Heli and Beto undergoing a series of tortures also depicts violence literally, but Escalante avoids any attempts to make it more familiar and bearable with the help of a commentary (mandatory for all news bulletins) or to bring it to the level of a purely visual attraction (like the mainstream cinema often does). The opening scene is shot by using a formal device frequently employed by contemporary art cinema directors and identified by André Bazin with “representing a realistic continuum of space and time”[37]: the long take shows the heads of unconscious victims of the cartel, allowing the audience to analyse the frame and discover disturbing details. With the help of stylistic strategies associated with slow cinema, Escalante approaches a representation of the real nature of drug violence which is not mediated by any mainstream techniques. This conscious de-aestheticization not only results in the disturbing fusion of violence and mundane life, but also constitutes a certain ethical gesture. It restores the original horror of the drug war, often replaced in the media discourse by superficial sensationalism.

Transnational strategies allow Escalante to appeal to audiences around the world and to achieve his position of one of the most important contemporary art cinema directors. Paying particular attention to the geo-cultural context reveals that Heli utilizes these filmic strategies to provide a seminal method of exploring of Mexican reality. They also serve to present a pronounced commentary on the social situation and the popular models of its representation.


The aim of this article was to demonstrate how minimalismo mexicano directors combine the transnational with the national. The films chosen as examples, Amat Escalante`s Heli and Fernando Eimbcke`s Lake Tahoe, involve transnational elements related to production (international funding), distribution, and reception (screenings at the international festivals of art cinema), while also demonstrating the affinity with filmic strategies of the transnational phenomenon of slow cinema (mostly by utilizing similar formal and narrative conventions).

I consider it important to take a closer look at the geo-cultural context of the examined films, as well as local histories and references. Only by committing to this method it is possible to discover and demonstrate that the studied examples are deeply concerned with national preoccupations. Lake Tahoe can be read as a movie touching upon the problem of the abandonment of citizens by the welfare state, as well as notions of painful political transformation. Heli addresses current social problems that are often depicted in mainstream cinema, but does so by utilizing filmic strategies that allow for new insights into Mexican reality. Both movies (as well as other representatives of minimalismo mexicano mentioned in the article, but not analysed here) utilize formal and narrative features of slow cinema and provide a language that is relatively foreign to the Mexican cinematic tradition, yet enhance it with a more insightful means of exploring strictly national issues.



Bergman Marcelo, „La violencia en México: algunas aproximaciones académicas” Desacatos, 40 (2012).

Bordwell David, Poetics of Cinema, (London and New York: Routledge) ( 2012).

Carmen Elisa Gómez-Gómez, Familia y cine mexicano en el marco del neoliberalismo. Estudio crítico de Por la libre, Perfume de violetas, Amar te duele y Temporada de patos, unpublished PhD thesis, The Ohio State University (2009).

Cazals Felipe, „Un aeropuerto sin suficientes pistas”, Cine Toma 5:28 (2013).

Falicov Tamara L., “Migrating From South to North: The Role of Film Festivals in Funding and Shaping Global South Film and Video”, in Locating Migrating Media, ed. Greg Elmer, Charles H. Davis, Janine Marchessault and John McCullough (Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth: Lexington Books) (2010).

Flanagan Matthew, Slow Cinema: Temporality and Style in Contemporary Art and Experimental Film, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Exeter (2012).

Galt Rosalind and Schoonover Karl, “Introduction: The Impurity of Art Cinema”, in Global Art Cinema, ed. Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (2010).

Hershfield Joanne, “Nation and post-nationalism: the contemporary modernist films of Carlos Reygadas” Transnational Cinemas, Vol. 5, No. 1 (2014).

Hjort Mette “On the plurality of cinematic transnationalism”, in World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, ed. Nataša Ďurovičová and Kathleen Newman (New York and London: Routledge) (2009).

Hjort Mette, „Themes of Nation”, in Cinema and Nation, ed. Mette Hjort and Scott McKenzie (London and New York: Routledge) (2005).

Kovács, András Bálint, Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2007).

La Otra, http://www.laotrarevista.com/2011/01/jorge-ayala-blanco-falacias-del-cine-mexicano/, date accessed 17 August 2016.

Lipińska Urszula, “Meksykańska (nowa) fala”, Kino 06 (2012) (The article accessed at: http://archiwum.stopklatka.pl/news/kino-meksykanska-nowa-fala, 13 August 2016).

Los Angeles Times, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/dec/01/world/la-fg-wn-mexico-calderon-cartels-20121130, date accessed: 01.09.2016.

Mark Betz, ”Beyond Europe: On Parametric Transcendence”, in Global Art Cinema, ed. Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (2010).

Martínez Martínez Germán, “¿Minimalismo mexicano?”, Icónica 0 (2012).

Ramírez Berg Charles, Cinema of Solitude. A critical Study of Mexican Film, 1967-1983, (Austin:

University of Texas Press) (1992).

Robles-Cereceres Oscar Fernando, En el nombre de la madre reconfiguraciones de la subjetividad femenina, la familia mexicana y la identidad nacional en el cine de Maria Novaro, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Arizona (2002).

Rufinelli Jorge, „Nuevas señas de identidad en el cine de América Latina. Notas sobre cómo el cine épico devino en minimalista”, in Tendencias del cine iberoamericano en el nuevo milenio: Argentina, Brasil, España y México, ed. Juan Carlos Vargas (Guadalajara: Universidad de Guadalajara) (2011).

Russek Dan, „From Buñuel to Eimbcke: Orphanhood in Recent Mexican Cinema”, in Representing History, Class, and Gender in Spain and Latin America, ed. Carolina Rocha and Georgia Seminet (New York: Palgrave McMillan) (2012).

Sánchez Prado Ignacio M, „Innocence Interrupted: Neoliberalism and the End of Childhood in Recent Mexican Cinema”, in Representing History, Class, and Gender in Spain and Latin America, ed. Carolina Rocha and Georgia Seminet (New York: Palgrave McMillan) (2012).

Sánchez Prado Ignacio M, Screening Neoliberalism: Transforming Mexican Cinema 1988-2012, (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2014).

Shaw Deborah, “Deconstructing and Reconstructing Transnational Cinema”, in Contemporary Hispanic Cinema: Interrogating the Transnational in Spanish and Latin American Film, ed. Stephanie Dennison (Woodbridge: Tamesis) (2013).

Syska Rafał, Filmowy neomodernizm, (Kraków: Avalon) (2014).

Weigel Moira, “Slow Wars”, n+1, Spring 2016.

Will Higbee and Lim Song Hwee, “Concepts of transnational cinema”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010).



[1] It is important to remember that the films commonly identified with slow cinema have also been conceptualized as, for example, Contemporary Contemplative Cinema (Harry Tuttle, http://unspokencinema.blogspot.com), or neomodernism (Rafał Syska, Filmowy neomodernizm, Kraków: Avalon, 2014). The different terms used among critics and scholars indicate the importance of the different characteristics of the film. I use the term slow cinema because I consider it to be the most encompassing, while the subtle differences between other conceptualizations are not relevant for the present reflection.

[2] Germán Martínez Martínez, “¿Minimalismo mexicano?”, Icónica 0 (2012), p.15.

[3] Germán Martínez Martínez, p. 17.

[4] Mette Hjort, “On the plurality of cinematic transnationalism”, in World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, ed. Nataša Ďurovičová and Kathleen Newman (New York and London: Routledge, 2009), p. 12.

[5] Will Higbee and Song Hwee Lim, “Concepts of transnational cinema”, Transnational Cinemas 1:1 (2010) p. 10.

[6]  Deborah Shaw, “Deconstructing and Reconstructing Transnational Cinema”, in Contemporary Hispanic Cinema: Interrogating the Transnational in Spanish and Latin American Film, ed. Stephanie Dennison (Woodbridge: Tamesis, 2013)  p. 49.

[7] See Will Higbee and Song Hwee Lim, p. 10.

[8] Mette Hjort, p. 13.

[9] See Mette Hjort, pp. 13-14.

[10] See Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, Screening Neoliberalism: Transforming Mexican Cinema 1988-2012, (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) (2014), p. 197.

[11]  The influence of investors on the final shape of a film is another interesting topic, yet irrelevant to the present reflection. Researchers interested in the topic prove that film sponsors often require that the creators of artistic films fulfil certain aesthetic and thematic conditions which are supposed to facilitate festival promotion and international distribution. See e.g.: Tamara L. Falicov, “Migrating from South to North: The Role of Film Festivals in Funding and Shaping Global South Film and Video”, in Locating Migrating Media, ed. Greg Elmer, Charles H. Davis, Janine Marchessault and John McCullough (Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2010).

[12] See La Otra, http://www.laotrarevista.com/2011/01/jorge-ayala-blanco-falacias-del-cine-mexicano/, date accessed 17 August 2016.

[13] Felipe Cazals, „Un aeropuerto sin suficientes pistas”, Cine Toma 5:28 (2013), pp.66-69.

[14] The new tax incentive (EFICINE 189, which replaced EFICINE 226) supports also distribution of the films, but it is still too early to validate its impact on the Mexican film industry.

[15] See e.g. Parque vía, Sangre, or Malaventura (2011, M. Lipkes).

[16] Moira Weigel, “Slow Wars”, n+1, Spring 2016, p. 65.

[17] András Bálint Kovács, Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 140-141.

[18] Matthew Flanagan, Slow Cinema: Temporality and Style in Contemporary Art and Experimental Film, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Exeter, p.118.

[19] See e.g. Rafał Syska, Filmowy neomodernizm, (Kraków: Avalon, 2014).

[20] Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover, “Introduction: The Impurity of Art Cinema”, in Global Art Cinema, ed. Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 10.

[21] Ibid., p. 10.

[22] Mette Hjort, p. 15.

[23] See Jorge Ruffinelli, „Nuevas señas de identidad en el cine de América Latina. Notas sobre cómo el cine épico devino en minimalista”, in Tendencias del cine iberoamericano en el nuevo milenio: Argentina, Brasil, España y México, ed. Juan Carlos Vargas (Guadalajara: Universidad de Guadalajara, 2011), pp. 127-128.

[24] Urszula Lipińska, “Meksykańska (nowa) fala”, Kino 06 (2012) (The article accessed at: http://archiwum.stopklatka.pl/news/kino-meksykanska-nowa-fala, 13 August 2016).

[25] Mark Betz, “Beyond Europe: On Parametric Transcendence”, in Global Art Cinema, ed. Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 40-41

[26] Joanne Hershfield, “Nation and post-nationalism: the contemporary modernist films of Carlos Reygadas” Transnational Cinemas, Vol. 5, No. 1 (2014), p. 33.

[27] See e.g. De la calle (2001, Gerardo Tot), Nadie te oye: Perfume de violetas (2001, Marisa Sistach), Temporada de patos (2004, Fernando Eimbcke).

[28] The next president from PRI, Enrique Peña Nieto, was elected in 2012.

[29] See e.g. Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, „Innocence Interrupted: Neoliberalism and the End of Childhood in Recent Mexican Cinema”, p. 129; Dan Russek, „From Buñuel to Eimbcke: Orphanhood in Recent Mexican Cinema”, p. 136. Both in Representing History, Class, and Gender in Spain and Latin America, ed. Carolina Rocha and Georgia Seminet (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2012); Carmen Elisa Gómez-Gómez, Familia y cine mexicano en el marco del neoliberalismo. Estudio crítico de Por la libre, Perfume de violetas, Amar te duele y Temporada de patos, unpublished PhD thesis, The Ohio State University, 2009, p.31.

[30] See Carmen Elisa Gómez-Gómez, pp. 1-2; Oscar Fernando Robles-Cereceres, En el nombre de la madre reconfiguraciones de la subjetividad femenina, la familia mexicana y la identidad nacional en el cine de Maria Novaro, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Arizona, 2002, p. 107.

[31] See Charles Ramírez Berg, Cinema of Solitude. A critical Study of Mexican Film, 1967-1983, (Austin: University of Texas Press 1992), pp. 158-160.

[32] Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, “Innocence Interrupted…”, p. 118.

[33] Mette Hjort, “Themes of Nation”, in Cinema and Nation, ed. Mette Hjort and Scott McKenzie (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 101.

[34] See Los Angeles Times, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/dec/01/world/la-fg-wn-mexico-calderon-cartels-20121130, date accessed: 01.09.2016.

[35] See also Miss Bala (2011, Gerardo Naranjo), another example of a film about drug war, which combined thriller and art cinema conventions.

[36] Marcelo Bergman, “La violencia en México: algunas aproximaciones académicas” Desacatos, 40 (2012), p. 76.

[37] David Bordwell, Poetics of Cinema, (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), p. 154.


Bolesław Racięski – born in 1987, PhD candidate at the Faculty of Management and Social Communication of Jagiellonian University (Kraków). His general research area is the cultural contexts of Mexican cinema; he is also interested in all kinds of fringe and paracinema. He has authored papers on Latin American, Israeli and American films and is a co-editor of „Bękarty kinematografii, czyli rzecz o filmach nie(do)cenionych”, a book which theorizes the problem of so-called „bad cinema”.

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 132-147

Rafał Nahirny

Wrocław University


Welcome to BabaKiueria! Australian anniversaries and cultural forms of resistance



One of the many negative consequences of colonialism is cultural hegemony of white males exercised in public spheres of former colonies. This privileged group has the ability to control, and thus to create and reproduce specific images of indigenous people in media such as press, television and cinema. Those representations, most often motivated by Eurocentric imagination and racial stereotypes, have not only legitimized privileged position of white men, but have also been internalized by colonized subjects over time. The article describes the process of taking control over their own image by the indigenous people of Australia. The author examines in detail subversive tactics and strategies used by creators of “BabaKiueria” (dir. Don Featherstone 1986). This short satirical mockumentary about postcolonial role reversal is the first film produced by Aboriginal Programs Unit of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). The mockumentary shows Whites conquered and colonized by Aborigines. The author describes the attempts to destabilize a dominant white gaze which were supposed to challenge the official media image of Australian Aborigines. “BabaKiueria” is presented in wider historical context as one of many significant actions taken during bicentennial celebrations of “discovery” of Australia that were intended to make postcolonial public sphere more open, complex and polyphonic.

Key words: Australia, indigenous people, ethnocentrism, postcolonialism, cultural hegemony, resistance



 It is a bright, sunny day. We can hear the sounds of nature. The singing birds, however, start to blend with the music coming from a transistor radio. A group of people is relaxing by the sea. The atmosphere is carefree and time is slowly passing by. Two men are drinking canned beer and flipping sausages on the grill from time to time as they talk. A woman reaches for a well-roasted piece of meat. Meanwhile some of the people are finding enjoyment in playing the native sport of cricket. This idyllic scene starts BabaKiueria (1986), a short film by Australian director, Don Featherstone.

This peace does not last very long. One of the cricket players shows off with an amazing play. The ball flies through the air and lands quite far away, almost in the sea. A young boy walks to the water to pick up the ball. Suddenly, he notices something disconcerting on the horizon and runs to warn his parents and the rest of the picnic goers. The sunny weather and relaxation are abruptly disturbed by the unexpected guests coming from the sea.

The military outfits of the intruders, resembling the Confederate uniforms from the American Civil War, tell us that we see soldiers. A self-assured officer, commanding this operation, gets off the motorboat and walks on to the beach with a confident stride. The goal of this military operation is soon revealed. One of the soldiers carries a pole with a flag, which he solemnly plants in the ground. A military reconnaissance is annexing the territory that shortly before was a scene of a picnic, and starting an invasion. It is a military operation of a special kind though, as the forces belong to… the Aboriginal people. Only now do we start to notice that the people we were just watching as they were grilling and playing cricket seem to have something more in common than just shared relaxation. All of them, without exception, are white and appear to be middle-class.

The picnic participants are not protesting. They are too surprised by the turn of events. From the beginning, the whole situation is under the total control of the unwelcome guests. The commanding officer asks one of the men loudly and clearly, pronouncing slowly each sound: What-Do-You-Call-This-Place? The confused grill participant, who moments ago was throwing empty beer cans into nearby shrubbery, replies: Err… barbecue area. You can see the surprise in his eyes evoked by, on the one hand, the unexpected arrival of the soldiers and, on the other, by the banal nature of the question for which the answer should be obvious. The military man, not troubled by the presence of the picnic goers, turns to his comrades and, as if there is no one else with them, says: They call this place BabaKiueria. Then he looks around and says, Nice native name… colourful. I like it. The cinematographer is emphasising the arrogant and domineering behaviour of the Aborigine by filming the officer from a worm’s-eye view and the picnic goers from above. Every gesture, even the smallest one, which we witness during this short conversation, has a deep meaning and helps the filmmaker create a strong opposition between the native people, in this case white, and the intruders.

The post-colonial world upside down

In Featherstone’s satirical film, the relations in post-colonial countries are taken under critical analysis by reversing the traditional roles of the coloniser and the colonised. Therefore, we are looking at the world where the white man, due to colonization, segregation and racial discrimination, has been pushed to the margins of society and found themselves at the bottom of the post-colonial hierarchy of the Aborigine country, to finally become a part of the “wretched of the Earth”. They are now completely dominated and dependent on the will of the colonists’ descendants, that is the black majority, which sets up favourable laws and holds the highest position in the country (including the position of the Minister for White Affairs[i]). We watch as the white minority is relentlessly harassed by the police and other national public services and institutions that forcefully take away their children or force them to leave the lands traditionally inhabited by the white men (who, by the film’s logic, are from typical middle-class suburbs). All those actions are of course justified with the concern for the wellbeing of the white man.

The film creators did not halt at transforming the depicted reality according to the cardinal logic of role reversal. We look at the white man through the eyes of an intermediary: the main character Duranga Manika (Michelle Torres), who is a successful and passionate journalist working for the Aborigine national television. Duranga, as she explains herself, has always been fascinated with the white man’s culture. She is a socially committed journalist who is not indifferent towards social issues. She wants to help the white men live in modern society and so her reporting regards the obstacles on the way to full assimilation of the indigenous people of BabaKiueria. Because of this, Duranga puts a lot of effort into fighting unjust stereotypes concerning white people that are prevalent among the black majority. The report starts with a typical street poll in which random passers-by are asked about their opinions on white people. One of the interviewees, dressed in a sharp suit and presented with a modern office building in the background, replies upset: Oh, I don’t know. I’ve never met one. He is clearly in a hurry and does not have time for such trivial things as white people’s problems. Duranga is not afraid to tackle sensitive social matters. She wonders why the white people are protesting against turning a highway into a park. She also engages in the controversial problem of evolution and the issue of white man’s intelligence. However, the most important character in the report is the Smith family living in the white ghetto (which is, as mentioned earlier, the suburbs), where they lead “a simple and uncomplicated life”. Duranga declares that she decided to stay with a “typical white family” and maybe even become a part of it. Thanks to this, she will be able to learn the strange customs and beliefs of the white people and then present those to a wider audience (the Smiths are played by Cecily Polson and Tony Barry, actors easily recognizable to Australian TV viewers). By using this method, as they are subversively using the format of a TV report in accordance to the mockumentary’s logic, the filmmakers make the post-colonial perspective of the white majority an important topic of their film.

 The innocent subject

The more Duranga tries to understand the white man, the more cringeworthy it becomes for the viewer. The material gathered by her shows is, from the viewer’s perspective, a series of amusing misunderstandings concerning the description of white man’s culture. A collective barbecue becomes camping next to primitive fireplaces that make burning the meat very easy (which, to the journalist’s bewilderment, seems to bring white people joy). Graffiti is depicted as a traditional art and thus being a set of enigmatic and magical signs, impossible to understand for the majority. Car wrecks become the peak achievement of white civilization. The betting shops are a place of a weird and irrational cult. The world of the white man is consistently made to look exotic in Duranga’s report. This happens because the journalist is primarily interested in identifying each difference between the primitive culture of the white man and the sophisticated culture of the Aborigine people.

With this, the ambivalent role of categorising culture and ideology is unveiled before the viewer. In Duranga’s report, they are used as mechanisms to show the Other as someone radically different from the dominating majority. The white man is a wild man who—for inexplicable reasons—opposes any attempts at being civilized. The reason for this state of matters, according to Duranga, is to a greater extent the mentality of the white man and his irrational inclination to senseless violence (these opinions are accompanied by archive footage showing riots at a stadium caused by the fans of opposing teams and a street parade celebrating Second World War veterans).

Because of this, even attempts at disputing these stereotypes are, in their nature, humiliating for the white people. It is then that Duranga, unknowingly, displays her own superstitions and prejudice; for example, when she says that an old lady’s flat is “surprisingly clean”, while trying to present the subjects of her report. In one scene, we see the Smith family as they all sit around the telephone and talk to their grandma. The journalist comments by emphasising the positive role of traditional family ties in white communities.

At the end of the film, Duranga is deeply convinced that she has come to a greater understanding of the uncomplicated culture of the white man. She takes pride in this before her viewers, yet at the same time she seems to lack basic imagination and empathy. She has spent a lot of time with the Smiths, but she is unable to really understand their existential situation. In one of the last sequences, the police forcefully separate the Smith family in order to drive their daughter to some unidentified social welfare centre as part of the “Whites Re-Education” program. The journalist comments in a dispassionate way: Parting with loved ones is never easy. I said goodbye to my mother recently when she went for holiday so, I know how they feel. The attempt at understanding the Other results in only shallow and superficial observations because in fact it is Duranga, not the Smiths, who turns out to be the main focus of the report. Duranga focuses on creating her own image as a journalist who is understanding, empathetic, and compassionate towards white people: a journalist who actively seeks social change and improvement of the difficult situation of the dominated minority. Even during the program, Duranga makes a speech to the employers, urging them to show good will and to give white people a chance at their businesses. It should be said that the Smiths do everything to maintain her preconception of them. They fully understand the nature of the entire project of which they have become part. Therefore, the Smiths’ strategy relies on confirming every stereotype imposed on them. They feel powerless against the government, its institutions, public media, and individuals representing these. At the mercy of the majority, they are completely dominated and thus they hope that by accepting the roles of “good, peaceful whites” they will remain unnoticed. The Smiths are presented as colonized subjects[ii]. Helplessness and lack of control over their own fate makes them try to satisfy constantly those that have power or their agents. They will be consistently trying to create a sense of self-satisfaction in the national television journalist, even if it means perpetuating a false image of themselves in her eyes. This quite often leads to amusing situations perfectly depicted by the filmmakers. Asked what they think about the stereotype of a white man being lazy and reluctant to work, they immediately answer by saying they would choose hard work, cleaning up the garden or the house over picnicking with their friends without any hesitation.

Duranga, as she builds her status as an understanding individual who is committed to the cause, uses two kinds of discourse characteristic for white civilization. Apart from the language of cultural anthropology, she uses the discourse of social welfare. By this, she can be in the position of the ingénue subject. For Duranga, racism has only a mental dimension. Structural violence—with its systematic and institutionalized practice and meaning that work beyond an individual being—is omitted. That is why, in Duranga’s opinion, the way to solve the issue of white people is to change the suspicious approach both sides have for each other. And smile a bit, says a police officer interviewed by the journalist. Changes on the systematic and political level are unnecessary. The dominating point of view consistently does not acknowledge the structural problems and deeper social processes. It aims in a completely different direction and the Other serves as a form of a mirror in which white people can see themselves as generous, caring and understanding.

That is why the makers of BabaKiueria, instead of appealing to white people’s nobleness, making them aware of the wrongdoing and difficult situation of the indigenous people of Australia, put them, to some extent, in minority’s shoes. Insight does not come from manifesting empathy, but as a result of experiencing the Aboriginal people’s experience by using the Smith family and how the film empathises with them. Compassion is, to some extent, a side effect, because the filmmakers are not trying to impose any moral obligations upon the viewer, only entertain them. The seemingly painless laughter conceals an ethical challenge requiring an authentic response from the audience.

Unsettling ending

The comedy in Featherstone’s film is based mainly on the surprising approach of reversing roles and the skill with which the makers built an exceptionally realistic vision of an upside-down world, while paying attention to the smallest details and gestures. However, the whole joke ends with a quite unexpected punch line that diverges from the atmosphere of the entire film. In the last scene of BabaKiueria, we see a TV set standing in the middle of an empty room. Suddenly a brick goes through the window, breaking it.

The ending may elicit a sense of uncertainty in the viewer. Until that moment, the story was developing according to the logic set by the filmmakers. The viewer is expecting another element of the world presented in the film to resemble a fragment of their own world. In this way, the story draws the viewer in and surprises them in the last scene. This can be seen as a form of confirmation of Duranga’s vision of white people as prone to using force and easily resorting to violence. In this sense, it is the next part of the journalist’s report that serves as a way to further amplify the effect and finish in a suggestive way.

Simultaneously, the ending scene does not fit into the traditional structure of a joke. Instead of defusing the tension, we are confronted with a punch line that unsettles rather than makes us laugh. Perhaps the brick was thrown by the Smith’s son who, unable to accept his parent’s humiliating submission, ran away from the police. Is it a sign of increasing frustration? In that case, the act of vandalism would become an act of cultural despair. Alternatively, maybe we are witnessing a start of resistance and political action that could transform into open confrontation. If so, maybe the Aboriginal journalist accidentally caught the moment of the rising of a new political awareness that aims to change the status quo. This, though, does not put all doubts to an end. Perhaps the creators themselves are directly expressing their own opinion in the final scene, discarding the formula of the mockumentary. After all, the brick is aimed at the TV set standing in the middle of the room, serving as a clear symbol of mass media controlled by the white majority. Would it be correct to understand that the filmmakers believe violence is an inevitable constituent for the process of political emancipation? The time of day could also be symbolic. It is evening and the night will soon come. Something ends and the time of uncertainty comes.

The film unexpectedly leaves the viewer with these doubts, instead of ending the whole joke with a funny punch line. We are laughing while watching the reversed world created by the makers of BabaKiueria makers because we feel safe. Mary Douglas, reflecting on the nature of tickling, points out that we feel amused only by the touch of people close to us. We know well that it is only a fake attack[iii]. Likewise, while watching Featherstone’s film, we know the history is different and in 1788 it was not an Aborigine canoe that reached the beach in Dover, but British ships which sailed into Botany Bay. If it were not for the ending, some viewers would probably finish Featherstone’s film with a sigh of relief and immediately go back to the world where it is the white man who is in the privileged position.

 The spectacles of power

The opening scene of the arriving Aborigine explorers turns out to be a historical re-enactment organized by the dominating majority as part of celebrating the anniversary of the start of the colonization of white men’s world. It is a clear allusion to actual political and social events that were highly important to Australian people in the second half of the 1980s. Featherstone’s film was shown on Australian television in 1986, a very special moment in the history of Australia, which was preparing for a grand celebration of the bicentenary of the arrival in 1788 by white colonists, i.e. the so-called First Fleet[iv]. The fact that the organizing committee (Australian Bicentennial Authority) was founded in 1979 indicates how important this was to the then officials. The celebration was supposed to go on for the entire year and the organizers had a budget of 200 million dollars.

The formal celebrations of consecutive anniversaries of the beginnings of Australian colonization have a long tradition. In the 19th century, due to the centennial anniversary of the arrival of the first colonists, officials from the rest of the British colonies were invited to the celebrations, which lasted a week. In 1938, the celebration of the Sesquicentenary, dubbed by the press as a kind of carnival, lasted 3 months[v]. The members of the 150th Anniversary Celebrations Council decided that the main event would be a reconstruction of the raising of the British flag as the symbolic start of the Australian colonization. It was not in any way an extraordinary event for Sydney residents, who had been witnessing such spectacles since 1901, when, as part of celebrating the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia, a re-enactment of Captain Cook’s landing in Botany Bay was staged[vi].

As part of the 150th anniversary celebration, it was decided to make the re-enactment special. In order to accomplish this, a replica of Supply, the ship on which the governor Phillip came to Australia, was launched. The audience was also to be entertained by an orchestra and planes flying above them. For the sake of dramatic effect, Aborigine people from Menindee and Brewarrina were brought and “quartered” in police barracks during the arrangements. The Aborigines were supposed to play the role of their ancestors, which meant playing the role of “savages” who, when seeing the boat with the governor coming[vii], would wave their spears and then run away in fear. Fortunately, the calmness and peaceful gestures of the British sailors and soldiers were allegedly enough to persuade the indigenous people to come back and welcome the foreigners in a friendly way[viii].

The re-enactment was planned to end with the raising of the flag. How to expand the almost minimalist form that Governor Phillip chose for this event almost 200 years ago was discussed. The ceremony of raising the national flag is not a particularly exciting event. In addition, the only thing the colonist did was to raise a toast for the King, which definitely did not help the people working on the re-enactment. Therefore, a fictional speech was prepared for the actor playing the role of the governor so that the whole event would be more formal and solemn. This is how a commentary was created which would explain to the viewers the significant character of this not very spectacular element of the whole re-creation[ix].

It is easy to notice that the members of subsequent organizational committees highly enjoyed historical re-enactments. In the eyes of government officials, they have become very useful tools of colonial education. Much to the audience’s joy, the recreations made it possible to “reanimate” the past and at the same time “mythologize” it so that it would be imprinted into society’s memory[x]. From a psychoanalytical point of view, almost compulsive repeating of the scenes showing the beginnings of the colonisation of the Australian continent functions as a symptom of neurosis and inability to deal with the traumatic past.

In 1988, a significant change happened in this regard. Jonathan King, a descendant of Philip Gidley King, one of the officers of the First Fleet and later governor of New South Wales (1800-1806), inspired by reading his ancestor’s journals decided to re-create the whole journey of the first colonists. The second First Fleet was to set sail exactly the same day as the First Fleet and go the same way to finally enter Port Jackson in a triumphal manner on January 26, 1988, witnessed by a cheering crowd.

The organizational committee did not include King’s re-creation in the official schedule of celebrations. Even more, he was not granted financial support, even though King had the support of two great Australian historians: Manning Clark and Geoffrey Blainey. A few factors were influential in the making of this decision, which was rather surprising in the eyes of the public.

King’s project—and most of all the never seen before scale of the spectacle—caused it to be highly hazardous and expensive. The members of the committee also surely remembered the incident that took place during the celebrations in 1970. Witnessed by 20 thousand viewers, among them Queen Elizabeth II herself, two students dressed in uniforms from the era reached the beach in Botany Bay in a motorboat and “claimed” Australia in the name of King George and University of Sydney. Meanwhile, the “real” captain Cook was still slowly paddling towards the shore. According to the press, the audience appreciated the stunt and cheered for the two jokesters. Two years of planning and the audience was more interested in the police chasing after the students rather than the spectacle itself[xi]. If the whole project was successfully ruined by two students, then what to expect from determined and organized indigenous people and white activists supporting them, especially as the re-enactment of Captain Cook’s landing on April 29, 1970 was met with controversy? Particular outrage was caused by a scene of armed confrontation between the Aborigines and the British that was allegedly caused by the natives.

The indigenous people of Australia were becoming more vocal in insisting on memorizing the victims of Australian colonization as part of the official event. This fight was expressed in a performance by an artist group from the northern territory called Aboriginal Memorial (1987-1988). Two hundred trunks, hollowed out by termites and traditionally used by tribes living in the north of Australia as coffins, were decorated in traditional markings to commemorate the victims of colonization who could not have typical funeral services[xii].

King’s project was also controversial for another reason. An excessive emphasis on the role of the First Fleet in the history of Australia would naturally distinguish above all the citizens who are descendants of the British immigrants. By refusing to support King financially, the committee avoided accusations of not only Eurocentrism, but also Anglocentrism, which suggests significant changes in the construction process of the national identity of Australians.

The committee finally decided that instead of another re-enactment, it would arrange a parade of sail ships that would conclude the regatta (Dar Młodzieży, a Polish sail training ship, took part in that regatta). The revival and accentuation of the romantic image of sea adventure made the complicated and sometimes traumatic past of Australia safe, almost harmless. In the organizer’s vision, the Aborigines also played a part. The direct connection between the events of January 26, 1788 and the present was weakened and 200 years suddenly became 40 thousand years. The First Fleet sailors became the next people, after the Aborigines, who bravely challenged the seas and oceans to come to Australia. The story created by the elites became a narration of triumph of human spirit and will over the dangerous and hostile forces of nature. Making the past unclear and undefined clearly contrasted with the spirit of King’s project, which aimed to make the re-enactment as faithful to real events as possible[xiii].

Another example of a significant shift in the media strategy of constructing the national identity is an exceptionally long dispute concerning the main slogan of the celebrations that was supposed to present the nation to the whole world, guarantee the citizens a festival, and persuade the tourist masses to come to Australia. For a long time it seemed that “Living Together” would win over “The Australian Achievement”. However, the more conservative politicians, who criticized the decision made by the organizers as marginalising the role of the British in the creation of Australia, forced the creation of another slogan: “Celebration of a Nation”. The central point of view in the end shifted from the English identity to a multi-cultural one[xiv] and during the official event the role of diversity and a new trans-national identity were emphasised. In the TV advertisement for the celebrations we see people of different colours, the celebrities of those days (sportsmen, artists, TV personalities), with different backgrounds, colourfully clothed, dancing while holding hands in front of Uluru (Ayers Rock) and singing “Give us a hand, let’s make it friend!”[xv]. A similar meaning can be found in the official promo film. At the beginning, we only see shots depicting nature. The unwelcoming and majestic Australian landscape is suddenly filled with smiling, cheerful people. Among the descendants of the European colonists, we can easily distinguish the faces of Aborigines and Asian people. All of them combined now make up the Australian nation. Next, there are scenes showing the energy and creativity that are, as the montage suggests, the result of the aforementioned diversity[xvi]. A similar spirit was present in the speech made by the Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke in front of the Sydney Opera House, during which symptomatic words were spoken: In Today’s Australia, our very diversity is an ever-growing source of the richness, vitality, and strength of our community[xvii].

Media jiu-jitsu

Due to massive protests and voices insisting on including the Aborigine perspective as a part of the celebrations, the authorities at the national Australian television ABC boldly decided to create the Aboriginal Production Unit, an editorial team that would focus on and create programs concerning the Aborigines with the help of specialists. BabaKiueria is the first material shown on TV that was produced by the APU.

In one scene, Duranga asks the Smiths if they would like to say something to the millions of viewers. The members of the APU found themselves in a similar position. Essentially, for the first time in history, they could speak to the millions of viewers with the help of Australian television in a way and terms they would find appropriate. In this sense, the mockumentary is an ironic meta-commentary for the situation in which the filmmakers found themselves. In one scene, Duranga makes a plea to the television authorities to consider hiring white actors or creating films telling the stories of white people.

The members of the APU, instead of trying to build a positive image in the eyes of white viewers, decided to take a very bold and risky move. Consequently, BabaKiueria is not just another cultural auto presentation which aims, as per usual, to highlight the traditions and rituals of the indigenous people. Featherstone does not focus on helping white people understand and appreciate the “primitive” art or strange and exotic rituals that remained unchanged in a few enclaves in the deserts of the northern territory. The makers of BabaKiueria also discarded the rhetoric of ecology and the tempting possibility of presenting the indigenous people as living peacefully with nature. Therefore, we do not see the Aborigines whose life style would function as an alternative to the soulless civilization of the white man and the progress, consumerism and alienation that comes with it. Instead of referring to the aesthetics of nobility and reviving the essentialist and romantic concept of tribalism, which would be easy to understand for a white audience, the first members of the APU created a film that effectively destabilizes the white gaze. As a result, they escaped the contexts of representing the cultural difference in media and built an incredibly subversive counter-history that effectively criticized the official discourse[xviii].

The makers of BabaKiueria parodied the conservative love for historical re-enactments in the opening sequence of the film. Similarly to the creators of Aboriginal Memorial, they intercepted the cultural forms and rituals of white people to use against them in a way. As a result, they managed to critically analyse not only the incompetent attempts at understanding the Other, but also the paternalistic attempt at building positive image and the policy of social help and equal chances. All of this makes BabaKiueria an example of a practice called “media jiu-jitsu” by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam as it is a guerrilla-like and subversive creation that uses the practices and language of the authorities in order to show their true nature[xix].

Historical re-enactments of events such as the landing of Captain Cook or the landing of the First Fleet in Botany Bay can be classified as phenomena which cultural anthropology calls the spectacle of power: detailed research concerning them was started by Clifford Geertz in his study on the Balinese court operas[xx]. The critics of Negara accurately noticed that in the world presented by the American anthropologist there is no place for resistance, subversion or any attempts at resisting the ideology enforced by the spectacles. Perhaps we should also ask about the counter-spectacles.

It should be noted that BabaKiueria is not the only project that aims to criticize the spectacles of power. Similar events included the Aborigine activists organizing their own celebrations, during which a modified version of governor Phillip’s landing was presented. The central moment of this re-enactment was the throwing of the actors playing the British invaders back into the sea[xxi]. At the same time, Burnum Burnum, a member of “the stolen generation” and famous Aborigine activist, whose actions often took the form of political performances, planted a flag on the cliffs of Dover and made a famous declaration: I, Burnum Burnum, being a nobleman of ancient Australia do hereby take possession of England on behalf of the Aboriginal people. Burnum Burnum also pledged that the Aborigine colonists would recognize the right of English people to own private property[xxii] (as opposed to white people, who did not respect the traditional law of the native Australians). He did stipulate that Aborigine sages would be on British coins, Pitjantjajara language would be studied in schools, and children would learn the art of hunting. Simultaneously, he assured his good will and calmed the British people by saying that he did not plan to poison the wells, add strychnine to flour, kidnap children, or take rare minerals back to Australia.

Today, BabaKiueria is an invaluable testimony to the dynamic changes taking place at the time in the national identity of Australians. In the first half of the 1980s, a group of Meriam people started High Court proceedings against the Commonwealth of Australia. The legal decision in the famous Eddie Mabo case overturned the colonial doctrine of terra nullius. Another symbolical event took place in 1985, when Uluru—an iconic Australian tourist attraction—was officially recognized as a sacred indigenous site and returned to its traditional owners. Featherstone’s film is also part of the gradual process of the creation of trans-national media[xxiii]. In the 1980s, Aborigine residents in distant regions of the continent,—the so-called remote communities—were creating their own local television with the help and support of activists and politically engaged researchers like Eric Michaels. The alternative media were a form of resistance against the cultural hegemony related to the dynamic development of satellite television; however, those two media ecosystems existed independently of each other. Only the access to the entertainment industry, and thus mainly to production and airtime on national television, would give the indigenous people a chance to reach a much bigger audience, and by doing so build empathetic trans-national connections between the indigenous nations and the white majority. The makers of BabaKiueria used this perfect opportunity to make a brave attempt to undermine the hegemonic status of the dominating mono-culture; an attempt which aimed to make the national identity of Australians celebrating the bicentennial anniversary of “discovering” their own continent more problematic and open.

BabaKiueria (1986, colour, 29 minutes)

Director: Don Featherstone

Script: Geoffrey Atherden

Cinematography: Julian Penney

Film editing: Michael Honey

Music: Peter Crosbie

Cast: Journalist (Michelle Torres), Ms. Smith (Cecily Polson), Mr. Smith (Tony Barry), Minister for White Affairs (Bob Maza), Police officer (Kevin Smith).

The film received United Nations Media Peace Prize in 1987.


Agnew Vanessa, ‘Introduction: What is Reenactment”, Criticism 46:3 (2004).

Coombes Annie E. E., Rethinking Settler Colonialism: History and Memory in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, (Manchester: Manchester University Press) (2006).

Curran James, Ward Stuart, The Unknown Nation: Australia After Empire, (Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Publishing) (2010).

Dening Greg, “Endeavour and Hōkūle’a: A Theatre of Re-Enactment Histories”, Humanities Research 1:1 (1997).

Domańska Ewa, Historie niekonwencjonalne, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Poznańskie) (2006).

Douglas Mary, Ukryte znaczenia, (Kęty: Wydawnictwo Marek Derewiecki) (2007).

Geertz Clifford, Negara: państwo-teatr na Bali w XIX wieku, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego).

Geertz Clifford, Wiedza lokalna: dalsze eseje z zankresu antropologii interpretatywnej, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2005).

Haltof Marek, Kino australijskie: O ekranowej konstrukcji Antypodów, (Gdańsk: słowo/obraz/terytoria) (2005).

Macintyre Stuart, Clark Anna, The History Wars, (Carlton: Melbourne University Press) (2004).

Memmi Albert, The Colonizer and The Colonized, (Boston: Beacon Press) (1970).

Nugent Maria, Captain Cook Was Here, (Cambridge – New York – Melbourne: Cambridge University Press) (2009).

Shohat Ella, Stam Robert, Unthinking Eurocentrism. Multiculturlaism and the Media, (London – New[xxiv] York: Routledge) (1997).

Young James E., “The Counter-Monument: Memory against Itself in Germany


[i] The character of minister Wagwan is played by Bob Maza, an actor and activist for the rights of the Indigenous people of Australia, the president of the Aborigines Advancement League and delegate to the United Nations General Assembly.

[ii] Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and The Colonized, (Boston: Beacon Press) (1970).

[iii] For analysis of the tickling phenomenon, see chapter Żarty in the book: M. Douglas, Ukryte znaczenia, (Kęty: Wydawnictwo Marek Derewiecki) (2007).

[iv] The goal of this journey was establishing a penal colony in New Southern Wales. That is why most of the “colonists” were prisoners. The arguments and discussions concerning celebrating the beginnings of colonization resemble in many ways the controversies created by the Columbus Day, organized every year in the United States ever since 1937.

[v] Sydney Celebrations Begin To-day. THREE MONTHS OF CARNIVAL, The Age, January 18 (1938), p. 12. All press materials were accessed by the author of this text by using Google News archive, http://news.google.com/newspapers, date accessed: August 26, 2016.

[vi] Maria Nugent, Captain Cook Was Here, (Cambridge – New York – Melbourne: Cambridge University Press) (2009), p. 37.

[vii] Stuart Macintyre, Anna Clark, The History Wars, (Carlton: Melbourne University Press) (2004) (chapter Bicentenary Battles).

[viii] Sydney’s Great Carnival. Huge Crowds View Impressive Historical Pageants, The Age January 27 (1938), p. 11.

[ix] This was the method used to deal with the basic weakness of historical re-enactments. See: Vanessa Agnew, ‘Introduction: What is Reenactment”, Criticism 46:3 (2004), p. 331.

[x] During re-enactments, the historical process is reduced to events deprived of many conditionings. Additionally, the danger of re-enactment lies also in creating the illusion of the past being “us, only wearing funny clothes”, as Australian historian and anthropologist Greg Dening said. The illusion of being faithful to details causes the past in its totality and variety to disappear and it becomes an especially easy target for ideological manipulation. See: Greg Dening, “Endeavour and Hōkūle’a: A Theatre of Re-Enactment Histories”, Humanities Research (1997), p. 34.

[xi] For more on this see James Curran, Stuart Ward, The Unknown Nation: Australia After Empire, (Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Publishing) (2010), p. 206. The press materials describing the audience reaction: “Capt. Cook Loses Out To A Speedboat”, St. Petersburg Times, April 30 (1970), p. 2; and “Cook in a speedboat intrudes on the scene”, The Sydney Morning Herald, April 30 (1970), p. 4. From the interview with two students by The Sydney Morning Herald journalist, it seems that the stunt was only a student joke with no political motivations.

[xii] By doing this, the Aborigine artists referred to the European traditions of commemorating fallen soldiers. One of the many memorial places like this is the ANZAC War Memorial in Sydney, built in 1934 for soldiers who died in the Battle of Gallipoli, which would later become an identity-building myth for the Australians (more on this: M. Haltof, Kino australijskie: O ekranowej konstrukcji Antypodów, (Gdańsk: słowo/obraz/terytoria) (2005). By using the traditions and rituals of white men, the indigenous people made their own perspective clearer and more convincing. The creation of the Aboriginal Memorial coincides with the creation of a new perspective on the monument. This project could be included as part of “counter-monuments” described by James E. Young. See: James E. Young, “The Counter-Monument: Memory against Itself in Germany Today”, Critical Inquiry 18:3 (2001), pp. 267-296.

[xiii] To learn more about the role of history in the celebrations of the Australian bicentenary, see the monographic edition of Australian Historical Studies 23:91 (1988).

[xiv] For more concerning the disputes around the celebrations of bicentennial, see Stuart Macintyre, Anna Clark, (chapter: Bicentenary Battles).

[xv] Celebration of a Nation (1988, ad agency “Mojo/MDA”), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDxjLoTuAlA, date accessed: August 26, 2016.

[xvi] Celebration of a Nation (1988, Australian Bicentennial Committee), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OdDHgJLW348, date accessed: August 26, 2016.

[xvii] Norman Abjorensen, “Day of contradictions”, The Sydney Morning Herald, January 27 (1988), p. 60.

[xviii] To read about the concept of contre-historie by Michel Foucault and the subsequent concept of counter-history as a form of showing what is hidden and traumatic see: Ewa Domańska, Historie niekonwencjonalne, (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Poznańskie) (2006); chapter 3 of Monumentalna przeciw-Historia. Muzeum Żydowskie Daniela Libeskinda; and chapter 4 of Pamięć/przeciw-historia jako ideologia. Pozytywy Zbigniewa Libery. The concept of counter-history is also discussed in the monographic edition of Representations 26 (1989): Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory.

[xix] Ella Shohat, Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism. Multiculturlaism and the Media, (London – New York: Routledge) (1997), p. 328.

[xx] Clifford Geertz, Negara: państwo-teatr na Bali w XIX wieku, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2006) and Wiedza lokalna: dalsze eseje z zankresu antropologii interpretatywnej, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego) (2005) (chapter 6: Centra, królowie i charyzma. Refleksje o symbolice władzy).

[xxi] For more on this see: Mark McKenna, p. 160. The event report also In The Sydney Morning Herald (N. Abjorensen, p. 60). As the journalist observed, if the government can re-enact history, so can the Aborigines.

[xxii] Annie E. E. Coombes, Rethinking Settler Colonialism: History and Memory in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, (Manchester: Manchester Uniwesrity Press) (2006), p. 223.

[xxiii] See Ella Shohat, Robert Stam, Introduction in: Multiculturalism, Postcoloniality, and Transnational Media, ed. Ella Shohat, Robert Stam, (New Brunswick – New Jersey – London: Rutgers University Press) (2003).

Rafał Nahirny is an associate professor in the Cultural Studies Institute at Wroclaw University. He wrote a book about microhistory and strategies of individual resistance to various forms of repressions, violence, and exploitation used by state, religious and local authorities. Nahirny is also the author of a series of articles devoted to the cinema of postcolonial Australia and symbolic violence. His research currently focuses on new technologies in the context of ethics and aesthetics of privacy.

An artist as a figure between industry, technology, and imagination. Some remarks on Portret artysty jako inżyniera. Twórczość Edwarda Ihnatowicza by Joanna Walewska

Anna Nacher

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 148-151.

Anna Nacher

Jagiellonian University


An artist as a figure between industry, technology, and imagination. Some remarks on Portret artysty jako inżyniera. Twórczość Edwarda Ihnatowicza by Joanna Walewska


Joanna Walewska’s account of the life and work of Edward Ihnatowicz can be described without much exaggeration as groundbreaking. To date, it is the first known comprehensive monograph of an artist who became familiar to the wider public as the author of Senster, a robotic and interactive installation imbued with animal-like form, displayed at the Philips’s Evoluon in Eindhoven between 1970 and 1974. Yet, the book deserves praise, not only as the first of its kind, but also for two other reasons. Firstly, the author devoted a significant amount of energy and time to investigating archives that are often difficult to browse through, whether because of their limited availability (as is in the case of the Ihnatowicz family documents), or due to their immense size. When Walewska writes about the archives of James Gardner, the reader can have only a vague clue of their untapped richness, yet it is enough to admire immediately the attempts to render the historical moment as accurately as possible based on the exchange of the communication between the famous curator and the artist. Secondly, the reader becomes extensively acquainted with the vast cultural and historical background of Ihnatowicz’s creative work. The book consists of five chapters that—as Walewska remarks in a bit of an unjustified self-deprecatory manner—are supposed to represent stylistic and methodologic heterogeneity, due to the variety of resources consulted.

The first chapter provides the necessary context of the period shortly after the Second World War, when the serious relationships between art, science, and technology were about to be forged, mostly in the field of the nascent computer art; or rather, in the somewhat ambiguous area of the various forms of artistic experimentation with computing that were later tentatively referred to as “computer arts”. Tracing its beginnings, Walewska follows the narrative of the famous “Cybernetic Serendipity” (held at the ICA in London in 1968) as the decisive moment in the crystallization of the field, with the consecutive establishment of the Computer Arts Society (1969). She briefly mentions previous events, including “the first public exhibition of computer art”[1] in April 1965, at New York’s Howard Wise Gallery and another exhibition (the same year) at the Technische Hohschule in Stuttgart (organised by Frieder Nake and Georg Nees). She is aware of the debate surrounding the formation of the category, which has always been prone to semantic instability, partly since it was born as a project undertaken more by engineers-turned-artists and often derided as dehumanizing the arts as such. As Taylor reminds: “Computer art was an extension of the computer industry rather than a natural outgrowth of the arts”.[2] Yet, the extensive discussions on the possible genealogies of computer art aside, Walewska drives it to the point where she emphasizes the fact that “Performativity and processuality (…) call attention to the shift from the artwork-as-object towards the artwork-as-process that happened in the field of art”.[3] Such an observation provides well-justified ground for the interpretative framework she establishes in the following chapters, situating Ihnatowicz’s creative output at the crossroads of kinetic art, computer art, contemporary sculpture, cybernetics, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence, each of which gets briefly explained in relation to Ihnatowicz’s ideas and projects. The second chapter presents the artist himself; for the first time in the Polish literature on the subject, the life and work of Edward Ihnatowicz is given the attention it deserves. Walewska traces his whereabouts back to the days of his pre-war childhood on the eastern borderlines of the then-Poland. Later, she pictures the difficult path of his life throughout his youth and early adolescence, in times of big historical shifts. The Ihnatowicz family followed the journey shared by thousands of Polish citizens involved in military actions that spanned continents during the war. The family also encountered material hardships when they later settled in post-war Great Britain during times of economic deprivation. The narrative is continued in the fourth chapter, where the story of Senster—Ihnatowicz’s most famous artwork—is presented in a very detailed yet concise way. The chapter follows the part presenting the beginnings of the cybernetic art of the day (with another detailed story of “Cybernetic Serendipity” as well as the social milieu of the early British electronic artists, curators, and critics). The next chapter brings an in-depth worthwhile discussion of the problematics of artificial intelligence, especially the shift which has been so thoroughly analysed by N. Katherine Hayles[4] (it is worth noting that she is absent from the bibliography). Granted, Hayles’ book is not novel, but it still provides an interesting and valid perspective on how the concept of cybernetics has evolved through the consecutive instalments of the Macy Conferences. The way Walewska summarizes the debates on embodied cognition in the British context is of particular value regarding both the groundbreaking character of Ihnatowicz’s project and the current discussion on artificial intelligence, which—especially in Poland—sometimes seems stuck in an idea of cognition that is limited almost exclusively to the logics and the acts of operations on symbols.

However, glossing over a few doubts would do a significant disservice to the author of this important book that deserves the act of serious reading. First, one cannot escape the impression of the author’s slightly too strong commitment to the tenets of history of art in its most conservative version. Surprising as it sounds considering the scope of the problematics employed as the interpretative framework (the history of computing technology, kinetic art, and cognitivism), Walewska seems to keep getting back to the safe grounds of the concepts provided by the classic training of art historians. Repeatedly expressed declarations of the innovatory and forward-thinking nature of Ihnatowicz’s undertaking remain somewhat unproven due to the perspective that too often recalls the romantic paradigm of a (male) genius, an exceptional, unique human subject who with his special powers/abilities exceeds the limitations of his time. In this regard, the brief outline of media archaeology as the methodological choice of the author gets only partial justification. For example, posing the question whether Ihnatowicz was forced to lower his artistic expectations and scale down his vision might have produced more interesting results if reframed as an investigation of the nature of the cooperation between one of the leading technological companies of the time and an artist who was just about to gain more significant recognition. What was at stake in such a relationship? Was Senster, as had originally been planned by Ihnatowicz, indeed a predesigned vision come true, or was it rather the outcome of a series of negotiations between a company and a designer? The answer seems not so much the effect of meticulous work in the archive, as might be the outcome of a chosen theoretical perspective. This is especially true given the fact that Ihnatowicz was not the only artist cooperating with Philips Electronic: Nicolas Schoeffer’s CYSP1 was another joint project between the Dutch company and an early innovator who helped to bring about cybernetic art.

One might be also struck by the omissions in the bibliography: the fundamental “White Heat Cold Logic. British Computer Art 1960-1980” edited by P. Brown, Ch. Gere, N. Lambert and C. Mason gets briefly mentioned in the footnote and as the source of the article by Zivanovic. Interestingly, the article by Richard Ihnatowicz in the same volume is not mentioned at all. In some cases, Walewska cites the publications apparently available in their earlier forms (G.D. Taylor’s doctoral dissertation has been already digitally published by Bloomsbury). It seems the author was very up-to-date with the current debates on the subject matter at the time of writing; however, for some reasons he did not sufficiently verify the sources at the time of editing. Unfortunately, the editing on the part of the publishing house is the weakest aspect of the book, considering the number of minor and major mistakes, for which apparently Iwona Wakarecy as an editor and the proofreading of Wydawnictwo Naukowe UMK is responsible. In addition, the chapter on media archaeology gives an outline of the field which otherwise is much more complex and prone to internal debates. Walewska somehow glosses over such discussions, presenting a rather too unified and compact view of this heterogeneous field (she also manages not to mention Siegfried Zielinski at all, which itself is far from a gesture of innocence). However, her account succeeds in perfectly embodying one of the basic tenets of what has been presented as her methodology of choice. The editors of one of the newest takes on media archaeology state: “Rather than positing an “orthodoxy”, the book presents itself as an open forum for very different voices, hoping to trigger “polylogues” about the problems and prospects of this emerging field”.[5] Joanna Walewska’s proposition unquestionably instigates such polylogy: its subject is not limited to Edward Ihnatowicz’s legacy, but also skilfully incorporates the matter of the very beginnings of technological art. The audience interested in how the field at the crossroads of science, art, and technology came into existence gets a highly inspirational book, unfolding the lesser-known aspects of the process and documenting the creative work of this prominent figure, who for years seemed (unfairly) slightly forgotten. Regardless of any doubts, it is definitely something to be thankful for.

Joanna Walewska, Portret artysty jako inżyniera. Twórczość Edwarda Ihnatowicza, (Toruń: Nicolaus Copernicus University Press) (2015), p.242.


[1] G.D. Taylor, When the Machine Made Art. The Troubled History of Computer Art (New York, London: Bloomsbury) (2014), p. 30 (Kindle version).

[2] G.D. Taylor, p. 30.

[3] G.D. Taylor, p. 29.

[4] N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman. Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press) (1999).

[5] Media Archaeology. Approaches, Applications, and Implications, eds. E. Huhtamo, J. Parikka (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press) (2011), p. 2 (Kindle version).

Anna Nacher –  since 2006 she has been working at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland. She teaches courses on media theory, digital culture and e-literature. Her current interests include locative media, media art, art gaming, transmedia storytelling, visual studies, digital culture and the new materiality in the contemporary art. The author of three books in Polish: the last one, published in 2016 focuses on the digital mapping and locative media imagery. Other articles include: “Images of the City in the Making: Participatory Mapping, Dynamic Data Processing and Collective Knowledge, Cultural Studies Review 4 (18) 2013; Mashup as paratextual practice: beyond digital objects (in the age of networked media) in N. Desrochers, D. Apollon (eds.), Examining Paratextual Theory and its Application in Digital Culture, Information Science Reference, IGI Global 2014; Stelarc and His Experiential Machinarium [in:] R. W. Kluszczyński (ed.),  STELARC: Meat, Metal & Code: , Gdańsk 2014 and “Internet of things and automation of imaging: beyond representationalism”, Communication+1, vol 5, 2016.

Vampires, zombies, and phantoms – histories of horror stories. Review

Magdalena Zdrodowska

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 152-156.

Magdalena Zdrodowska

Jagiellonian University


 Vampires, zombies, and phantoms – histories of horror stories. Review


The second half of the year 2016 was generous for Polish fans of dreadful stories as two interesting books came along. The first, Wiedza potworna. Horror w badaniach kulturowych (The Monstrous Knowledge. Horror stories and cultural studies) published by the Nicolaus Copernicus University Press, contains seven essays by faculties and PhD candidates of the Cultural Studies Department of the same University. The essays cover a wide range of topics, from Polish folk tales to Japanese horror stories. The second book is an anthropological monograph of the horror film Upiór w kamerze. Zarys kulturowej historii kina grozy (Phantom of the camera. The cultural history of the horror film) by Magdalena Kamińska, published by Municipal Gallery Arsenał in Poznań, Poland. This book is the outcome of a series of lectures on the history of horror films conducted by Kamińska in the Gallery. These publications complement each other, providing the reader with a wide range of contexts and references of horror stories.

The authors of the essays contained in the The Monstrous Knowledge, who work in the field of anthropology and cultural studies, deal with a wide range of issues from folk tales to video games. Each essay is devoted to a specific problem that may be genre, national context, or a figure such as a vampire or zombie. The opening essay by Dariusz Brzostek is somewhat out of the box; it takes up the figure of an anthropologist coming back from field research as a monstrous character and a source of threat for his/her people. The threat is based on the transition of the scientist from Western rationality to the savage (monstrous) knowledge of the people who were supposed to be the subject, not the source of wisdom. The anthropologist is presented as a double stranger: for both the researched community where he/she arrives and for his/her own people upon return. This initial essay is not only an self-referential game undertaken by a culture researcher, but also introduces the primary theme of the whole book: monstrous knowledge as a non-scientific, non-rational (in the academic, Western understanding) pattern of world interpretation and possible scenarios of action. It is knowledge that permits the supernatural as the actor in reality, as it dresses up the otherness in monstrousness.

The second chapter, written by Piotr Grochowski and Pamela Staroń, is devoted to the powerful Polish folklore figure of the phantom. In fact, it is a monography of the phantom in Polish traditional culture and reshapes its image, which is already grounded in Polish ethnography. Phantoms used to be described by folklore researchers as a multitude of locally characterised figures of different genders and scopes of action (e.g. vampire, nymph, and spook). However, the authors propose treating all these creatures as creations constructed from a wide range of folk motives that would be activated whenever needed.

The remaining chapters of The Monstrous Knowledge deal with horror stories either in literature, film, or in video games. Those by by Aldona Kobus and Wojciech Jaracz are discussed in more detail below.

In her essay on Ann Rice’s vampire novels, Kobus focuses on two elements: the gothic and the queerness as elements that constitute Rice’s writing. Using them, Kobus presents the novels as transgressive and opposing the dominant ideology, but also points out that these qualities were constitutive of the 19th century gothic prototypes of Rice’s literature. Kobus recalls the multitude of examples of drag, lesbian relations, male women, and feminine men in gothic literature and Rice makes use of these one century later by introducing, for example, a queer family and homosexual desires into the vampire community she describes. This vampirical subversiveness also penetrated film adaptations, marking them with transgressive tensions; however, Kobus points out that the wave of romantic stories about vampires that followed Interview with the Vampire (1992, dir. Neil Jordan) resulted in narratives that were extensively erotic, but also extremely conservative on closer inspection. The chapter closes with an in-depth critique of the True Blood series (2008-2014, HBO).

Wojciech Jaracz concentrates on horror films of the second half of the 20th century, pointing out the changing status of the body as their driving force. In fact, horror films owe their power more to the horror of the body and disgust, rather than fear. The fitter and more well-kept the body was supposed to be in the second half of the century, the more dreadful were the associations with animality, death, aging and pain. Jaracz underlines both the dominant discourses and the fact that the counterculture valued the body highly as a source of self-expression. In this context, the disintegration of the body and the cruelty in horror films is explained as a powerful element of the genre.

The second book is The Phantom of the Camera, by Magdalena Kamińska, who has experience in both culture and media studies. Her book is the first Polish monography of horror film since 1986; others were mainly lexicons. Kamińska’s first and foremost assumption is that the horror story is a universal narrative and fulfils “an anthropological task” (as she calls it). The core of a horror story is an anti-miracle, a conflict between humans and supernatural forces. Horror stories wake up existential fears as well as strategies for coping with the fear of death and unknown in the real life of readers, listeners, and viewers.

Kamińska starts with a reflection on film genres and horror movies in particular. She states that rather from traditional culture and folk tales themselves, horror films come from their transposition by gothic literature; however, she does not negate the powerful influence of contemporary urban legends on horror films. Due to literary reinterpretations, during the 19th century folk creatures gained emotions, motivations, and psychological depth: they were no longer simple representations of pure evil and malice. Telling the story of the horror film, Kamińska moves back and forth between Europe and United States. She begins in 1920’s Germany, where the genre was born (yet not proclaimed nor coded) in the expressionistic tales of Murnau, Dreyer, Wegener, and Lang. Then she moves across the Atlantic to Hollywood, where the canonical figures of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster were taken up and fully exploited in the following decades. She then goes back to Europe to tell the story of eurotrash films, especially British Hammer productions, and follows the counterculture in the United States with the new wave of sophisticated, award winning horror movies, as well as the birth of gore and splatter. The latter are defined by the author more as an aesthetic style than a subgenre and not exclusively associated with horror. Kamińska closes with a rather bitter reflection on the rebirth of horror in the 1990s in the form of neo-baroque, which for some reason she defines as digital, although the films that Kamińska credits as such do not contain much CGI. As a great fan of F.F. Coppola’s Bram Stocker’s Dracula (1992), I have to mention my doubts regarding the presentation of this film. It was classified by Kamińska as digital neo-baroque, even though Coppola openly gave up CGI and generated almost all the special effects using old-fashioned, analogue techniques. This decision was crucial as the whole movie is an (successful in my opinion) attempt to capture the history of the vampire film in a nutshell. It evokes the German tradition of vampire-the monster, the early Hollywood tradition of vampire-the elegant, the foreign aristocrat, and the exploitation tradition of vampire-the sexual predator. This aspect (that seems extremely interesting) as absent from Kamińska’s analysis.

The book is a vibrant and entertaining narrative on the history of the horror film. The author claims the genre is based on universal human needs and emotions, regardless of administrative or national borders; however, her selection of films and trends is limited to Western or even more narrow Anglo-Saxon realms. It is in fact the history of American and British horror films with a few short detours into German, French, and Italian trends, evoked whenever Anglo-Saxon film tradition related to or used them. Basically, non-Western films are absent from the landscape of Kamińska’s history of horror movies. The closing chapter is indeed devoted to Japanese horror films, but starts with The Ring (1998, dir. Hideo Nakata) and does not present much more. Even when they are mentioned, non-Western horror films are evoked only from a Western point of view; The Ring being the first Japanese horror story to catch the attention of American and European audiences. Other than Japanese movies, Asian horror films are only signalled, and South American, African or even East European are not even mentioned. In addition, films belonging to the genre but not regarded as important, cult or classic (from today’s perspective) are not included in the book at all or only briefly mentioned.

All this makes Kamińska’s book a history of the Western classic (or mainstream) horror film; richly inlaid with contexts, cultural backgrounds, curiosities, and the like, and it fulfils its role brilliantly. Phantom of the Camera is a valuable proposition, a diachronic narrative concentrating on the links between the trends and subgenres, trying to ground them in both the culture and production schemes of specific periods. Kamińska reconstructs the cultural and film contexts as well as the production aspects, rather than abbreviating the plots of the specific films, which is often the case and a real sore point of Polish film studies.

What needs to be mentioned concerning Phantom of the Camera is the beauty of the book. Hard covered and printed on fine paper, it conveys not only Kamińska’s narrative, but also the highly consistent graphic layout and illustrations by Paweł Flieger. The book is solicitously edited with pages having separate layouts combining text and Flieger’s graphics. This conscientiousness is worth praising as, on today’s Polish publishing market, academic books as nicely published as this are not common, as (often appearing in publishing series) they follow the pattern of economic paper, ink, and usage of space.

Both books are of a great value as reflection on horror stories (in both literature and film) is painfully underrepresented in Poland, where popular culture seems unworthy of serious academic interest. They are interesting when read together as in many aspects they complement each other. Kamińska’s book casts a broad light on the long-term development and relations and influences of the horror film, while The Monstrous Knowledge spotlights specific tropes, figures, and contexts.

Magdalena Kamińska, Upiór w kamerze. Zarys kulturowej historii kina grozy, (Poznań: Municipal Gallery Arsenał) (2016).

Potworna wiedza. Horror w badaniach kulturowych, ed. Dariusz Brzostek, Aldona Kobus, Miłosz Markocki, (Toruń: Nicolaus Copernicus University Press) (2016).

(Dis)emancipatory technologies (Editorial)

Magdalena Zdrodowska

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 1-4

Magdalena Zdrodowska

Jagiellonian University


 (Dis)emancipatory technologies (Editorial)


In the 19th and especially the 20th century, powerful emancipatory processes were taking place that reached a climax in the middle of the 20th century. The massive civil rights movements of the late 1960s included women, aboriginal people, people of colour, ethnic and sexual minorities that were fighting for respect and representation within Western societies. These were powerful generational experiences and set the pattern for the emancipatory movements throughout the second half of the 20th century of groups seeking empowerment and social change, including deaf and disabled communities.

Most definitions emphasize the processual character of empowerment that regards either individuals[1] or communities[2]. As Marc A. Zimmerman points out, this term can be understood as both value orientation for policy makers and social change, and as a “theoretical model for understanding the process and consequences of efforts to exert control and influence over decisions that affect one’s life, organisational functioning, and the quality of community life”[3].  What is in common across many various empowerment definitions are the issues of reclaiming control and gaining access to resources (including information). In many cases, technology plays the important role of empowering artefact[4] that balances inequalities in access to resources and the communicational public sphere, helping both individuals and collectives to gain self-esteem, representation, and independence.

Communication technologies are perceived as powerful allies of communities fighting for empowerment and recognition. Skilfully used mass media such as press, radio, and television may greatly assist minorities’ efforts to influence public opinion and thereby pressure policy makers. This scenario is called “the boomerang effect”[5]: the media or NGOs are engaged to support and amplify the voices of groups whose causes are not audible in the public sphere due to oppression (such as lack of access). Thus, with the help of journalists or activists, the initial social, cultural and communicational inequalities are balanced.

However, the positive impact of communication technologies is not limited to mass media. There are examples of DIY technological practices that have had an important impact on oppressed groups. Teletypewriters for the deaf (initially invented, distributed and managed by the deaf themselves) that were introduced in the late 1960s in the United States and in the 1970s in Western Europe helped the deaf to overcome the constraints of voice-based telephony.  Behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern European countries, both DIY radio receivers and skilfully used commercial models made it possible for people to access alternative Western free sources of information.

For the oppressed and excluded, electronic communication technologies seem even more supportive, especially social media. The rise of electronic media shows the emancipatory potential of information and communication technologies such as hacktivism or cloud protesting. It has made self-representation and activism much easier for communities whose options are limited due to their minority status, disability, and social or political situation, as shown by Mary L. Gray in “Out in the Country. Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America”[6] or Stefania Milan in “Social Movements and Their Technologies: Wiring Social Change”[7]. Technology enables limitations of the physical world such as the geographical spread of community members or architectural barriers to be overcome and makes it possible for minority groups (including the disabled) to enter the public sphere, network, and gain representation. On the other hand, technology may also act as a barrier that disabling users due to technical issues such as inaccessible software (as described and analysed by Katie Ellis and Michael Kent in “Disability and New Media”[8]. In 1999, Lawrence A. Scadden, a blind researcher, enthusiastically wrote, “The proliferation of optical character-recognition systems connected to speech synthesizers has brought me the ability to read almost any printed material independently. The growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web has resulted in my ability to communicate independently in text with people all over the world just as it has for you and for millions of other sighted and blind people. The ability to conduct research on-line has provided me a new-found independence”. However, he added, “This increased independence has been threatened from time to time with the emergence of new technology and new approaches for information presentation, but we continue to enable accessibility to evolve almost as fast as the technology”[9].

Similarly, the impact of social media on so-called cyber revolutions that empowered the oppressed, such as the Arab Spring and the #occupymovement, was not as powerful as was initially recognised. These movements quickly gave up extensive usage of social media, as it is an extremely easy target for surveillance and abuse. In fact, technology can be an oppressive element from which some groups seek emancipation: perfect examples include the governmental and medical technologies, such as statistics and eugenics, which have been used in constructing normalcy in industrial societies since the 18th century.

There are more complex and in fact paradoxical examples of relations between technology and empowerment, such as the western deaf education system. Founded on the idea of the rationalized social order of Enlightenment, deaf residential schools were a tool for organising society by removing non-normative group members from the social domain and placing them in special institutions. Schools for the deaf (and also for the blind) were initially not educational but charity institutions, where children were normalized: taught how to fit in with hearing society. These institutions had full control over pupils’ bodies and constructed their professional lives by training them for a limited choice of occupations—all for the sake of making society more efficient. Schools for the deaf served as an apparatus for eliminating from society those who did not fit in, and returning them adapted and rehabilitated. However, schools at the same time gathered the dispersed deaf in one, physical space, thus creating a propitious milieu where unified sign language and later Deaf Culture emerged. In fact, the technology that was supposed to integrate the deaf into mainstream society facilitated the creation of a distinctive Deaf community and identity: a community of ‘others’. The most vivid consequences of these educational governmentality practices may still be observed in the United States (which inherited the French educational system), as strong and dynamic communities arose around schools for the deaf. They provided opportunities to meet future partners and friends and make life-along bonds, in fact to create an alternative social sphere.

Inspired by the diversity and ambiguity of the role of technology in emancipatory processes and practices, we present this issue of “TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies”, which is devoted to both the emancipatory and disempowering effects of technology. There are seven articles covering five thematic areas:

  1. The role of technology in minority groups gaining representation under oppressive circumstances. In the article Tamil Documentary Naali: Low-End Technology and Subaltern History, Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai analyses the film Naali/The Stream (directed by Murugavel and Lakshmanan; 2012). Shot with a simple handycam, this documentary brought the life and struggle of the local Tamil community into public discourse. The author points out the democratising potential of low-end technologies; however, it is also shown how they can be used both for and against local communities. The second article, Minority representation in the Digital: Narratives from Christian Communities in Delhi by Rajan Benson, is grounded in field research and concentrates on social media usage by one particular minority group. Benson shows the double-edged sword of technology that enables the Christian community in Delhi to gain representation and build collectivity in a hostile social and political realm, while also making it also possible to trace and threaten individual activists.
  2. The discriminative and disempowering potential of new media In Shaming and socially responsible online engagement, Shadow W.J. Armfield, Dawn M. Armfield, and Laura O. Franklin investigate the problem of online linguistic and visual shaming based on their qualitative research of online communication.
  3. The technologically boosted reshaping of the (self)representation of people with disabilities. Here we recommend two articles. The first is Movement as language, signification as identity: Understanding and empowering the autistic community in online spaces, in which Hannah Ebben analyses the potential of online video platforms for autistic community representation by studying videos uploaded by individuals within the spectrum. The second is “Nostalgia for the future…” – prosthesis as a pop-cultural weapon?, in which Marta Stańczyk analyses the most popular prosthesis users in American popular culture and investigates the shift within the meaning of prosthesis: from a sign of vulnerability and passivity to an identity-building element of individual empowerment.
  4. The narrative refiguration of ableism and disability may be found in the article Ableism and Futuristic Technology: The Enhancement of ‘No Body’ in the Films »Lucy« and »Her« by nili R. Broyer. Applying transhumanism theory, the author tries to redefine the oppositions of ableism and disability within the narratives of the films.
  5. The impact of newly created technologies on artistic practices. In her text, The technologies of experimental Japanese filmmakers in the digital era, Agnieszka Kiejziewicz presents four progressive Japanese visual artists who have gained more artistic freedom and access to potential audiences with skilful usage of digital technologies.


[1] D. Mechanic 1991, “Adolescents at risk: New Directions, conference paper cited after Marc A. Zimmerman, Empowerment Theory. Psychological , Organisational and Community  Levels of Analysis”, in Handbook of Community Psychology, ed. J. Rappaport, E. Seidman, (New York: Springer  Science and Business Media) (2000).

[2] Cornel Empowerment Group 1989, “Empowerment and family support”, Network Bulletin, 1, 1-23, cited after Marc A. Zimmerman.

[3] Marc A. Zimmerman.

[4] Carin Roos PhD & Åsa Wengelin “The text telephone as an empowering technology an empowering technology in the daily lives of deaf people—A qualitative study”, Assistive Technology 28:2, (2016), p. 63.

[5] Leszek Porębski, „Internet jako narzędzie mobilizacji politycznej mniejszości”, in Agora czy Hyde Park. Internet jako przestrzeń społeczna grup mniejszościowych ed. Ł. Kapralska, B. Pactwa (Kraków: Nomos) (2010).

[6] Mary L. Gray, Out in the Country. Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America, (New York University Press) (2009).

[7] Stefania Milan, Social Movements and Their Technologies: Wiring Social Change, (Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

[8] Katie Ellis, Michael Kent, Disability and New Media, (Routledge) (2010).

[9] Lawrence A. Scadden, “Empowerment Through Technology”, Assistive Technology, 11:1 (1999) 59-65.

Movement as language, signification as identity

Hannah Ebben

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 50-67

Hannah Ebben

Hallam University


Movement as language, signification as identity: Understanding and empowering the autistic community in online spaces



This article is a contribution to ongoing research in online autistic culture by defining its overarching themes and presenting a new theoretical framework that could advance and empower both autism research and the autistic community itself. It studies autism as a concept that is constantly linguistically (re)produced in society rather than as a mental disorder. Focussing on YouTube as a platform for autistic identity, it features a review of existing academic literature about the autistic community on the internet and analyses two YouTube videos made by autistic people. After an exploration of the focus on geography and the performance of citizenship in the literature, it will introduce the notion of the counter-metaphor as a facilitator of new concepts on human diversity besides ‘autism’ for researchers and the autistic community. Its significance will be explained through a presentation of ‘atopos’ as one such concept. The overall aim of this paper is to affirm the notion of online space as a producer and platform of new language and conversations on autism. It considers analytical tools for the academic study of the geography of autistic people, but also encourages empowering negotiations of online and offline space within the autistic community.

Key words: autistic identity, online cultures, empowering technology, disability geography, voice, counter-metaphor, atopos



 Autism is a flexible concept, shaped in and outside the clinical world. Within a medical context, it has been conceptualized and defined as a disorder characterized by impaired communication, social skills, and information processing. However, many stakeholders outside the clinical and scientific realm also attach words, signs, and metaphors to the concept. In this way, it becomes a dynamic interplay of meaning, subjective experiences and interpretations rather than a fixed, universal entity. For twenty years, there has been room for the previously unrecognized voices of autistic people, who had previously been seen as not being able to speak.[1] The arrival of the internet played a key role in the formation of the first autism self-advocacy organizations.[2] Autistic people now form and maintain online and offline communities and further shape and develop notions of divergence and diversity. For researchers, it is important to know how this new community negotiates identity and the word ‘autism’, and for autistic people, it is important to have a podium to develop further their own voices.

This article explores how to understand and further encourage the empowering potential of the internet, and YouTube in particular, for people who identify with the concept of autism. It considers literature on digital technology, autism, and empowerment, and presents terminology that affirms the free flow of enabling new ways to talk about human diversity. YouTube is a social networking site based on video sharing. Visitors may freely view uploaded videos, start a channel in order to upload videos, subscribe to other channels, comment on videos, and make playlists. Both companies and private citizens own YouTube channels, and both professional and homemade videos have become famous and widespread. Autistic people have posted and shared simulations of everyday sensory input, videos on social and political issues within the autism self-advocacy movements, and informal blogs about the notion of autism.

In order to understand the social and spatial conditions in which the flow of meaning on autism thrives, as well as the role of the internet in this process, it is important to acknowledge the close connection between technology and society. In their study of online Deaf culture, Valentine and Skelton refer to thinkers on the social science of technology like Bruno Latour and state, “society is produced in and through patterned networks of heterogeneous materials in which neither the properties of humans or non-humans are self-evident, rather they emerge in practice”.[3]On the basis of this statement, this paper will adopt the stance that technology, society and identity are not static entities, but are unconsciously shaped by everyday practices of signification, mutually complementing each other.

It will consider the internet as a digital space in which these practices evolve. A literary review on the autistic community online[4] will highlight the significance of spatiality. With the help of literature that addresses the construction of citizenship, I will study two YouTube videos made by people who identify with the concept of autism: the 2006 video “In My Language”, posted on the YouTube channel “silentmiaow” from non-verbal autistic self-advocate Amelia Baggs (formerly Amanda; blogs as ‘Ballastexistenz’); and the video “What it’s like to walk down the street when you have autism or an ASD” by “Craig Thomson”. With this reading, I eventually consider the question how the online autistic community could be further empowered in and outside academia. I will suggest the ‘counter-metaphor’ as an academic theoretical framework that could facilitate inclusive practices of signification online based on the empowering qualities of digital technology. This specific term stems from my research into metaphors on autism in cultural representations. These are the themes that emerge from the narrative structure and stylistic qualities of film, literature and video that can be formulated as ‘autism as…’. In relation to such metaphors as found in culture, counter-metaphors are interventions made by people who consider these metaphors, in my case the researcher or eventually autistic people themselves. Inventing a counter-metaphor aims to enable a broader vocabulary and a free flow of signification to come into being in a way that further empowers autistic people. It aims to not only recognize but also support the way in which autistic people find their voice and how YouTube offers its platform online. A larger framework of counter-metaphors in and outside academia might eventually facilitate new sustainable structures of signification on human diversity. Digital media have been a platform for the creation of  words and meaning to everyday experiences. YouTube is one of the social networking sites that can be explored to study how this creativity comes to the fore and the way it could be further acknowledged and encouraged.

The study and encouragement of empowering technologies exemplifies a Cultural Studies approach[5] that stands for an open, interdisciplinary, and worldly engagement with multilateral themes addressing culture, meaning, and ideology.[6] It not only studies cultural artefacts, but is more precisely focused on their “use” in everyday life in a given political context.[7] This use indicates the way in which a political system is embedded in cultural objects that are produced and consumed daily and are usually left unnoticed. To research this, Cultural Studies scholars seek the social margins in order to strive for “demarginalization”, and regard for social diversity. Research that has been done in the field of Cultural Studies has had a very broad scope and is difficult to capture in one single methodological template. Nevertheless, it is important to consider its approach as it helps us to understand how to foster the process of demarginalization effectively.[8] The Cultural Studies approach in this particular inquiry strives to acknowledge the empowering qualities of YouTube for the autistic community as a group that has struggled to let their voices be heard. The field has borrowed its method of data collection from Media Studies, amongst other fields, but focuses more on the social contexts in which mediated artefacts has arisen.[9] In order to grasp the empowering quality of YouTube for autistic persons comprehensively, I will address its interface and the style and content of its videos. Studying the use of video in society, my reading includes larger themes such as the construction of autistic identity and citizenship through a negotiation with the non-autistic ‘norm’ within the boundaries of the YouTube interface.

After a short description of autistic voices online and the research that has covered it, I will present a reading of the two videos. I will then introduce the counter-metaphor through an explanation of the atopos concept that I have employed in my own research. I will argue that other researchers and autistic people could also invent such terms as empowering tools. In keeping with most autistic people’s wishes, this article employs identity-first language. This means that I will speak about “autistic people” in order to refer to people who identify with the concept of autism.[10] Note that this includes personal accounts on YouTube regardless of diagnoses. To maintain the integrity of the research, this article does not decide if the persons portrayed ‘actually’ have autism and only addresses discourse, although future analyses will cover online negative responses to Baggs’ work and claims.

 Online and offline autistic community

Notions of affirmation and emancipation are often approached in terms of the voice: being able to speak, being enabled to speak, and being heard are necessary conditions for the production and recognition of knowledge.[11] For a long time, ‘autism’ was seen as a negation of a speaking self, as autistic people were not believed to be able to be introspective and retrospective because of their lack of understanding of the human mind.[12] This has been problematized by the emergence of autism self-advocacy, in which autistic people make themselves known as  “actors with agency”[13] because of a shared story of living with autism, which renders it political.[14] Arising in the early 1990s, autism self-advocacy has been greatly shaped out of an oppositional stance towards the stakeholders that traditionally had delimited what could be said and what could not be said about the concept of autism, like parents, charity funds, and therapists.[15] The first recognized autistic people with a voice of their own still operated in the proximity of clinicians and parent groups. By contrast, the internet brought autistic people together as equal peers, which is a great factor of its empowering quality. Mailing lists formed its first online communication. A notable example is Independent Living on the Autistic Spectrum, which offered emotional support and a platform for activism. Due to their dissatisfaction with the emphasis on cures amongst parents, in 1992 Donna Williams and Jim Sinclair founded ANI, the first autism self-advocacy organization.[16] Today, autistic voices are visibly recognized online; for example, autistic vlogger Amythest Schaber offers accessible resources on autism presented by an insider.[17]

Literature of the formation of autistic voices and identity often employ as a method of choice an ethnographic study[18] or an analysis of questionnaires and autobiographical accounts[19]. These texts highlight the conscious and challenging choices of autistic people to disclose[20]and construct[21]an autistic identity against a backdrop of the increasingly non-hierarchical practice of signifying autism as explained above and the shift in focus from autism as a condition in need of a cure to a potential community.[22]The identity management of autistic people is influenced by the need to undermine stigma and stay safe[23]and is characterized by a dynamic process of negotiating a polyphony of voices from in and outside the autistic community.[24]

Writings that specify autistic culture online critically approach the potential empowering effects of digital technology[25]and remarkably often focus on geography, that is, the way in which online and offline communication are negotiated as different spaces.[26] The internet is significant for the autistic community and the research that studies it; literature addresses its status as a technology that could compensate autism-related communicative impairments. Jordan comments that online communication often lacks elements of face-to-face communication with which autistic people struggle.[27] In their study of questionnaires completed by autistic people, Davidson and Orsini quote one anonymous participant who states that the internet only offers “one dimension”: a text that can be read and written at any occasion, which fits their communicative style much better.[28] Others confirm that their social lives have been enriched by the accessibility of the internet.[29] The importance and innovation of the communicative possibilities that a website interface offers to autistic people is well known in the academic world: several articles refer to the belief that the internet might have the same significance for autistic people as sign language for Deaf people.[30] In addition, just like the Deaf community emerged out of a shared language and a shared space[31], the communicative accessibility of the internet brought autistic people an increased proximity to their peers, regardless of bodily distance.[32] In the case of Deaf culture, the internet offered more information and people to communicate with via text and sign language than did offline Deaf clubs. This meant that it formed a technology that, unlike cochlear implants, was not aimed at the normalization of Deaf people.[33] Similar to this, ANI-L, one of the first virtual spaces for autistic people, encouraged the affirmation of autistic identities rather than the search for a cure.[34] It therefore offered a space that was low in stimuli for people with communicative and sensory problems and did not pressure normalization. The close proximity amongst new people enables the formation of new communities, and in relation to empowering technology, the internet facilitates these communities and their unique communication.[35] Space is created through these shared activities.[36]

The geography of the autistic community is thus heterogeneously localized in online and offline space and the exact relation between the two has been explored in literature. Rosqvist et al base their article on two research projects on specific online and offline communities (respectively a forum and a magazine with an accompanying summer camp) andconsider both as enabling spaces for autistic people to enter.[37] Their geographical study of the autistic community distinguishes “neuro-separate spaces” from “neuro-shared spaces”.[38]In neuro-separated spaces, mainstream culture follows a non-autistic norm in which autistic people are either excluded or creating their own “safe spaces” of resistance.[39] Neuro-shared spaces attempt to accommodate anyone and are created when places are made accessible for disabled people. Through its empowering potential, the internet might be a leg up to a stronger offline position and thus a shared space with the majority culture.[40] In the online and offline alternative spaces studied, autistic people found a chance to find peers and benefited from the removal of the ‘problems’ of non-autistic society as their quality of life increased.[41] However, divergent interest amongst the visitors often clashed: socializing predominated political ambitions or vice versa, and disagreements arose regarding the possibilities of contact with non-autistic society.[42] The online forum studied especially displayed reluctance to transfer to non-autistic space.[43] Rosqvist et al state that the magazine project needed significantly more negotiation with non-autistic culture and was therefore more of a neuro-shared space aimed at wider inclusion than the forum. This made the latter more separatist and led to various discussions on identity that were less preoccupied with ‘fitting in’.[44]This research is interesting here because it considers the clustering of autistic voices into technologies and spaces that all facilitate a different type of identity construction with regard to mainstream culture.

Rosqvist et al mention concerns about a “ghettoization” of online autistic culture as an overly separated practice of signification and communication.[45] Jordan laments the potential ‘splintering’ of the autistic community caused by autistic self-advocates online who form a polar opposite to other interest groups. Such chasms could hamper the autism movement.[46] By contrast, Davidson and Orsini also address the fear of a diminished visibility of disability caused by online autistic culture and offer a nuanced study that carefully weighs up visions of the internet as a panacea versus the internet as separation for the autistic community.[47] In their analysis of questionnaires returned by autistic people, they study what their personal experiences of the internet can reveal about identity and negotiations of space. They argue on the basis of this study that “online activities are rarely entirely insular” and that the effects of these activities reach beyond autism, autistic persons, and skills that are solely useful on the internet.[48] This could indicate blurring boundaries between the online and offline world.[49] Some autistic research participants pointed out their overly long periods of time spent online, and some stated their preference for virtual and digital communication. Nevertheless, many indicated that their social lives and skills were improved outside the internet through online communication, with more overall empowerment and connection.[50] Social exclusion was decreased online as the autistic participants did not have to be confined to the space of their homes anymore with access to the internet.[51] They easily adapted to quickly changing technologies, such as mobile internet access that extends beyond the home.[52] Overall, many autistic people are shown to construct online spaces dynamically that are inclusive to their peers; they both confine a separate safe space online and improve their negotiations of space beyond those confinements and into the offline world.

 Performing autistic voices on YouTube

 The notions of autistic voices and geographies online and offline form the cause of the exploration of the imagery and geography of YouTube. The concept of autism (as well as Deaf culture) is being (re)defined and circulated online by heterogeneous peer groups in ways that do not necessarily reflect clinical understandings of pathological difference. The interfaces of digital technologies both facilitate communication amongst autistic people and shape the content of this communication. For example, autism forums only offer written dialogues and take away the additional challenging communicative and sensory input of face-to-face conversations.[53] At the same time, they might form spaces that are separated from mainstream culture, as the interface of a forum that is solely visited by autistic people does not require any negotiation with non-autistic voices and communication. This may result in discussions that regard mainstream culture as ‘alien’.[54] The performative nature of autistic identity—the notion that people ‘do’ identity through constant culturally specific practice—is key here and is closely related to space and technology. My own analysis presupposes the notion that the word ‘autism’ does not necessarily reflect a pre-linguistic, material reality that is based in the bodies of diagnosed people, but that it is actively being filled with meaning through all kinds of signifying practices. Using the word ‘autism’ brings a specific reality into being, just as if the declaration ‘I hereby apologize’ actualizes apologies. In the case of YouTube, a specific video is such a performative utterance in itself.[55] It is important to note that performative expressions evolve unconsciously.

YouTube facilitates specific performative practices of signifying autism through its specific user interface. It is a platform for videos that are accessible through personalized channels, open to comments, and can be made easily using cameras and editing software. Even though the comment section uses written text and can be complemented by autistic people at their own convenience, making a video itself offers creative potential with more “elements” than text only.[56] Meaning can be constructed consciously or unconsciously through editing, camera work, intertitles, monologues in front of the camera, or annotations. Overall, YouTube is a digital space in which individual practices of producing and uploading content forms the “main vehicle of communication and of social connection” and most users use the site to watch and comment on this content.[57] The analysis of the two case studies, from now on referred to as “What it’s like…” and “In My Language”, will address all of these elements.

My approach to these case studies is informed by several texts. The field of Cultural Studies fits into the aim of exploring signifying practices of autism in and outside videos distributed by YouTube and to the role of the specific YouTube interface. The empirical study of two YouTube videos are considered as cultural ‘texts’[58]; annotations, tags, and the video description from the poster as paratexts in which the video is presented to the audience[59] and comments from others as instances of reception of the video content. This highlights the use of cultural content in online practice[60] and thus opens up an approach that analyses the actions of autistic people on YouTube as an assemblage of video content and debates in textual commentary.

Additionally, the production of autistic identity and space on YouTube will be considered with the help of the literary review and the insights of van Zoonen et al’s 2010 article on the performance of citizenship on YouTube. In their exploration of citizenship in a multicultural society, van Zoonen et al read YouTube videos that react to the release of the Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam film Fitna.[61] Their research questions regarding the study of citizenship, that is, how the videos claim their right to speak and who is the implied addressee[62], are closely aligned with my own consideration of autistic voices as constructed practices. They problematize common theorizations of voices in academia in relation to YouTube, as the rear end of the communicative process is often ambiguous in videos. People or groups addressed in a video do not have to be part of its actual audience, and many videos that declare a message do not explicitly address someone at all.[63] Van Zoonen et al subvert the assumption that voices need a clear addressee with the help of a “performative” concept of voice: expressions that are significant in and of itself for themselves, no matter who is addressed and who listens. Within this view, one becomes a citizen by ‘doing’ citizenship.[64] The appealing factor of this definition for this study is the fact that it directs the study of voice to the “deed” of citizenship, that is, YouTube videos and comments, and its participants.[65] My readings of autistic identity and citizenship in “What it’s like…” and “In My Language” will also set the content of stylistic choices of the deed at the forefront, rather than the intention of the creators. The act of posting content itself already constitutes citizenship. The following analysis will also be based on assumed audiences and the occurrence of autistic voices and community.

Both “What it’s like…” and “In My Language” are divided into two segments: one that appeals to a normalized gaze to the world and to disabled people, and another that subverts this gaze and establishes autistic difference and voice. However, the two videos convey a very different message. Whereas “What it’s like… is a more traditionally educative video that simulates a walk through the eyes of an archetypical autistic person, “In My Language” offers a translation to non-verbal communication as a breakdown of social expectations of autistic people. The assumed addressee in the videos is key here. “What it’s like…” features a ‘demonstration’ of autism as a difference in everyday sensory input. A fragment that displays a walk down a street from the point of view of a non-autistic “neurotypical” person is followed by a fragment of the same path that is now perceived by an autistic person. Both are introduced by intertitles that disclose the identity ‘archetype’ shown. The “neurotypical” walk is filmed with a steady camera; however, the “autistic” walk features increased brightness and city noise (added in postproduction), jerky camera movements, and superposed textual commentary. This commentary uses clinical language as the intensified stimuli is referred to as “sensory overload” that can cause a “flight or fight response”. The video description says more about its assumed audience: “It will hopefully give neurotypicals a rough idea about what it’s like to life (sic) with autism”. This gives the impression that the video is intended to educate non-autistic people about autistic sensory experience, about which he states that it “does vary from person to person”.[66] Nevertheless, many comments come from people who disclose their identification with the concept of autism and state to which extent the content mirrors their own personal experiences. YouTube user “Arman Kody” posted such a reply in the form of a new video.[67] Even though the establishment of autistic sensory overload in “What it’s like…” is mostly unilateral, its comment section does form a platform for autistic people to talk about their personal life. The video thus ‘performs’ autism as it is established through a contrast between two fragments that show clear differences in stylistic choices. The shadow of the camera operator proves that ‘normalcy’ and ‘deviancy’ had to be staged in order to be portrayed on film. Its educative nature negotiates non-autistic society by assuming an audience that is oblivious to the peculiarity of autistic perceptions. The video could thus be seen as ‘neuro-shared’.

By contrast, “In My Language” does not reveal differences but offers its assumed audience a mirror to its prejudice. At first, Baggs moves and makes sounds in a domestic space, but after the intertitle “A translation” appears, Baggs says with a computer voice that the movements were her “native language”. Establishing her language, she incites the assumed audience to look at her movements and sensory contact as meaningful in and of itself, as non-verbal disabled people are often seen as unable to communicate and relate to the world. While “Craig Thomson” directed his video to “neurotypicals”, Baggs’ implied audience is much more subtly interwoven into her message. In her translated spoken message, she refers to “many people” and often speaks in the passive when talking about false preconceptions on disabled people. This makes clear that her assumed audience covers society generally: not necessarily individual stances towards disability and voice, but discriminatory social practices. Because of this, “In My Language” is a statement that consciously deconstructs common assumptions from mainstream culture and presents movement as another language. Its comment section mostly contains reactions to this particular statement without much identity disclosure. Overall, Baggs’ space in and surrounding her video is more ‘neuro-separated’ since societal prejudice is contrasted with “people like me”, even though she addresses a wider audience.[68] The rhetoric of the translation clearly establishes an alternative autistic voice that is filled with significance, more so than “What it’s like…”. The assumed audience of “What it’s like…” has a lack of knowledge on autism, whereas “In My Language” refers to an assumed audience that is filled with prejudice.

“Craig Thomson” and Baggs unite both autistic and non-autistic internet users by their posts. However, the very fact that they use YouTube as a platform to creatively present autism, perception, and voice already means that they are part of a wider online autistic community. They actively shape and contribute to the online flow of new signs on the autistic condition through web pages. This already signifies a particular geography based on a creative structure of signification. It is exactly this geography that I hope to grasp better through further study and encouragement of new words on the concept of autism in the autistic community. In the next section, I will leave behind my position as a passive observer of an online community and will focus on my own textual inventions that helped me to understand representations of autism better. The nature of this invention, a counter-metaphor, could be transferred to performative citizenship itself in order to make an unconscious production of meaning conscious.

 The counter-metaphor

 We saw that the production of the autistic community revolves around an unconscious process of identity performance and this occurs on YouTube by sharing creative units. I would like to argue that YouTube is a fitting platform for me to develop further the notion of the counter-metaphor as a conscious intervention in the practice of signifying autism. A counter-metaphor is a discursive invention that is specifically intended to be a break with common normalized conceptualizations of autism. In and outside the clinical world, the process of meaning-making is so obscured that speech on autism is seen as a pre-discursive ‘truth’. Conversely, the counter-metaphor allows free signification outside the dominant pathology of the concept of autism. It thus broadens talk about human diversity, rather than replaces ‘autism’ when traditional words fail to bring everyday autistic experience affirmatively into words. New words that refer to this experience could also connote the lives of other minority groups, which could lead to new alliances outside the autistic community. In order to show how this signification process of the counter-metaphor works, I will now turn to my own academic practice: the invention of ‘atopos’ in my MA thesis.

My MA thesis focused on the representation of autism as a discourse and negotiations of space in literary and visual culture. I found that the word ‘autism’ failed to grasp adequately the way in which autistic characters and autistic people in personal accounts transgress the space that surrounds them. The word ‘autism’ has always been associated with a preoccupation with the self: it was first formulated by psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1910 and stems from the Old Greek word ‘autos’, meaning ‘self’.[69] Ever since, imagery of autistic people locked in their own world has been dominant.[70] By contrast, my case studies, including the two YouTube videos discussed in this essay, showed autistic people who are preoccupied with space: they intensively transgress space and stimuli and are often absorbed by it in case of sensory overload. To enable myself to freely consider my case studies and their undermining subversion of the word ‘autism’, I decided to invent something new with the intention to empower my own analysis and the practice of signification by autistic people. I thus developed theory out of my data. I countered existing spatial metaphors of autism: a lot of language on autistic people is concerned with withdrawal from space (autism as a shell) or origins from another space (autism as alien).[71] A counter-metaphor concerned with space does not reject such metaphors but makes something new out of it.

The concept of atopos does prioritize space and is a “virtual, hypothetical parallel to the actual etymology of ‘autism’”.[72] It is also an Old Greek word that means ‘strange’ in the sense of being ‘out of place’ (a-topos: no space). In the same vein as Bleuler’s adaptation of an Old Greek word in his ‘autism’, ‘atopos’ forms the basis of words like ‘atopy’ in immunology, which refers to hypersensitivity to allergens[73] and ‘atopia’ in geography, which refers to a borderless world.[74] All of these terms touch upon lived experiences as told by many autistic people themselves. The sensation of sensory overload is a hypersensitivity to stimuli that can give a feeling of absorption by space and a loss of boundaries between space and the body. Atopos thus shakes off inherent ‘autism’ connotations and allows a whole new vocabulary of lived experience to come into being.

This vocabulary greatly informed my readings of “What it’s like…” and “In My Language”. It enriched my understanding of the representation of “sensory overload” in “What it’s like…” as I could analyze its jerky camera work as an atopic transgression of the autism archetype’s corporeal boundaries characterized by probing sounds and light. In the case of “In My Language”, the atopos term mirrors Baggs’ message. Her ‘translated voice’ states that it is ironic that her movements and touch are seen as indicative of a life in her own world; her conscious contact with space through movement already forms a language in itself. Whereas I rejected ‘autos’ and the idea of autistic people being in their own world to improve my analyses, Baggs retrieves her own voice in the world instead of a world because she transgresses and absorbs space with agency. ‘Atopos’ evolves into something new: into a language. Baggs’ term ‘translation’ might inspire new words and videos from autistic people who may build it into a completely new concept that breaks with rooted assumptions on autism and voice—a new counter-metaphor.

This is why I intended the notion of the counter-metaphor to be something that anyone could invent in order to broaden common language on human diversity and lived experience. My atopos counter-metaphor does not always help to understand a text from an autistic person better; in these cases, new concepts could be theorized in order to broaden language on human diversity beyond the predominant ‘autism’. In research on the empowering potential of YouTube for the autistic community, ‘atopos’ is mostly usable for an analysis of video content itself, but not necessarily for the study of the unique geography that the online autistic community generates. Even though autistic people worldwide can meet each other online in a world without borders, atopia, it cannot fully address the full complexity of the autistic community. Based on my literary review on online autistic space, I would like to state that Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia—as presented in his essay “Different Spaces”,—might be more useful here. Foucault uses the term to name the contemporary presentation of space as various “relations of emplacements”[75], which means that different heterogeneous elements form a space through specific relations.[76] In the literature I discussed, the autistic community on the internet was addressed as an intricate web of relations between non-autistic people and autistic people, being shared and separated, online and offline. As I lack the space to elaborate this, it might be useful to adopt heterotopia as a new theoretical framework for autistic online geography. The notion of ‘relation of emplacements’ may also be useful for members of the autistic community itself if it helps to articulate their negotiation of the difference between online safe spaces and offline spaces in which non-autistic culture predominates. They might create new words out of this or another concept in a signifying process that is similar to my own creation of atopos as a researcher. The counter-metaphor process thus aims to facilitate new enabling words that together might form a new structure of signification on human diversity. As the invention of words stands for creativity, it may as well be a conscious construction of citizenship itself.

The counter-metaphor as a facilitator of a new structure of signification within the autistic community on YouTube confirms and builds on cultural anthropologist Ben Belek’s findings of his 2013 ethnography of a community of vloggers who identify with the label of Asperger’s Syndrome on YouTube. He concludes that the vloggers and the autistic people who comment do form a community, but states that it is not enough to say that they solely share a diagnosis.[77] He instead describes them as a “discourse community”, which is a community that is bound through a shared form of communication that is specific to the history of the group.[78] A discourse community is confined to its own words, but there is room for change as the linguistic possibilities of the community can be extended by choice.[79] Belek argues that the autistic vloggers contribute to a large stockpile of texts that shape and direct their discourse, often in ways that touch upon the most basal understandings of the ontology of autism.[80] He points out the constant intake of new terms, theories, and metaphors that the vloggers deliver.[81] Based on these findings, he presents the autistic community on YouTube as a collective that could unite and develop a voice within the historical circumstances of the arrival of the internet.[82] It could create an identity through the active social construction of the notion of autism by transforming its meaning.[83] The YouTube community studied thus reconstituted the very category of Asperger’s Syndrome as a positive identity