- Cinema of the Dark Side: Atrocity and the Ethics of Film Spectatorship by Shohini Chaudhuri
It is clear from the outset of Shohini Chaudhuri's exceptional study, Cinema of the Dark Side: Atrocity and the Ethics of Film Spectatorship, that the author's choice of films for her study is deeply rooted in the ethical discourse of human rights: "Cinema… disseminat[es] images that constructs how we think and feel about atrocities. Films help to shape prevailing normative perceptions, but they can also question those perceptions and build different ones" (2). There is little, if any, equivocation on Chaudhuri's part when it comes to calling out such celebrated films as Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Terry George's Hotel Rwanda (2004), and Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir (2008) for choosing relatively simplistic moralism in lieu of more complex – and in Chaudhuri's view, more valuable – ethical examination of the "conditions under which morality is constructed" (14). Chaudhuri contends that only via the latter can films move beyond well-intentioned evocations of pity for the victims of atrocity, which often obscure the larger historical and political processes that enabled "an environment in which brutalities are sanctioned and normalized" to exist in the first place (13).
Chaudhuri's scholarly approach in this book is as much a rhetorical template for examining contemporary cinema from a human rights perspective as it is a close reading of particular recent films. As such, her selection of films to discuss may strike the [End Page 71] reader as fairly esoteric, possibly even disjointed at first glance; however, the broader intentions of the volume become both apparent and persuasive as the book progresses. After an introduction in which she outlines her critical apparatus and reviews some of the debates among human rights advocates about the potential benefits and shortcomings of cinematic representations of atrocity, Chaudhuri devotes five chapters to "the filmic treatment of specific atrocity crimes – torture, genocide, enforced disappearance, deportation, and apartheid respectively" (19). She notes that her aim is not to catalogue the variety of "cinematic images of state sponsored atrocity" in the early 2000s, but rather to use some telling examples thereof "to evoke other landscapes of state terror and to allow connections to emerge across multiple contexts" (2). The chapters of the book serve less as interpretive case studies of particular clusters of films and more as a cinematic semiotics of how and why representational strategies can either limit or expand audiences' understanding of atrocity by emphasizing either their moral or ethical dimensions.
The first chapter focuses on three films related to the conduct of the "War on Terror" undertaken by the United States in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. This chapter forms the foundation for the book's overall argument regarding the difference between a "moral viewpoint…[which] expresses normative values about 'right' and 'wrong'" and an "ethical standpoint…[which] is a reflection on morality, revealed from this meta-perspective to be a malleable framework" (23). Chaudhuri argues that Zero Dark Thirty is intrinsically limited by its "adher[ence] to a moral script about 9/11 and its aftermath, in which torture and other questionable methods…are promoted as necessary evils" (23). This notion of "necessary evils" is the "dark side" that appears in Chaudhuri's title; she borrows this language verbatim from Vice-President Dick Cheney's televised justification of extraordinary (that is, otherwise unconscionable) measures in fighting al-Qaeda. Whereas Zero Dark Thirty asks its audience to accept (perhaps grudgingly) the need to cross over to the "dark side" in order to achieve justice, Alex Gibney's documentary Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) rejects this philosophy. Chaudhuri claims that in doing so, though, it merely reverses the polarity of Zero Dark Thirty's situational morality, while retaining its uncritical premises: "The film's ending restates ideas of good and evil with [the]…moral message that 9/11 has corrupted America, endorsing its exceptionalist myth and serving to contain the events within an...