I’ve been pondering the above topic lately, as it has come to mind while viewing several films: Elephant, United 93, 9/11 (the documentary), Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, Jonestown: Life & Death of the People’s Temple.
Here’s the crux of the issue: Can Evil truly be depicted in film, and to what end?
I postulate that film, and art in general, in their greatest forms, is able to transcend and transform mere content (and context) so that we may experience greater insight (into life, the human condition, you name it) and perhaps affect change.
I’ve always been troubled by films about the Holocaust. Setting aside cinematic and technical achievements, a friend of mine once told me he had no desire to see Schindler’s List because he didn’t “need Steven Spielberg to revivify the Holocaust” for him. Indeed, as Elie Wiesel wrote in his essay on film and the Holocaust, he seems to suggest that non-documentary films serve no purpose and only trivialize memory. After reading his essay, I found in retrospect that Life is Beautiful is just plain offensive and trivializes the Holocaust.
But if this is true, then what of 9/11 and Columbine? Do these events not occupy a similar universe that Mr. Wiesel believes the Holocaust was experienced in? And if we are to say that they do, have we not created an arbitrary criteria for how Evil is to be defined? Does not “any man’s death diminish me, because I am involved in mankind”? If Mr. Wiesel is right, then any act of Evil should not be depicted in film….thereby rendering the medium valueless.
I therefore disagree with Mr. Wiesel. Certainly those involved in 9/11, living or dead, would call it their Holocaust.
We cannot turn away from a cinematic depiction of an Evil event, and those surrounding it, out of fear of trivializing it. Certainly we should not do so, and yet, filmmakers tread a fine line the moment they shout, “action” (never mind the very act of creating a work depicting Evil is made in the service of commerce).
So how can filmmakers engage in the transformative process of art without trivializing memory, without offending those touched by a great Evil?
They must rely on cinema. It is one thing to bear witness in a documentary such as Shoah or 9/11. I think that by bringing the events to an audience in the words and images of those who were there, or who witnessed them, removes any abstraction. It forces the viewer to understand that what they are seeing, in all of its horror, is very real. Only from the sheer shock of reality can one hope to transcend or transform — to affect change.
In narrative filmmaking, the issue becomes dicier. One may argue that United 93 is as close as one may come to a documentary and, therefore, carries with it an equivalent value. And yet — and yet — I cannot help but personally feel that I don’t need Paul Greengrass to revivify the events of that day for me. Indeed, I have not seen the film because I am afraid that by watching the depiction of the events on the plane, it will somehow remove the very abstraction that I need in my own mind to contextualize what had happened. What actually happened was just too horrible to depict, and somehow ends up trivializing the events.
Then we have Elephant. The film is terrifyingly compelling. Somehow, Van Sant manages to both capture the reality of the event in fictional form but, because of his technique, it almost elevates the event to abstraction. Perhaps it is only in this quasi-documentary form, an abstraction of reality, that we begin the process of insight. I can’t even explain why. On the one hand, he contextualizes the event. On the other, his technique permits an almost Brechtian distanciation from it. As the film has no real catharsis, it does indeed take on Brechtian characteristics, urging the audience to seek out answers outside the theatre, and perhaps to affect real change.
That may be the fundamental difference between Elephant and United 93. The latter only permits us to bear witness, although perhaps uncomfortably, much in the way Schindler’s List does. Since I cannot do anything about those events, cannot forcibly affect change or take on the great Evil that lay behind it, I am left feeling powerless and hopeless (although I may intellectually recognize that “one man can make a difference”) With Elephant, I feel the need to contemplate the events more closely, and seek out answers in an effort to affect change.
Holocaust documentaries teach the lesson: never forget. Be forever vigilant that another such time may come, be ready for it, defend against it. 9/11 brings the horror home for us to bear witness, and yet I am still left asking: to what end? It offers us no catharsis. We cannot change the minds of those who hate and seek only to destroy. “Some men just want to watch the world burn”, as The Dark Knight reminds us.
So to what end, my own rambling essay? That I think the depiction of true, unadulterated Evil is not only possible, but necessary — but the requirement of the filmmaker is that the medium force us to reflect upon whatever change is necessary to prevent such Evil from recurring. The techniques used would seem to be limited to documentary, quasi-documentary, or perhaps an as yet unexplored method of Impressionism.