We all know the famous quote from Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
It’s a great quote of course, one that invites us all to slip right into the role of the narrator, to imagine ourselves in Niemöller’s place. To make us think about how we ought to speak out early. But of course, Niemöller didn’t, not until it was too late, and neither did so many others, ever.
One question that’s been on my mind a lot though lately; the ones who come for people, what if they never came for you?
Or anyone like you?
What if the wrong people never made it out of those camps, not in enough numbers to get anyone’s attention?
What if there was no foreign power interested in stopping them? At least none capable of it! No enemy troops to escort you and your neighbors through the killing grounds? To make you handle the nameless bodies? Or tell you what was done in your name? To make you see it or smell it?
What if those people, the ones who come, never bit off more than they could chew? What if they never gave you a reason to rethink your silence?
What if you were never the one who needed someone to speak out?
Regarding his own documentary work, Joshua Oppenheimer once wrote of modern Indonesia; “…I felt I’d wandered into Germany 40 years after the holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power.” I thought about this line as I read Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. It’s a different time and a different place, perhaps even a different scale of atrocity (at least if you are counting bodies), but each of these stories raised for me the same haunting thought; what must it be like to live one’s life among those that have murdered your loved ones. Oppenheimer’s movies, the Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are set in Indonesia nearly half a century after genocidal policies resulted in the loss of at least half a million lives. Grann’s work is set in Oklahoma, closer to a century century after a wave of killings struck the Osage community, leaving generations to wonder about what really happened? Both stories recount the details of gruesome murder, and both raise questions about life in the wake of atrocity.
I’m also reminded of Anna Rosmus, whose work on the resistance fighters of her hometown uncovered a sordid history of Nazi collaborators well hidden in the town’s oral narratives. She asked enough questions to draw up a violent response from those still tied to that history. I wouldn’t say this was Grann’s focus, but stories like the one he tells have a particularly reflexive quality. Murder on the scale of his story doesn’t rest neatly in past; it haunts the present.
This book is the story of a series of murders carried out in the Osage community of Oklahoma during the 1920s. Grann begins the story by concentrating on a little over 20 murders which would become the focus of an investigation by the FBI. As this was one of the first big cases to be carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the book provides insights into the early years of Hoover’s budding new empire. At the same time, the book helps to shed light on one of the darker chapters of Indian-White relations, the long slow looting of Native American communities by outsiders under the policies of General Allotment.
To grasp the events unfolding in this book, you must understand two things: the Osage community had come into control of vast oil fields, and many had been declared incompetent to manage their own estates. To resolve the second of these problems, various white businessmen had been named as trustees and put in charge of the private fortunes belonging to various Osage members. As individual Osage accumulated the proceeds of oil money. It seems that some people found the notion of wealthy natives rather objectionable (a theme often echoed today by those who resent Indian casinos). More importantly, a certain quantity of non-natives found ways of doing something about it, ways of acquiring that wealth for themselves.
At first, the killings seem a bit random, a pair of shootings here, a few mysterious illnesses there. Someone seemed to be killing off a number of Osage, but why? It didn’t help that the first couple investigators to get somewhere were themselves brutally murdered. It helped even less when a bomb was used to kill an Osage couple and their white servant living in the middle of town. Most of the victims knew each other. They had plenty of connections between them. But which ones were the key to the case?
In the end, it was the mysterious ‘wasting’ illnesses that seemed to provide the most representative cases. The medical science necessary to detect poison was not yet widely available, and it certainly wasn’t standard procedure to test for poison in the event of every death. In the midst of the prohibition era, moreover, it was easy enough to attribute poisoning to bad moonshine. So, poisoning could provide a very effective means of killing someone without raising too many suspicions. It was particularly useful for relatives, trustees, and other beneficiaries of life insurance or inheritance policies eager to acquire an Osage headright. Such killings were not only difficult to detect in the day, they are difficult to detect now in the historical record, but as Grann shows, Osage died at an extraordinarily high rate in the 1920s, a rate not fully explained by any other known factors. The FBI wrapped up an investigation of a little over 20 murders. If Grann is right, the number of Osage actually killed in this era is more likely in the hundreds.
Most were killed by relatives, or at least those who’d been hired by them.
I have to admit the specter of so many white marrying into the tribe making friends with Osage for the clear purpose of killing them fills me with a sense of shame. The feeling will pass, of course, for me, but one of the most haunting features of the book is the number of people for whom such feelings clearly will not pass. The final chapters of this book are filled with personal stories those who grew up in the wake of these murders. It’s been nearly a century, yes, but in family terms these are stories about (great) grandparents, great aunts and uncles. These are stories about children who went on to live their own lives and raise their own families knowing that their own parents had been killed by loved ones or trusted neighbors. …and in some cases wondering just who might have been involved?
…or what local businessmen might have profited from these murders?
This kind of violence isn’t contained in one generation, or even two. It haunts a community long after those who participated have passed away. I can’t help thinking part of the horror might lie in the fear that the truth will never be known, that someone’s death could be forever buried in falsehood, which is why books like this are important. They are one means of countering that horror, however inadequate they may be. Grann didn’t stop at the FBI cases. He went on to study murders left unsolved and to explore the causes of deaths that never caught the attention of authorities. He couldn’t always find an explanation, but he does manage to reveal something of the extent of these crimes.
It’s evident that some folks entrusted Grann with the hopes of finding out the truth behind their family tragedies. That must have been quite a weight to carry.
It must have been a far greater weight for those to carry such stories their whole lives.
Postscript: I just wanted to make a couple additional remarks here, regarding the writing style. While Grann is relating a historical narrative, he does so through the lens of a particular woman, Mollie Burkhart, who lost most of her family in ‘reign of terror’, and of the FBI agent, Tom White, who was put in charge of the case. By following the lives of these two people into the story, Grann is able to provide a historical narrative that reads like a murder mystery. Those familiar with the story may know where it’s going, and I’ve shared a portion of that here myself (minus severl significant details), but most of the time this approach leaves the reader to wonder how the pieces will fall together, and to expect that will happen when the main characters put those pieces together themselves. Again, tis is history, but it reads a bit like a murder mystery.
This is an interesting approach to historical narrative, one that should prove helpful in the rather likely event that this is made into a movie.
Grann also fills in a lot of detail as he writes the story. He relates the physical features and demeanor of his characters in this book, much as a fiction writer would. When reading such material, I often find myself wondering where that came from? Is this how someone else described the person in question? Is it the impression Grann gets from looking at their pictures? Some combination? Hard to tell!
I can never decide how I feel about that approach to historical writing. A part of me would like to keep closer to identifiable records, to have the option of checking specific claims about specific source material. Another part of me is just happy to get the story. I can file away the fluffy details and focus on the main story line if the information is worth reading.
It’s easy to think of silence as the auditory equivalent to a blank page, a kind of nothing that fits in between the sounds where we actually expect to find meaning. At times, though, silence conveys more than we can hope to cram into the sounds we call words. Joshua Oppenheimer is one person who clearly understands this. His latest film, The Look of Silence explores this topic in one of its more sinister forms. This film is a companion piece to The Act of Killing. Both movies deal with a genocide carried out in 1965 after the government of Indonesia had been taken over by the nation’s military. In the aftermath of this coup anywhere from half a million to a million people were killed. Victims included communists, ethnic Chinese, and those openly critical of the new government. The Act of Killing explored these events through the narratives of killers themselves and the stories they tell about their own actions. In The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer explores the lives of those who survived the massacre, those who lost loved ones in the killings and have since then had to live their lives among those who carried out the killings.
Whatever else silence conveys in this film, it clearly conveys a strong sense of terror, both because the stories it relates are as terrifying as they are real, and because the film-makers exposed themselves to danger in order to get those very stories.
Time and again, we see the main protagonist of the film, Adi Rukun, staring in silence as he listens to the killers of 1965 describing in great detail the horrors they themselves perpetrated in 1965. Sometimes Adi watches the killers telling their stories in video clips. Sometimes, he interviews them himself. Adi’s older brother was one of those killed in 1965. The story of his brother’s killing is among those he learns about over the course of this film.
If there is a plot to The Look of Silence, it is generated from Adi’s own decision to confront the killers, to speak to them himself, to risk engagement on a subject about which he is expected to remain silent. Adi is an Optometrist, and his subjects are aging. An eye exam thus becomes the pretext for one interview after another, each one an opportunity to breach the subject of past horrors. The resulting story is filled with this tension between silence and speech. The possibility that events discussed in the narratives of the killers could well happen again haunts one throughout the film. More to the point, one cannot escape the sense that Adi’s efforts could well make subject him and his own family to such violence. Those he interviews remind him of this frequently over the course of the film. The hints are subtle, but they are real, and they are horrifying.
It seems trite to suggest this, but the silent moments occurring in each interview are as interesting as the words themselves. We learn so much from the killers in this film. They tell us so many things about their past actions and their motivations, and yet each tries to withhold some part of their own stories from Adi and from us. Oppenheimer lets the camera linger in the awkward moments wherein they reconsider their stories and adjust their narratives to new questions and uncomfortable revelations. Always there is Audi, sitting there quietly, courageously choosing his words and listening to their responses. At times he is inscrutable. At others, one can almost feel the tears rising within him. …or the rage. Most often I cannot help thinking it is shame that I see in his face, a kind of deep-seated embarrassment for the murderers and for their inability to face the truth of their own actions.
If this is a story of silence, it isn’t merely the silence of Indonesians that unfolds in this story. American foreign policy is all over the events described in the movie, its long-term significance pervasive not merely in the lives of Indonesians themselves, but also in the consumer culture of Americans.
Who could forget the man with no name? It’s easily the most memorable character in Clint Eastwood’s acting career. After generations of protagonists so apple-pie obvious in white hats and chaps, always doing the right thing, and always winning in the end, there was something especially compelling about this antihero. You never quite knew what he was going to do. He might save the town, or he might kill everyone. You didn’t really know until right about the same time you learned the outcome of the conflict itself. This vision of moral ambiguity was a wonderful contribution to film.
As a character in a role-playing game, he totally sucks!
To be a little more specific, he makes a terrible player character in an ongoing campaign. The Man With No Name has some potential as an Non Player Character, if the guy running the game uses him well, but in the hands of a player this sort of character can be a terrible buzzkill. That doesn’t stop players from creating characters with similar personae. Time and again players bring such characters to the game table only to they aren’t nearly as interesting as their cinematic counterparts. The difference illustrates a little about storytelling, I think. But of course the issue is larger than the man with no-name. It extends to any number of morally ambiguous characters, characters who inspire fear and hope in roughly equal amounts.
What makes such characters work is the extra tension they provide to the narrative. Instead of just wondering if the hero will beat the bad guys, a morally ambiguous protagonist leaves you wondering if he will even take up the right side of the fight. He might just as easily prove to be the biggest nightmare of the narrative. Done well, such personalities will leave you on the edge of your seat well into the third act, but of course resolution will come in the end. Sooner or later these characters do the right thing, even if reluctantly so, and perhaps with a trace of wrong mixed in with it for bad measure, but they will step up to the challenge and save the day.
The audience needn’t do anything but soak up the story.
And therein lies the difference. Role playing games (or at least the pen&paper variation thereof) are an inherently cooperative enterprise. The players must come to a series of agreements in order to make it work. At minimum this means coming to an understanding of the game rules, but it also requires some agreement on the essential features of the setting as well. Ultimately, the players will need to come to a shared understanding of the plot-line for a campaign. Failing that, an rpg can easily descend into an endless session of bickering over one tiny detail after another. Were things going right, these very details would be the icing on the cake, the features of the story that make it so much more vivid. But when the players aren’t on the same page, such details instead provide fodder for a series of arguments about imaginary things, and being imaginary, those things don’t admit easily of resolution by rational argument. This is of course what makes the old Summoner Geeks parody so brilliant. Most of us who game have been there at one time or another. ….A story that isn’t quite happening, its every detail becoming an excruciating source of pointless conflict.
The morally ambivalent character is just one more variation on this problem. It poses the dilemma of a character who may or may not accept the central plot-lines of the story. More to the point, it poses the challenge of a player who may or may not accept the central challenge of the story. Unlike a movie viewer, the other players must then actively contend with the possibility that his ambiguous loyalties will undermine their own efforts to resolve the central story line. They have to worry if the dark and mysterious character will piss off the one great side character whose help they really need; if he will start a random fight in a bar where they hoped to meet an important contact; or if he might simply wander off when the big battle is about to go down. The possibilities are as countless as they are frustrating. It’s a bit like watching a side-plot to a movie take-over the entire narrative. …except that you’re not simply watching that happen. You are actively trying to resolve the central problem for the storyline and the player running the ambiguous character has just derailed the whole project!
Of course a player running a morally ambivalent character needn’t do this. He can do as the writer of a movie or a book might and choose to let his character do the right thing, so to speak, perhaps grumbling a bit in the process or adopting an ironic reason for doing so. That can be fun. It can actually work.
For about a game or two.
What makes such characters really frustrating is the prospect of dealing with their ambivalence three, four, even ten games into an ongoing campaign. It can actually be kind of fun to figure out a mysterious character in the early stages of a campaign when the story-line is just beginning to emerge. If you are still worried about his likely course of action well into the campaign, and long after the central challenge of the plot has taken shape, the whole act is going to get damned old. Ironically, such characters eventually lose their bad-ass quality and start to seem more like pampered children or special snowflakes.
It isn’t just that such characters are frustrating (though they are). The problem is that the sense of mystery – the dramatic tension that makes them tick – fails over time and they simply become tedious, just one more detail that cannot be settled. Part of what makes ambivalent characters interesting to begin with is a sense of anticipation. What will he do? It’s an interesting question, but this question must eventually be answered to provide a satisfactory theme in a story. If a player leaves his or her character sitting on the fence umpteen plot twists into a narrative, that in itself starts to become the answer to this very question. He’ll stay on that damned fence and make you beg him to help out every damned time something needs doing.
It’s all a bit like watching unrequited love in a sit-com. It’s kinda fun for an episode or three, but it’s a bit old by the second season. By season three it’s a distraction from the cool parts of the series, and by season four it’s the reason you’ve decided to watch something else.
Ultimately, the mystery that makes such characters tick resides in a moment within a plot line, but that moment must eventually pass. A character who doesn’t know what side he’s on well into an ongoing plot becomes a source of irritation. When a player tries to make moral ambiguity a lasting feature of his character, he or she may well end up as a the buzz-kill that ended the campaign.
And the man with no name thus acquires one after all.
When Dances With Wolves came out in November 1990, audiences throughout the country cheered as Kevin Costner and his Lakota friends killed U.S. soldiers in one of the final scenes of the film. The Lakota in this film were decent (perhaps noble?), and the soldiers had been as contemptible as any character could be. More than that, the soldiers were emissaries of an aggressive nation bent on taking everything Costner’s Lakota friends had. Nothing could have been more obvious than our loyalties at that point in the film. Of course we rooted for the Indians!
Two months later, American troops attacked Iraqi forces that had taken Kuwait, and Americans cheered as bombing attacks appeared on CNN just about all day every day for some time. Iraqi treatment of the Kuwaitis had been cruel and Saddam Hussein posed a threat to world peace comparable to that the great Hitler (as some would have it anyway). Nothing could have been more obvious than our loyalties at that point in history. Of course we rooted for the American forces!
The transition always appeared to me rather seamless. It was a very disheartening moment, an indication of just how powerless the left wing critique of American imperialism had been. Seeing audiences cheer on the Indians in Dances With Wolves, it seemed as if for once, the American public had gotten the message, at least one some level, and then they went right out and repeated all the same mistakes over again. Just as sensationalist accounts of Indian atrocities had once fueled military aggression against them, lurid stories of Iraqi conduct fueled support for military action in the Gulf War. And once again, America expanded its military presence in the world, to what end, we are still learning.
There are differences between these stories of course, and we could haggle over the details, but I’m not particularly interested in debating the Gulf War here. What concerns me is the question of which difference made the distinction matter? I can’t help but think that difference was time.
I would say that the critical difference is also a question of entertainment versus reality, but of course few war movies have provided near the entertainment value that the Gulf War presented to the American public. Whatever else that conflict represents, it was also a tremendous achievement in the theatrical violence. Plus, the conflicts depicted in Dances With Wolves have real world analogs. The specifics may have been fictional, but the issues in question were quite real. no, the difference is time. Dances With Wolves depicts a conflict most Americans believe to be over, and that makes it safe to flirt with critical appraisal providing it isn’t going anywhere.
Dances With Wolves was a story about America’s past. Cheering for the Indians in a fictional skirmish about an event long ago didn’t pose much of a personal cost for the average American. Sure, there may be some jingoists out there who really couldn’t stomach the thought that any aspect of American history had been anything short of a gift from God himself, but any discomfort they might have felt at the final scenes of Costner’s epic was surely the price of their own extremism. More folks could flip loyalties for that one brief moment, and then flip them right back again when push came to petro.
That’s hardly an unusual transition. It’s as easily done as shifting from present to past tense when the topic of Indians comes up in a conversation, or shifting from particular issues to a great big general narrative about the history of Indian white relations. The hat trick is of course the phrase; “what we did to the Indians.” What continually fascinates me is its appearance in otherwise focused conversations. You could be talking about some specific policy and its impact on some specific native community RIGHT NOW, and the next thing you hear is someone telling you that they really think it’s sad what ‘we’ did to the Indians.
…except the past tense undermines the ‘we’ part. Those saying this know very well they aren’t including themselves in the damned ‘we’ of that sentiment, not really. A good portion of the times I’ve heard this, the impact of the utterance was precisely to shift the conversation away from anything that ‘we’ really could do anything about today. And that is of course my rather long winded point; it’s easy to root for the Indians in Dances With Wolves, much easier than it is to support them in present, and much easier to support them than it is to question attacks on any prospective enemy we have today. Whether it be casinos, tribal mascots, or tribal jurisdiction, the same folks who will happily root for the Indian in a fictional battle set in the remote past are much less likely to support the native side in present day conflicts. As to foreign policy? Well…
But let’s stick with Indian-white relations for a bit. You can see the whole transition in a stanza from one of Alice Cooper’s more obscure songs, but to get the full effect, you have to listen to the full tune. (Don’t worry; it’s one of his less shocking pieces.).
In case you missed it, the relevant lines are as follows:
I love the bomb, hot dogs, and mustard.
I love my girl, but I sure don’t trust her.
I love what the Indians did to Custer.
I love America.
There they Come. There they go.
– Alice Cooper
The line about Custer fits with the rest of Cooper’s rhyme scheme, but the line about Custer is a bit of a thematic twist. The over-the-top jingoism of Cooper’s song seems inconsistent with the celebration of a set-back to the march of American history. We wouldn’t expect Cooper to root for the other side. And then suddenly, he isn’t cheerful at all, or at least the song isn’t, as we hear an Indian war-party come and go accompanied to faux-Indian music right out of the movies. He drops his rhyme scheme and sings almost as an aside, “There they come,” and then “there they go.” And thus a line about the demise of Custer and his troops becomes a comment about the proverbial vanishing Indian.
It’s safe to root for him, because he’s vanished.
Cooper’s song celebrates an Indian victory in order to mourn a Native loss, and of course that loss is precisely what the voice of the song calls for, the removal of an obstacle to the America cooper loves so much. And then of course the song picks up again as Cooper continues to celebrate all-things red, white, and soldier blue. It seems likely that Cooper’s treatment was deliberately ironic; it seems equally unlikely that he appreciated the full depths of that irony.
I don’t think Cooper’s attitude is at all unusual. I’ve heard similar sentiments many times. I understand why my old professor, a Choctaw celebrated the Custer’s last stand, and I understand why Lakota and Cheyenne do today, but they are celebrating a victory, something their people did right. Folks like Cooper are celebrating a loss, and one has to wonder just what they think that loss means?
As with any other great cultural icon, what is said of Custer is often really said of other things. At this point he seems to stand in proxy all of western history. The man has always had his critics, but it was probably the movie Little Big Man that taught the public to think of him as a raving lunatic. The Custer of this film is as ruthless as he is incompetent, and he is clearly the voice of western expansion. In the real world, it was Horace Greeley who advised young men to go to the West. In Little Big Man, it is Custer who tells the main character, Jack Crabb, to go West. It is Custer who carries out the most horrible atrocities of the film, the ones which make that migration possible, and ultimately, it is Custer (along with his troops) who will pay the price for Western expansion.
I grew up with that vision of a Custer in mind, one shared by multiple sources of popular culture in the 70s and 80s. I can’t recall meeting anyone personally who defended Custer in my youth, not once. From time to time, I heard or saw echoes of Custer’s previous incarnations in popular culture, the heroic Custer of Anheuser Busch or the onion-loving Custer of some old movie whose name I’ve long since forgotten. I could easily think that heroic vision as deluded, but of course that was a Custer who belonged to someone else, one who had been slain literally and figuratively on the screen of Little Big Man.
While we can haggle over the facts of Custer’s career and the details of his final battle, the successful caricature of Custer doesn’t facilitate a pro-native view so much as a an easy dismissal of the larger problems of American expansionism. This is where Little Big Man fails in its politics. (It was of course also a commentary on Vietnam.) In framing the horrors of American Indian policy as a reflection of personal lunacy, the movie invited us all to feel far too much relief at Custer’s ultimate defeat. It’s simply easier for all of us if Custer can take responsibility for all the horrors of America’s Indian policies, easier because he lost, and in his loss, folks can well imagine that he carries those horrors with him into the grave.
To be sure films like Little Big Man and Dances With Wolves call attention to larger problems, but they also point to a way out which all too many Americans seem to have taken, the belief that the ugly side of American military can be laid at the feet of the occasional lunatic clad in buckskin.
Or perhaps to a cigarette puffing soldier who lost her moral compass somewhere along the way.
You’ve probably encountered the Stanford Prison Experiment in your psychology textbook, or perhaps heard about it in some other conversation. Ostensibly a study of the influence of power and authority on human behavior, the experiment (so the story goes) had to be closed down because it was all too successful. Dr. Philip Zimbardo set up a faux-prison in the psychology building at Stanford University and began recruiting test subjects. Having divided his subjects randomly into a pool of guards and another pool of prisoners, Zimbardo soon found the conflict between the guards and the prisoners had escalated beyond control. Zimbardo has spent his career describing the study as proof that good people will become monsters under the right circumstances.
Such circumstances would appear to include a badge and a uniform. …or perhaps a tenure-track professorship.
What fascinates me most about this story is the role that one guard, Dave Eshelman, played in setting the tone for the experiment. If the experiment was designed to illustrate the dehumanizing characteristics of power, Eshelman’s behavior took that message to 11. Aside from the possibility that his decisions may have thrown the whole study off, Eshelman’s personal experiments in cruelty are themselves worthy of serious scrutiny. Eshelman explained his approach to the project as follows:
I arrived independently at the conclusion that this experiment must have been put together to prove a point about prisons being a cruel and inhumane place. And therefore, I would do my part, you know, to, to help those results come about. I was a confrontational and arrogant, uh, 18-year old at the time, and uh, you know, I said, somebody ought to stir things up here.
I made the decision that I would be as intimidating, as cold, as cruel as possible. …I had just watched a movie called Cool-Hand Luke, and uh, the mean intimidating uh, you know southern prison ward character in that film, really was my inspiration for the role that I had created for myself.
Fittingly, Eshelman adopted a southern accent for the experiment and engaged in a deliberate campaign of cruelty against the prisoners. It might be ironic that Eshelman’s emulation of Strother Martin earned him the nickname of John Wayne, or perhaps it’s just damned appropriate, but anyway, …that’s two movie references for the price of one villainous act.
Eshelman’s approach to the experiment is fascinating on many levels. He knows he is participating in an experiment, and he takes this as license (even incentive) to perform experiments on his own initiative. His personal experiment is theatrical in nature; Eshelman is enacting sadistic themes borrowed from a Hollywood film with the end result being a drama fit for a textbook.
But of course someone had to live through that drama, and I’m not talking about Eshelman.
What’s interesting here is the blurring of the lines between real cruelty and its occurrence in a theatrical performance. If Eshelman’s behavior was simply a performance, the scope of his audience isn’t entirely clear. Was it for Zimbardo? The prisoners? The Scientific community? Himself? Perhaps Eshelman’s performance was a kind of singularity, so to speak, an act that simply had to happen (in his view at any rate). Perhaps, his display of cruelty held some kind of meaning independent of any particular audience.
But of course this was an interactive performance, and at least a big part of Eshelman’s audience would have to include the very people he subjected to cruelty in that performance. If Eshelman respected any boundaries, his cruelty certainly violated others (and yes this is one reason why we don’t do experiments like this anymore folks, …at least I hope not). The prisoners actually did feel the impact of Eshelman’s actions, and some (Clay Ramsay, prisoner 416 in particular) clearly described Eshelman’s behavior as genuinely harmful. If Ramsay was part of the audience, and he most certainly was, then he certainly did not experience Eshelman’s cruelty as an artistic or intellectual matter. Ramsay clearly felt harmed by the experiment.
Perhaps the most interesting exchange in first the film clip above above comes at minute 25, when Eshelman and Ramsay (prisoner 416) talk to one another as part a debriefing process. The two of them do not appear to have shaken off their respective roles in that moment. Eshelman is still taking charge of the conversation. He still dominates his former prisoner, and takes it upon himself to set Ramsay straight about the whole project. If Eshelman’s behavior was an act, the act clearly wasn’t over in that debriefing session.
…and thus cruelty escaped it’s narrative.
The Stanford Alumni Magazine has an excellent retrospective piece on the subject, including statements from participants 40 years on. Eshelman’s own thoughts are definitely worth looking at. Both of Eshelman’s pictures featured above were taken from this article.
Photojournalist Ruben Salvadori started out with the intention of filming riots in East Jerusalem. In time, he came to shift the focus of his own camera to include the photographers around him. The resulting shift in perspective can be quite startling. It’s an ongoing project for Salvadori, and one that certainly seems quite promising.
It isn’t entirely clear to me how Salvadori’s own intervention will play out in the Palestinian crisis. He seems to be suggesting a layer of collusion between the Palestinian protesters and the photographers who cover them, but it isn’t clear that Salvadori means to limit his critique to such a partisan angle. One can as easily address the questions he raises to photojournalists embedded in conventional forces.
The simple inclusion of photographers in the field of vision provides a stark reminder that the images of world conflict do not come to from on high, or even out-of-bounds, but from people who are very much a part of the events they are filming. The stories told in these images are in some sense reflexive, they are also part of the violence itself, but realization of this fact seems to require a little extra work, an effort to shift our attention to this fact. Joshua Oppenheimer’s film, The Act of Killing, helps to reveal that. Salvadori’s project does this as well.
We get a glimpse into the role that media plays on the scene of a conflict every once in awhile. I remember Gerald Vizenor‘s comments about the American Indian Movement helped to break the fourth wall in stories about Wounded Knee and similar events, at least for those who read his works. For many Americans, I suspect the most unexpected (and apparently unwelcome) peek behind the journalistic lens came with the landing of U.S. marines in Mogadishu. The image of combat-ready marines surrounded by photographers caused quite a stir back in the day. I recall quite a few folks lashed out at the photographers for endangering the landing forces with their presence. Few seemed to question the process by which a marine force had come to storm a beach guarded by scores of photographers in the first place.
It’s been some time since that shocking moment when Mogadishu queered the whole subject of war, and it’s good to see someone else tugging at the curtains again. The short clip Salvadori has presently made available (see below) raises more questions than it answers. It will be interesting to see where his project goes.
Yapto Soerjosoemarno is a middle-aged man. He is the leader of Pankasila, an Indonesian youth group three million strong. The camera follows him out onto a golf course where he explains; “Gangsters are free men. They want to live life in their style. Relax and Rolex.” A moment later he tells his young caddy she has a mole on her pussy.
And she smiles.
Of course all of this comes after Yapto explains that Pankasila had killed all the communists in Indonesia. It comes after he has spoken at a Pankasila rally, one in which he calls himself the biggest gangster of all.
What else could the young girl do but smile?
As he and his friends try on colorful gangster outfits, Anwar Kongo waxes on about his inspirations; Al Pacino, John Wayne, and others like them. He goes on to relate the story of how he once placed the leg of a table on a man’s throat before he and others sat on the table and bounced up and down, “having fun!” Those present place a bag of clothing under the table-leg and re-enact the scene, singing and smiling as they do.
Eventually, they declare the bag dead.
…these are just some of the opening scenes in The Act of Killing. This film doesn’t contain much graphic violence, but the significance of the violence does show is compounded rather heavily by the knowledge that it is in some sense real, that those in front of the camera are acting out real murders they themselves committed decades in the past.
The Act of Killing explores a wave violence occurring in the wake of a military coup in Indonesia. The coup happened in 1865, and most of the killing occurred within the next few years, but those who carried it out have been living in freedom ever since. Their friends and neighbors have (it would seem) been living in fear all this time, a point driven home quite clearly when the cameras follow several thugs into a market to shakedown Chinese merchants.
What makes this movie so remarkable is of course its unique approach to the subject. When filming the survivors of this bloody era proved too dangerous for them, and when the perpetrators proved all-to-willing to explain everything, Film-maker Joshua Oppenheimer, elected to focus on the killers. Finding his subjects kept imagining their actions in cinematic terms, he finally invited some of them to direct scenes of their own killings, and to stage them in the manner of their own choosing.
The resulting scenes are terrible in more ways than I can count. These aren’t professional actors; they are really killers, and their efforts to appear as they actually are seemed doom to failure. They just don’t have the skills to produce a convincing performance, but what sort of performance could be more convincing than a killing portrayed by its actual perpetrators? These staged productions are full of incongruous moments, just as one might expect from a story one learns by those who were actually there. A single narrator cleans up a lot of ambiguity, but a bunch of thugs trying to shape their own legacy? That is bound to produce more questions than it answers. In the interim, one is left with the image of a thug playing at being a thug in the full knowledge that he really is a thug.
One wonders what Jean Paul Sartre would have done with this?
The Act of Killing is far worse than this! It isn’t merely a farcicle study of bad faith, because victims of these atrocities are all over this film. Those killed are gone of course, completely silent all these years after their murders, but their friends and relatives are present, as are the memories of the community, and the knowledge of that community that these stories are indeed real, that the killers are just that, even now! For all the bad acting, and banal story-telling everyone knows that these people are truly dangerous men. Time and again, on-stage victims cry long after someone has yelled ‘cut’, and all the stroking and kind words in the world are of no avail for some of these people.
In one particularly brutal scene, a man tells us about his step-father, taken out in the night by a death squad. They found his corpse nearby in the morning. This story-teller explains this as he sits in a chair, about to play the victim of an interrogation and execution, and those who will torment him in the scene sit in stone silence. One wonders if they recognize the story, or if they may just be ticking off faces in their mind, wondering if one of them was this man’s step-father. No matter! The story is rejected, because there isn’t enough time to add it to their project, but one cannot help but think this story is just out of place. They are filming the glories of their own murderous past, not the horrors of their murder victims. A few moments later, the scene begins, and we watch a man who lost his step-father to the death squads play victim to the very men who carried out such killings. The acting is terrible, except for that of the the victim. He is, as you might imagine, absolutely spot-on! It would be an Oscar-worthy performance, except that it is difficult to call it a performance. …and when the scene is over, the man continues to sob as his interrogators move on to discuss the philosophical implications of their past.
Time and again, the gangsters in this movie return to the theme of ‘freedom’. They repeatedly explain that the word gangster means ‘free men’, (They are playing on the origins of the Indonesian word ‘preman‘, which comes from the Dutch term ‘vrijman‘, once used for those trading in the region without the sanctions of the Dutch east India Company.) These same gangsters proudly brag of being just that, free men. They have chosen ‘Born Free’ as the theme song for the film; it’s significance is driven home by a dance number during which one of Anwar Congo’s dead victims thank him for sending them to a batter place.
…and gift him with a medal.
The word ‘freedom’ seems both incongruous and yet oddly appropriate to all of this. It seems strange to hear such a beautiful word falling from the lips of men perpetrating so much ugliness. And yet, there is little doubt that their understanding of freedom must resonate with the stories of their own lives. Surrounded by people afraid to contradict them, these men are indeed free. They do as they wish, both on and off screen, and they have done so for decades. This freedom is not an ideal to be shared; it is a freedom hoarded by the few at the expense of the many. It is the freedom of a man to take liberties with a young girl on a golf course.
But of course it is also freedom to do much more than that.
I wish I could say this vision of freedom was unfamiliar, but it simply isn’t. It is present in many times and places, from the defense of a freedom loving and slave owning Confederacy to the liberation of Germany from the oppression of ‘Jewish conspirators’, or for that matter to countless instances in which the privileged exhibit their own sense of entitlement, never quite noticing how much they take from others. Freedom it would seem, can sometimes mean liberation from the lives of others. It is hardly an innocent word; we just aren’t accustomed to seeing it covered in so much blood. But is the more innocent sounding freedom we enjoy here in the U.S. really all that divorced from this freedom that demands its victims? One has only to look across our borders or follow our commodities back to the lands that produce them.
..or to realize that the slaughter carried in Indonesia following the coup in 1965 with the full backing of the officials in the United States. After all, this was also freedom from communism! Freedom for Anwar to kill was also freedom from trade barriers. That freedom was a small drop in the ocean of consumer freedom we enjoy here in America to this day.
I’ll leave that point to the side for the present, but this movie contains at least one other important connection to daily life in the United States. It’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around the many layers of constructed reality in this film, gangsters playing at being gangsters and all that, but perhaps the most disturbing layer of this production lies in the role that gangster films may have played in the violence itself. The killers in this film are quite clear about their own inspirations being American gangster films. Many of these killers had been associated with the local movie theaters, theaters facing restrictions under the communist regime they would rebel against (it seems the film industry was suspected of plotting against the government of Indonesia). Recruited by the military to carry out the mass killings, these same men drew inspiration from movies depicting gangster violence. So the loop closes once again, as the pretend killers who really are killers turn out to have been guided by the actions of fake killers in the first place, the very same ones you and I watch with a clean conscience.
…and this dark and painful ‘reality’ proves to be far more surreal than any artistic contrivance one could possibly imagine!
A career in Native American studies makes you the grammatical equivalent of a time machine. No sooner do people learn where you work, what you study, or what specific things you happen to be working on than they suddenly switch to past tense. Often this will be accompanied by sad tones and slightly downcast eyes. Seriously, I’ve lost track of the number of times a few comments from me have led people to great moments of reflection about “what we have done to them.”
These moments of introspective time-travel usually leave me with a bit of motion sickness. See, the thing is that people go back to the past like this when I am actually talking about perfectly contemporary issues. When I worked on the Navajo Nation, simply telling folks what I do for a living was often enough to send their souls searching through history for resolution of collective sins, real or imagined. In most cases I don’t think folks had any real sense of the specifics in question, no real idea of just what Anglos had done to Navajos, for example. In most cases, I suspect the sudden trip to the past tense was filled with thoughts of generic cowboys and even more generic Indians, …who probably looked more like Lakota than Navajos anyway. In any event, the problem is simple enough; for far too many people Native Americans simply belong in the past.
…and yes, I do wonder just how often Native Americans get this? Perhaps it’s a white thing after all. I don’t remember getting this effect in the presence of natives, just when it’s me talking to my own, so to speak.
Anyway, I figure it makes it a Hell of a lot easier to be sorry about something if it happened a few generations back. Try to talk to people about issues such as uranium poisoning, forced relocation, or any number of contemporary issues, and they are less certain that what ‘we’ are doing to ‘them’ isn’t somehow justified, or at least necessary, or at least.
But folks are happy to talk about Custer.
Wasn’t he a bastard!?!
Rarely do I get the sense that this sort of time warp is meant to provide historical perspective; often it strikes me as just one more way of changing the subject.
Of course somber regrets for crimes long forgotten are only the nice-guy half of this coin. Flip the quarter over and you get a range of narratives effectively using time to disclaim responsibility for these same crimes, perhaps even a comment to the effect that it’s best for Native Americans to put the past behind them. Occasionally people will actually tell me that reservations or casinos, etc. are attempts to pay for what ‘our ancestors’ did, and of course the point is always to suggest that such concessions are unfair to the rest of us here in the present.
And no, this time-to-forget theme is not limited to Native Americans. One has only to suffer his way through “The Accidental Racist” to hear Brad Paisley play precisely this shell game with history. I don’t have the stomach to parse the details of this terrible tune, but let’s just say that Brad is apparently paying for the mistakes of a southern past, and L.L. Cool Jay is happy to let bygones be bygones.
…Seriously, both of them should have known better.
It’s funny those who support the rebel flag are always prepared to discuss its significance in the civil war. Rarely do they want to comment on its use in opposition to the civil rights movement. History textbooks probably don’t make this much easier, telling us that slavery ended with the close of the civil war. Sure they note the existence of debt peonage and Jim Crow Laws, etc., but that is a more complex story. The morality tale for most people ends at Appomattox. I suspect it is the story of slavery that many will imagine when they ask why African-Americans have trouble putting the past behind them. The notion that some folks can still remember when there was real danger in looking a white person in the eye just seems to escape a lot of people.
…most of them white.
But what’s past isn’t equally past for all people. I learned this very clearly out in Navajo country. The nadir or their historical narratives begins with the story of the Long Walk. In 1864 Kit Carson burned marched through Navajo country, burned their crops and destroyed their homes. He then waited for winter to bring them to him.
The result was 4 years of internment at a place called Fort Sumner in Southeastern New Mexico. Many of those who started the “Long Walk” to Fort Sumner didn’t make it to the end.
When my friends, students, and coworkers told me their stories about the long walk, what struck me most about their narratives was the way they always began. They almost always began with a clear reference to some family member. These weren’t simply stories about something that happened to their ancestors; they were stories about the death of a Great Aunt or the trials of a Great Great Grandmother. People telling me these stories consistently anchored narratives of the long walk in their own relationship to one of those who had been through it. These were not stories about an event over a hundred years ago; they were intensely personal stories of family tragedy.
I’ve heard similar stories, …from my high school history teacher, for example. A native of Georgia, her account of Sherman’s march included a great grandmother’s efforts to save a family heirloom (she stuck it on a wall in the hopes Union troops wouldn’t notice). When I taught briefly at a Jewish private school in Houston, I heard such stories from survivors of the Holocaust. More importantly, my students heard those stories. They hear them every year, directly from the survivors, and in countless other contexts throughout the year. I’ve heard such tragic narratives from Inupiat speaking about the horrors of influenza epidemics brought by whalers and the trials of the boarding schools. Exposure to virgin soil epidemics is hardly ancient history on the North slope, and most any native can tell you about some elder who was punished for speaking her own language at the schools. What all these narratives have in common isn’t simply tragedy; it’s direct personal connection to the suffering.
Of course, the suffering in some of those stories is greater than that in others.
People don’t just forget these sorts of events. They keep them alive; they keep them personal. The suffering becomes part of the meaning of history, and part of the personal identity of those that have been through it, of their children, and their children’s children.
Whether or not such stories should be kept alive in that way is a whole other question, and a rather ironic one at that. The suggestion that people subjected to injustice ought somehow to simply move on has more than a trace of might-makes-right in it. It is an attempt to suggest that certain horrors are simply an accomplished fact, as are the long-term consequences of those horrors; land lost, buildings and nations built for the benefit of someone else, and whole scores of missing family – aunts and uncles not present and cousins never born, all of it, so the argument goes is just a done deal. Yet some people say that it would be best to just move on; accept all of this and focus on the future.
Best for whom?
Your land is ours now, but let’s not dwell on how that happened. Your grandmother’s language is gone now, but let’s not think too much about that. Cities wrecked? Whole populations wiped out? What’s past is past, so some say; let’s look to the future.
But if the long-term consequences of such atrocities might be thought an accomplished fact, then so are the bitter narratives.
…and the bitterness itself.
It seems those with such tragedy in their past rarely (if ever) take such advice. They remember! They remember with a passion. Here we have at least a trace of poetic justice. It seems to me quite fitting that those hoping the descendants of tragedy would accept the consequences and simply move on should run square up against one other uncomfortable and very stubborn fact, namely that folks just don’t forget such things.