Taking its title from former US vice-president Dick Cheney’s assertion, shortly after the events of 11 September 2001, that America and its allies would have to “work the dark side” in their response to global terrorism, this is a fascinating comparative study of 21st-century cinema in the age of global torture, extraordinary rendition, aerial bombardment and genocide.
Focusing on the cinematic representation of state terror, including the arms trade and the exploitation of global catastrophe for corporate profit, Shohini Chaudhuri undertakes detailed case studies of individual films ranging from Zero Dark Thirty (2012) to Waltz with Bashir (2008) while tracing thematic comparisons. Her critical focus is comparative and the book’s geopolitical range is broad, with chapters on the depiction of torture in the War on Terror, the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, the “disappearances” in Argentina’s and Chile’s dirty wars, contemporary science fiction’s narratives of immigration, detention and deportation and the ongoing conflict in Israel/Palestine. Throughout, she explores the role played by film production and distribution practices in defining the limits of public knowledge regarding atrocity.
Chaudhuri argues that cinema can help to counteract the ways mainstream news media desensitise audiences to the “inevitable” suffering of those outside the West. In obscuring contemporary conflicts’ roots in historic colonialism and eliding the neocolonialist dimensions of globalised capitalism, she suggests, mainstream media manufacture consent for policies and practices that infringe the rights of the human being on a massive scale. Such consent may be challenged, however – specifically in the cinematic representation of atrocity itself, via a new “human rights cinema” that has emerged in recent years. This does not simply provoke audience outrage or tearful sympathy (although it may do both) but invites spectators to question their own relation to the historical origins and contemporary political context of human rights abuses across the world.
In making her case, Chaudhuri undertakes a series of sensitive readings of works of mainstream global cinema as a means of exploring the relationship of spectator to image, and along the way she challenges both the orthodoxies of human rights activism and long-standing film studies debates on the ethics of spectatorship. It is no small feat to balance these two concerns, but Chaudhuri does so in an entirely convincing way, focusing on the structural violence of the contemporary world and the ways in which global inequalities may be evoked in the spatial divisions of the film text.
Cinema of the Dark Side is a remarkably well-informed and conceptually sophisticated study. Theoretically informed by thinkers including Jacques Rancière, Noam Chomsky, Zygmunt Bauman, Shoshana Felman, Dori Laub and Hannah Arendt, it also addresses Brechtian aesthetics, theorisations of the gaze, trauma theory and Levinasian ethics. Chaudhuri does all this with a clarity and authority that enables readers to engage with emotionally and intellectually difficult material, and the result is an essential read for anyone engaged in the study of contemporary cinema, neocolonialism, media ethics and human rights.
Cinema of the Dark Side: Atrocity and the Ethics of Film Spectatorship
By Shohini Chaudhuri
Edinburgh University Press, 208pp, £70.00 and £19.99
ISBN 9780748642632 and 9781474400428
Published 30 November 2014