copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, summer 2016

Gendered visions in As If I Am Not There and In the Land of Blood and Honey:
Female precarity, the humanitarian gaze and the politics of situated knowledge

By Dijana Jelača

Introduction: on the politics of visual recognition

“To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways we might prefer not to imagine—be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”
—Susan Sontag (2004: 103)

“The only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular.”
—Donna Haraway (1988: 590)

In the global digital era, the relation between screen technologies and their visual representation of suffering poses increasing challenges to the ethics of witnessing. How can we visually frame suffering in ethical ways that avoid the pitfalls of oversaturation, simplistic objectification, or fetishization of pain or pity? In her influential work Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag (2003) suggests that to look at someone’s pain and capture it through a lens requires that one not intervene to alleviate that pain; she implies that the two activities—screening and aiding—are often mutually exclusive. In her earlier work, On Photography (1973), Sontag notes that photographic images make an event seem more real, yet the longer those images are displayed, they paradoxically make the same event less real, or more disconnected from and having less of an impact of “realness” on those who see them. Sontag (who personally played an important, if at times problematic role as a Western “celebrity” witness to the Sarajevo siege during the Bosnian war) raises the question of whether the inevitable oversaturation that accompanies mediated depictions of others’ pain makes those who visually witness that pain less likely to be moved to meaningful action. Witnessing the pain of an other, according to Sontag, needs to be a starting point for an ethical encounter rather than an end unto itself.

This critical insight poses a challenge vis-à-vis the global politics of representing distant suffering, a challenge that Judith Butler expands upon in The Frames of War (2009). Referring to Sontag’s denouncing mediated depictions of suffering others, Butler considers the opposite: such depictions also often bring to light the injustices inflicted during far away conflicts—injustices that might otherwise never receive international scrutiny. Butler does not resolve this dilemma but admits to no easy resolution. In the case of the Abu Ghraib images that Butler analyzes, for instance, the pictures both represent the medium by which abuse came to light and also function as a torture device in their own right. The photos were taken by the abusers themselves to further denigrate their captives. In such cases, the ethical conundrum has no easy resolution.

The issue becomes arguably more complicated when moving images take primacy over photography’s static frames. Today, when digital technology allows for instantaneous worldwide dissemination, the image can render events as seemingly immediate and real (Chouliaraki 2006). Furthermore, in her exploration of “the manner in which cinema frames and mediates pain and works to implicate its audience in this process” (2010: 63), Libby Saxton finds that “the relationship between cinema and distant suffering has become a discernable concern in certain forms of modern and postmodern filmmaking” (64). She argues that in narrative cinema, “scenes of suffering can bring into focus the ethically fraught interconnections between film protagonists and spectators” (64).

Nevertheless, it is as true now as when Sontag wrote in 1973 that the context within which an image circulates and the discourse that envelops it play a key role in an image’s interpretation and social effect. That context and its accompanying discourse are always changing. Additionally, as Butler notes, a single image can be framed in many different ways. One possible way of framing the pain of others is through documentary filmmaking, where, as Julia Lesage (2009) argues with respect to torture documentaries, the framing can be multifold:

“Because there is so much information about the issue of torture, far more than any one person can remember or easily draw upon, the documentaries offer a structure for organizing that knowledge, setting out main ideas that can shape further exploration or be modified as the viewer reads more about the subject on his/her own.”[1] [open notes in new window]

In the context of the former Yugoslavia, a notable documentary by Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić tackles the ethics of relations between image, suffering and objectification.  In her documentary Images from the Corner (Slike sa ugla, 2000), the filmmaker reconstructs a painful episode from the wartime siege of Sarajevo, when one of her schoolmates was gravely wounded in a shelling attack. Žbanić recalls that a foreign journalist took a picture of her wounded schoolmate lying on the street corner where the grenade fell; that photo went on to become an internationally recognized, award-winning depiction of the plight of Sarajevo’s citizens. However, Žbanić refuses to show the image in her documentary. Instead, the filmmaker wonders how this lasting depiction of the wounded woman’s pain perpetuates her suffering and additionally, how the fact that the journalist took photographs during the moments of her agony implies he did nothing to help the wounded girl. In one poignant scene, we see the empty corner where the event took place while we hear the sound of three rolls of film being snapped (supposedly the number of images the photographer took). With this sequence, Žbanić viscerally illustrates the duration of time that it took the photographer to take the images, and consequently the duration that the girl lay wounded while her pain was transformed into an object for the Western journalist’s award-winning lens. Guided by Sontag’s division between screening and aiding, Žbanić condemns as inhumane the journalist's priviledging of documenting over giving relief.

My essay refocuses the lens. I take as my point of departure the uncertain ground on which screen technology—here narrative cinema—both fetishizes the pain of others and addresses the imperative of ethically bearing witness in ways that challenge simplistic identification or representation. I examine two films about the Bosnian war and practice of mass rape, both made by Western filmmakers: As If I Am Not There (Juanita Wilson, 2010, based on a novel by Slavenka Drakulić), and In the Land of Blood and Honey (Angelina Jolie, 2011, based on the director’s own script and conversations with survivors). Both films have similar themes, attempt to ground themselves in the local history of the conflict that they depict, and posit the need to bear witness to the pain of others as an ethical focus. Thus the two films share remarkable similarities in both extra-cinematic and narrative domains. And it may at first seem that their politics of representing the distant suffering of a foreign female subject align as well. Quite the contrary. I show in this essay how, with all their surface-level similarities, the two films frequently differ with respect to the visual language used to represent the female victim. This very difference in visual grammar indicates important divergence in the films’ ethics of representing the pain of others.

In the sections that follow, I examine some implications about how the cinematic apparatus of vision may depict the pain of others. It can control and limit how a conflict is interpreted, especially when staging a humanitarian gaze from an all-knowing above. Alternatively, a partial field of vision can become a site of opportunity for undoing fixed historical emplotments. I analyze the films’ different visual approaches, enabling the spectator to see (or not see) the pain of others, by looking at their spectrum of gender performativity. The films’ visual styles reflect differently framed ethics of spectators’ witnessing distant, sexual, wartime violence. Before I turn to the films themselves, I first need to outline some of the complexities and controversies that arose around the practice of mass rape in the context of Yugoslav wars.  

Mass rape, feminist interventions and the western humanitarian gaze

The horror of rape used as a weapon of war during the violent break-up of Yugoslavia has been well documented and parsed in journalistic, legal, academic, historical, and feminist discourses. According to some estimates, between 20,000 and 50,000 women were systematically raped during the Bosnian war (1992-1995), although the exact number will likely never be known. Out of the known counts, the greatest number of victims were Bosniak Muslim women, and the perpetrators Bosnian Serb soldiers (de Brouwer, 2005). Few authorities dispute that in the Yugoslav succession wars mass rape was used as an instrument of ethnic cleansing (Stiglmayer 1994). In her book Innocence and Victimhood (2013), Elissa Helms details how soldiers imprisoned women as sex slaves, raped them daily, and often made particular efforts to impregnate them and not release them until their pregnancies were too advanced to be terminated. These practices, where biopolitics meets war crime, reflect a desire to “spoil” the perceived purity of the ethnic other, or rather to invade it through women’s bodies. Such war crimes, premised on an unquestioned notion of ethnic purity, specifically link ethnicity to gender and sexual violence.  Moreover, Helms documents the social stigma that many survivors of mass rape have encountered upon release, which made some of them unwilling to come forward to testify (and this is one of the main reasons why the precise number of victims is difficult to determine). The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague (ICTY) tried a number of men for the crime (although many others remain at large), and one of its cases represents the first time that a person was convicted for using rape as a weapon of war.[2] Furthermore, Dubravka Žarkov's insightful work in The Body of War (2007) painstakingly documents how, during the Yugoslav wars, gender became not only a marker of ethnicity but also constitutive of it.

The practice of mass rape sparked an early controversy among feminist scholars and activists. Catherine MacKinnon (1993, 1994) firmly aligned rapist tendencies with ethnic identity; moreover, she argued that the culture’s saturation with pornography made Serbian men objectify women to such an extent that they could turn women into victims of systematic genocide (played out through rape). While MacKinnon helped bring this war crime to international prominence, she also a priori limited the conversation about sexual wartime violence by playing into the problematic local politics of ethno-nationalism. Some Yugoslav feminists called out MacKinnon for her tendency to simplify the issue. For example, Croatian feminist Vesna Kesić (1994) argued in her critical response that MacKinnon’s interpretations did little to address sexual violence in a meaningful way and gave little explanation beyond positing ethnic animosity rooted in the imposition of normative gender roles. Moreover, because of MacKinnon’s insistence on one-sided ethnic delineations between perpetrators and victims,

“her work has become a part of the war propaganda which stirs ethnic hatred and promotes revenge, both of which often find expression in violence perpetrated by men against women” (Kesić: 268).

According to Kesić, MacKinnon’s “approach demonizes Serbs and feminists” alike (1994: 274). It demonizes Serbs because, in MacKinnon’s account, they seem collectively predisposed to violence. With such homogenizing claims

“from the beginning of her involvement in this issue, [MacKinnon] has chosen to take an active part in this one-sided, nationalistic creation of an enemy” (275).

Importantly, according to Kesić, MacKinnon’s account was highly damaging to the anti-war efforts of local feminists from all sides, because she sidelined their refusal to play into ethnic and nationalist identity politics as they criticized the region’s sexual violence. In other words, prominent local feminists (from Croatia’s Vesna Kesić, Slavenka Drakulić and Rada Iveković, to Serbia's activist group Women in Black) refused to play the numbers game and reduce their condemnation of violence against women just to the question of either the victims or perpetrators’ ethno-national belonging. In contrast, MacKinnon’s view of events posited national and ethnic identities as central prisms through which to organize critical thinking about the gendered atrocities taking place. With this, argues Wendy Hesford,

“MacKinnon is more interested in linking human rights violations (in this case, rape warfare) to her antipornography stance than in exploring these women’s testimonials for what they say about the complexities of women’s victimization, cultural location, and agency” (2011: 95).

As I show below, a similar dialectic informs the ways in which the female victim of mass rape is represented in one of the films I discuss in this essay, particularly with respect to cultural location and agency.  

In 1996, Mandy Jacobson and Karmen Jelinčić made Calling the Ghosts (Dozivanje duhova), a documentary that focuses on the wartime abuse and torture of the women imprisoned in the notorious Omarska camp near the northern Bosnian town of Prijedor. In the film, the survivors openly struggle with the dilemma of whether to speak or stay silent. “If I speak, how good is that for me?” asks one of them. She concludes that it is important to speak up as a way to help those who remain imprisoned. It took several more years before local filmmakers tackled the issue of mass rape.

Jasmila Žbanić's feature fiction debut Grbavica (2006) represents an intricate study of female survival in the wake of sexual wartime violence without perpetuating either ethnic or gender stereotypes (Jelača 2016). This Golden Bear-winning feature focuses on the aftermath of the war, where a rape camp survivor is raising the daughter she conceived during her forced stay at the camp, while attempting to conceal from her daughter the truth about her origin. Moreover, Žbanić tackles the issue from another perspective in her more recent For Those Who Can Tell No Tales (Za one koji ne mogu da govore, 2013). This time, an Australian traveller reenacts her trip to Višegrad, during which she unknowingly stayed at one of the infamous motels that served as rape camps during the war. Both of Žbanić's films tackle the aftermath of the conflict rather than depicting the events of the war directly. In that, the filmmaker is concerned with postwar silencing and denials, as well as the shaming that the female survivors have continuously faced during post-conflict times.

Similalrly, a recent feature from Kosovo, Isa Qosja's Three Windows and a Hanging (2014), illuminates the social stigma that women survivors of wartime rape face in traditional patriarchal societies. The emergence of regional films that tackle this taboo topic is an important milestone towards coming to terms with the role of gender and sexual violence during war. Moreover, these films frequently refuse to graphically depict the spectacle of suffering, focusing on its aftermath instead.

Positioning the humanitarian gaze: situated vision vs. the all-knowing point of view

The ethical dilemmas that arise around the question of how and what we know about distant places, events and (victimized) people are not new. Nor is it shocking anymore to detect reductive bias in the formation of epistemologies about subjugated, victimized, and violated others. Quite the contrary, it has become the norm to expect such biases. At the same time, as Libby Saxton argues,

“the act of contemplating others’ suffering is not innately problematic, but rather those modes of representing and responding which instrumentalize this spectacle to shore up or naturalize the socio-political status quo” (66).

A point of view, as a way of framing discourse, dictates how we see, what we see, which elements our viewpoint obstructs and which it more firmly focuses on. As Judith Butler has noted, variously positioned frames of vision (which exclude as much as they include) become central to our understanding of the world (2009).

Explaining this phenomenon, Donna Haraway (1988) has used the metaphor of vision to argue for what she calls situated knowledges. Haraway says that objectivity is positional and always partial; understanding this should shape what counts as knowledge to begin with. Attempts to embody multiple points of view simultaneously and to cover many, or all, angles of the story (as traditional objectivity purports to do) merely mask the fact that to be everywhere also means to be nowhere in particular. As a result of trying for such “objectivity,” people might miss a chance to acquire situated knowledge firmly rooted in the partiality and messy inconclusiveness of a lived experience. Haraway further argues that to critique pseudo-objectivity should not mean arguing that representation is impossible nor that all things, places, events, and people are relative. To wit, to critique the neocolonial humanitarian discourses centered around the figure of the witnessing celebrity, for instance, is not to dismiss or relativize the suffering witnessed. Rather, it is to complicate humanitarian discourse’s many vectors and frames of representation. It requires a more complicated politics of recognition than humanitarianism’s underlying rescue fantasies and good-versus-evil morality plays would allow for.

In what follows, I analyze the visual language and its narrative implications in As If I Am Not There and In the Land of Blood and Honey, two fiction films about wartime rape. In fact, the two films frequently position themselves quite differently vis-à-vis the aforementioned problems of gendered and ethnic norms or their undoing, as well as the politics of (im)partial vision. I approach the films without assuming that the filmmakers’ “external gaze” or “outsider’s perspective” are singular or one-sided states of mind that a priori imply inadequacy, separation, objectification, or an inevitably problematic point of view. Rather, in my understanding, the terms “external gaze” and “outsider’s perspective” are unstable positionalities whose effects are not a forgone conclusion. Quite the contrary, they depend on a politics of recognition inscribed in each film’s construction of meaning in intricate ways. The fact that both filmmakers are outsiders to the conflict that their films deal with—in that they did not experience the conflict firsthand—is not by any means the defining factor for the various levels of insight their respective films offer. The insider/outsider binary itself too often fixates on postulating the authenticity of experience as evidence, a notion that feminist historian Joan Scott critiques (1991). Moreover, in their production process, both films gained significant cooperation from local residents who did have firsthand experiences of the war, be they the survivors themselves, or members of the cast and crew, or both. As my analysis of the differences in their visual language shows, the two films nevertheless frequently reflect differing attitudes towards the inevitable limits of (im)partial vision.

In each film, the protagonist is a Bosniak Muslim woman forced into a rape camp, and in each story, the heroine develops a complicated, at times even romantically-inclined relationship with the camp’s Serbian commander. The two films have significant narrative parallels, yet their visual treatments of the affective complexities experienced by the women who went through such horrifically traumatic wartime experiences diverge in important ways. In light of the aforementioned debates around the ethics of visually representing the pain of others, such differences in the films’ visual grammar indicate differing approaches to this ethical problem. In As If I Am Not There, the protagonist, Samira, survives the ordeal. Moreover, she likely survives only because she deliberately develops a relationship with the camp commander and thus actively, if controversially, deploys her feminine traits as a survival skill. She is impregnated in the camp and gives birth later on, safely in exile somewhere in Sweden. Avoiding the child at first, in the film’s sentimental final moments Samira takes the baby into her arms and starts breastfeeding. It is a tentative signal that she may accept this child as her own, no matter how much the baby reminds her of the traumatic circumstances of its conception.

In In the Land of Blood and Honey on the other hand, the heroine, Ajla, does not survive her ordeal but is rather killed by Danijel, her Serbian lover/captor, who then surrenders to the UN forces with the film’s dramatic last words, “I am a criminal of war.” Jolie’s film thus ends with the Serb’s admission of guilt for the atrocities committed, albeit too late for the heroine to be saved. And indeed, the heroine of Blood and Honey remains an elusive figure. She seems to harbor some feelings for Danijel (whom she has known since before the war) regardless of her capture. At the same time, the plot indicates that Ajla betrays Danijel towards the film’s end by giving away his location to the resistance. When he narrowly survives an explosion, he storms her room and confronts her. She seems to admit the betrayal with a quiet: “I am sorry.” These are her last words, as Danijel kills her with a gunshot to the head.

My analysis of both films follows Butler’s argument in Frames of War, where she argues,

“the ‘frames’ that work to differentiate the lives we can apprehend from those we cannot (or that produce lives across a continuum of life) not only organize visual experience but also generate specific ontologies of the subject” (3, emphasis mine).

I show how two initially similar films enact fairly different frames of recognition for their ensuing ontologies of the subject at hand. As If I Am Not There, which I will discuss in more detail later, deploys partial vision framed around gender performativity and its protagonist’s subjective experience. It does not engage in rationalizing the origins of the conflict or offer historical explanation. In the Land of Blood and Honey, on the other hand, utilizes several overlapping and mutually informative frames: a Western humanitarian lens with its objective, all-seeing vision, and an interplay between two standard tropes—ancient hatreds and a multicultural utopian vision of pre-war Bosnia. I turn now to tracing the narrative trajectory of the latter film.

In the Land of Blood and Honey

In its opening image—a panning landscape shot of Bosnian countryside—In the Land of Blood and Honey immediately frames the region through a stereotypical Western framework of a “utopian multi-ethnic society.” (Weine 1999: 1) Opening titles read:

“Before the war, the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina was part of one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Europe. Muslims, Serbs and Croats lived together in harmony.”

Following the titles, Yugoslav rock band EKV’s song “Zemlja” (“Country”), whose opening lyrics are “This country is for us/This country is for all our people,” starts playing on the film’s soundtrack as a way to allude sonically to the plot’s attention to local detail. However, that attention to local detail soon gives way to an all-knowing cinematic vision in portraying the events that unfold. In particular, much of the narrative and visual positioning of wartime sexual violence in In the Land of Blood and Honey follows MacKinnon’s path of collapsing ethnic and gender identities onto one another: Serb characters are almost exclusively male and violent; Bosniak characters are predominantly female, and largely helpless subjects to victimizing.

The film’s introduction of its protagonist, Ajla, who is a painter, features an interesting visual doubling, as she is in the process of creating a self-portrait. This doubling will continue as a theme as Ajla struggles with painting a visual representation of herself (by extension, her portraiture traces how she retains a sense of self while the trauma in her captivity undoes that self image). Moreover, Ajla’s auto portrait created during her captivity is the film’s final shot. Her painted gaze breaks the fourth wall as if to charge the audiences with the ethical responsibility to witness the pain of those who are gone. (Insert Image 2)

 The film’s first depiction of rape is a public spectacle that other imprisoned women are forced to watch. Right away, the emphasis is on the “we” of the women’s shared experience as opposed to separation.

The film’s visual grammar conveys an all seeing and all knowing eye, as the camera effortlessly pans from the women’s confined quarters to Danijel’s office. Later on, the camera frequently pans across the Serb men’s faces during their strategizing meetings, implicitly calling attention to the dynamics between them, but also to its own ability to move through this space unconstrained. Immediately after one such scene, the film cuts to the static shot of imprisoned women eating lunch, and through the juxtaposition, calls attention not just to the men’s dynamic position versus the women’s stasis, but also to its unrestricted access to both areas by way of an all-seeing gaze.

The events in Blood and Honey are presented with a studied, detached reserve. The all-seeing camera gaze dissects the events from a cold distance that purports to reflect comprehensive understanding rather than a sense of traumatic immediacy. In its access to all aspects of the experience (or rather, equal embodiment of both the victims’ and perpetrators’ point of view), what I call the film’s humanitarian gaze appears to be imbued with impartial vision from Haraway’s all-knowing “above.” It is able to float above any and all spaces effortlessly, I suggest, precisely because it fashions for itself a privileged ethical position of an all-knowing, justice-driven objective observer whose dedication to humanitarian goals conceals an ideological slant.

Indeed, Angelina Jolie’s directorial approach here has been likened to that of an objective academic researcher. Thus, in her reflections on the film to the UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women, Denise Roman states:

“I can now affirm that I consider Jolie a colleague in feminist research, with the film being a cinematic doctoral dissertation on the anthropology of war written on the bodies of women” (2012: 18).

What gets elided in such all-seeing cinematic construction are the ways in which Jolie’s film relies on static notions of objectivity, access and legitimacy that often accompany the Western humanitarian gaze without scrutinizing the ways in which such an humanitarian gaze perpetuates the status quo of global inequality—an ethical conundrum to which I turn in more detail later.

The film frequently features overhead shots, especially of the women’s confinement. Its floating, omniscient, seemingly unlimited field of vision—which implies uninterrupted availability of an objective perspective to the spectator’s gaze—is in stark contrast to Juanita Wilson’s visual approach in As If I Am Not There.

As If I Am Not There

As If I Am Not There’s events are depicted firmly from the female protagonist’s constrained point of view; the perspective often aligns with her, frequently through low camera angles. Samira appears in every scene, and the spectator is not privy to any knowledge that is not available to the central protagonist, least of all to that of her captors. Her confinement becomes the organizing logic of the film’s visual grammar. Moreover, the film’s visual language—point of view shots, extreme close-ups and camera embodying the victim’s physical perspective—draws the spectator in claustrophobically close to the events. Thus the film pulls the spectator inside the narrative viscerally and at times uncomfortably so.

The film opens with an immediate placing of the spectator into the visual language of traumatic recall. Samira is in the Swedish hospital in the present-day, having just given birth (and therefore, the majority of the film is structured as a traumatic flashback). In a quick succession of shots, we see Samira’s wet face in agony (only later will we learn what the image stands for). The following shot takes us back to Samira’s present, and to her taking a shower. 

These close-ups convey a traumatic collapse of time-space locations, which frequently occurs in survivors’ memories of horrific trauma (Caruth 1996). This silent opening sequence lays the groundwork for the film’s persistent and claustrophobic positioning within Samira’s point of view. That point of view, however, should not be mistaken for a direct invitation to spectatorial alignment with her plight. Rather than a simple process of spectatorial identification, the film nurtures a complicated structure of immediacy in bearing witness, yet always already too late in the moment of doing so. For instance, the opening sequence and its quick visual flashback to a traumatic event positions the protagonist’s latency to trauma and the spectator’s lateness to bearing witness on equal footing—but not as identical points of view.

Even the film’s establishing landscape shots frequently show Samira or other camp women in the foreground, looking on. They are, therefore, devoid of perceived objectivity, by being framed as point-of-view shots in their own right.

Moreover, the film’s numerous shots of doors persistently depict them as points of confinement and obstructed vision rather than a way out of the situation. The camera frequently frames doors in a way that obscures vision and visually recalls Haraway’s partial vision. For instance, in one shot, Samira observes captured Bosniak men led away for execution, as the doorframe simultaneously visually conveys their doomed fate and reflects Samira’s (and the spectators’) obstructed vision (the executions take place offscreen).

In another similar shot, as soldiers lead Samira into the house where she will be gang raped, the camera similarly frames her through doors that reflect the narrowing-down of her options, as well as an obstructed cinematic gaze.

A doorframe is again prominent in the scene in which Samira tends to the severely injured young girl, as well as in the film’s final shot, in which Samira holds her newborn baby.

Moreover, during the women’s confinement in the camp, doors are frequently seen in the background, strictly from the women’s point of view, as reflected in the low camera angles. This creates a visual juxtaposition to Blood and Honey’s establishing overhead shots of the women’s quarters in the camp.

In further contrast to In the Land of Blood and Honey, As If I Am Not There depicts only the rape of its main protagonist, while the spectator, like Samira herself, does not know what happens to other women after they are led away (that not knowing is arguably more horrifying than graphic depiction). When they come back, the women do not talk about their brutalization but rather focus on caring for one another. Incidentally, this approach is reminiscent of how the women in the documentary Calling the Ghosts describe being led away to be raped and tortured, and later not telling each other what had happened as a way to protect one another.

This visual structure, embodying the protagonist’s point of view, is particularly visceral in Samira’s brutal gang rape scene, during which she eventually experiences disembodiment from her immediate physical trauma. She experiences a state of shock marked by an act of displaced spectatorship, whereby she witnesses herself being brutally violated.

The scene is established with a low-angle shot of Samira being led to the table where she will be brutalized.

At one point during the prolonged and unnervingly quiet rape scene, Samira turns her head and looks to the side, and the film cuts to a point-of-view shot of a fly on the wall.

This shot/reverse-shot is repeated twice. Each time, the film briefly muffles the diegetic sound of groaning men, conveying visually and sonically the extent of Samira’s bodily and sensory disassociation. The scene also features a slow-motion shot through the window that depicts men playing soccer—an image meant to convey Samira’s dissociation from such a seemingly mundane activity.

Her disembodiment in the moment of extreme trauma is, in a seeming jump cut, then transformed into a shot in which she stands in the background while the men urinate in the foreground. At first it appears that Samira is put against the back wall and made to observe the men urinating. The following shot, however, reveals that the men are urinating on Samira, and that the seeing figure in the background conveys Samira’s experiencing the brutalization as an out-of-body event.

The latter shot is also visually tied to one of the film’s opening images, whose meaning is now revealed. In the rape sequence, Samira watches herself—the same way that the spectator is watching her being brutally gang raped—as if she is “not there,” conveying an experience of trauma referenced in the film’s title. Then the watching figure slowly approaches and wipes away blood from the brutalized Samira’s face.

During these shots, the sound is again muffled until it is suddenly interrupted by a male voice that says, “Get up. You have more entertaining to do.” Samira is then hit in the face, and the film cuts to a completely black screen that lasts several seconds. This is followed by a blurry panning shot of Samira’s arm. When the camera reaches her face—eyes closed—the lens refocuses, and then again cuts to black.

With this unsettling sequence, As If I Am Not There resists a spectacular fetishizing of violence by pointing to the crisis of witnessing (Felman & Laub 1992) as a way to simultaneously overrule the split between the victim and the spectator, and double the gaze in a way that calls overt attention to the ethical dimensions of seeing the scene unfold. Rather than inviting the spectator to identify with the victim, the scene conveys what Dominick LaCapra has called “empathic unsettlement” (2001)—a process of bearing witness that does not privilege identification but rather the unsettling of identity and subjectivity as such. The film renders identification impossible here by depicting a victim disassociated from her own subjectivity.

 Moreover, to evoke Wendy Hesford’s assessment of the ethics of witnessing in her analysis of Calling the Ghosts,

“although the film shows us victimized bodies, we also see bodies surviving their wounds” (115).

The same thing can be argued about As If I Am Not There, which ultimately focuses on survival more than on the spectacle of suffering. As noted before, the entire film visually conveys events from the female victim’s point of view, and embodies a perpetrator’s visual perspective only in a few rare instances. Even then, the spectator’s empathic unsettlement is squarely with the female protagonist, who is rendered vulnerable through this visual placement of the soldier above the civilians.

This disconcertingly immediate apparatus of vision collapses objective visual separation and places the spectator firmly within the brutalized woman’s experience of bodily disassociation. In this way, the narrative traces rape and torture in As If I Am Not There as having such a traumatic impact that they not only disassociate Samira from herself but also dislocate a sense of linear and literal storytelling by doubling the gaze. That is, we see a woman brutally assaulted, but we also see her seeing herself being brutally assaulted; the experience is so deeply traumatic that she is transplanted outside of her own body. With this, the film makes the spectator briefly embody, uncomfortably and claustrophobically, Samira’s traumatized point of view, all the while acknowledging such a devastating event’s limits of knowability. Since our own viewing of the scene cannot be firmly objective and decoupled from the victim’s disassociated point of view, the scene calls overt attention to the visual politics of witnessing. Here, trauma is simultaneously made knowable and unknowable. As the spectator briefly experiences the victim’s point of view, that point of view is impossible to fully grasp, since the victim herself experiences gang rape in a highly dissociated, out-of-body physical and emotional state.

Victims often perceive trauma as a break in temporal and spatial continuity, as time stopping, slowing down, or being otherwise interrupted, and with a temporal remove of the conscious assimilation of impact. It feels as if the traumatic injury is not happening to the person experiencing it—which it is not inasmuch as it displaces the sense of what a “self” is to begin with (Laub 1995). Wilson’s film depicts the ways in which bodily invasion and injury displace a sense of identity and break the continuity of unaltered subjectivity, most notably in the aforementioned gang rape scene, which marks the initial invasion of Samira’s body. However, while traumatic shock blunts Samira after she is brutalized, or after having witnessed the brutalization of others, at other times, she is compassionate and caring for her fellow prisoners, as well as calculating in her deliberate manipulation of femininity as a survival skill. Consequently, in As If I Am Not There, flat affect becomes a way to convey the enormity of bodily and mental injury that overwhelms the sense of “I,” precisely because the film saves it for the moments when the heroine suffers the most. At those points the spatial and especially temporal displacement signals to the spectator the enormity of an experiential break in the sense of the self that extreme trauma causes. With this intimate framing of the protagonist’s traumatized point of view, as well as in its calling attention to the act of spectatorship in the moment of extreme trauma, Wilson’s film, I suggest, largely avoids the pitfalls of depicting the events on screen with an observed detachment and all-seeing objective gaze. It persistently embodies the partial vision of the female victim’s point of view, as it points to her inability to fully grasp her own trauma at the time of its occurrence.

The differences in the visual languages of In the Land of Blood and Honey and As If I Am Not There that I discussed so far are not mere aesthetic variations. Instead, they carry important ethical implications. In the following sections, I show how these aesthetic and formal cinematic elements convey the films’ differing approaches to gender as either predetermined identity or as performativity. And their contrast also points to a troubling politics of recognition disguised under the veil of humanitarianism.

Engendering masculinity and ethnicity

The nameless captain in As If I Am Not There, with whom Samira deliberately develops an intimate relationship, claims in one scene that there is not much difference between Samira and him: they each do what they need to survive. Certainly, they live within a clear gendered and ethnic power imbalance at the time he says this. And he inadvertently admits to his power by claiming that Samira would “suck his cock” right there and then if that meant she’d survive. At the same time, the captain’s statement provides valuable insight into his own performance of masculinity, which by implication takes this extreme form out of necessity. His masculinity does not exist as an a priori violent inclination, nor does the film reductively assign it to how Serbian men “traditionally” are: violent and inevitably murderous as they seek to guarantee the perpetuation of their national greatness. Rather than depicting widespread masculinist violence as an inherent trait, the captain’s statement points to the complicated structures by which perpetuation of violence gradually becomes a way of belonging and not standing out for a man in dire wartime circumstances.

With such attention on perpetrator trauma, As If I Am Not There points to its often unacknowledged presence, and moreover suggests potentially uncomfortable links between the traumas of perpetrators and victims. All are caught in the cycle of violence perpetuated for the sake of gendered norms interpellated under ethno-nationalist ideology. With this, the film poses a challenge to the problematic assumption that atrocities stem, simply and flatly, from a whole group of people’s inherently violent predisposition rooted in a burden to perpetuate heroic tradition. Rather, a culture of violence stems from the gradual (perhaps sudden, but always gradual) wartime recalibration of normative masculinity, that in this case converges on the practice of mass rape, which in turn becomes a norm by which both masculinity and ethnicity are socially measured. For the Serbian men in the camp, rape becomes an enactment of gender performativity by which they can confirm both their manliness and ethno-national belonging. The captain feels equally a captive of this vicious circle of masculinist performativity as Samira is a captive of his (and thus his words: “We are both the same, we’d do anything to survive”). Thus the film provides a telling commentary on the complexities that follow any occurrence of sexual violence, especially in its more widespread iterations and their relation to the individuals affected.

In Blood and Honey, the complicated assemblages that inform the performances of wartime masculinity are approached from the perspective of an Oedipal struggle that makes Danijel turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by his unit, and then compels him to kill his Muslim lover partly because his father refuses to accept their romance. Here, Elissa Helms finds that the film “fails to challenge conventional gendered narratives of collective identities and moral righteousness” (2014: 613). While Danijel is the camp’s commander, he does not rape any prisoners and puts Ajla under his protection. At the same time, Danijel does not do much to prevent other prisoners from being tortured and raped, and he seems to only passively disapprove of their treatment, or otherwise rationalize it as inevitable. His father, Nebojša, on the other hand, is an openly hostile, powerful Serbian general who rationalizes ethnic cleansing and war crimes with an expository dialogue about the greatness of the Serbian nation and its historical struggles. This focus on Serbian tradition as generative of violent attitudes towards ethnic others gives rape an aura of inevitability, which is further strengthened when Danijel himself finally succumbs to the violent impulse by killing Ajla. In an earlier exchange, that aura of tradition and inevitability is tacitly addressed by the couple, when Ajla asks Danijel if he always wanted to be a police officer (his profession before the war), to which he answers:

“Some of us don’t have a choice. For me all this was a part of a very long family tradition.”

The family tradition he is referring to here extends well beyond his profession; it is about the embodiment of violent Serbian masculinity, which Jolie’s film largely treats as inescapable. Try as he may to resist it, Danijel succumbs by killing Ajla, thereby fulfilling his father’s wishes and contributing to the project of ethnic cleansing.  In one expository conversation, Danijel’s father reminds his son about the greatness of the Serbian nation that extends back to the Kosovo battle (one of the founding myths of Serbian nationalism). The father then orders him to “finish cleansing” his area, and affectionately sends him off with: “Make your father proud”—as the latter two activities are implied to be one and the same thing, and overtly connected to securing the continued greatness of said nation.

Like the captain in As If I Am Not There, Danijel feels the pressure to conform to gendered expectations, and that translates into him perpetuating ethnic violence. The difference lies, however, in the fact that in As If I Am Not There, the perpetuation of violence is examined primarily through the lens of gender performativity without overt focus on Serbianness as such, while in Blood and Honey, the perpetuation of violence is squarely and unequivocally connected to ethnicity as the privileged site of explanation. Moreover, Danijel’s struggle is locked within a firm Oedipal framework of fathers and sons, heritage and familial-ethnic tradition. Says Danijel by way of explanation:

“I find this war very difficult to stomach. But my father… general Vukojević, thinks very differently of course.”

This larger-than-life father, general Nebojša Vukojević, is depicted as a character who acts out in a genocidal rage due to his own childhood trauma when Muslims murdered his mother and siblings during WWII. Moreover, his ethnic animosity has class overtones, as he resents Ajla’s, and “Muslim ladies’” soft hands, which indicate to him that they never had to “work the land” the way that his mother did.

As in the work of Catherine MacKinnon, Blood and Honey’s subtext is the inevitability of masculinist tradition when it comes to the Serbs’ infamy. Both accounts flatly homogenize an ethnic group in its entirety into an exclusively male, unambiguously heterosexual, violent and largely rural community. Indeed, rarely do such accounts leave room for variety within the group. Even Danijel, who morally struggles with such violence, eventually commits it himself. In Jolie’s film, ethnic identity is unquestionably assumed to exist prior to violence taking place, and is its catalyst.

On the other hand, in As If I Am Not There, ethnicity is a largely unspoken byproduct of the performative nature of violent masculinity. With that, Juanita Wilson’s film poses a rare instance where ethno-sexual violence is examined as a situational practice reiterated by men as a way to confirm their group belonging—be it ethnic or gendered, or, in most cases, a complicated combination of the two. While Blood and Honey gets uncomfortably close to the notion that Serbian masculinist violence is traditionally inescapable, in As If I Am Not There, that same violence is positioned as situational and performative, through the proposition that men perpetrate sexual violence in other to comply to the norms of warring masculinity. The situational exploitation of such forms of violent behavior becomes the driving force for its perpetuation, regardless of ethnicity—which is reiterated, even constituted, in its wake rather than existing as an unquestionably stable category ahead of the occurrence of violence. The captain articulates quite overtly his understanding that he participates in violence because it allows him to survive in a world where violent masculinist behavior has become the norm of those who (temporarily) stay on top. As If I Am Not There thus points to the incessant tightening of wartime gender performativity to such an extreme extent that the perpetuation of violence becomes generative of ethnic identity as such, rather than the other way around.

Female precarity through a humanitarian ocular epistemology

The politics of representing gender in sexual wartime violence are treated fairly differently in the two films when it comes to women as well.  In As If I Am Not There, Samira, after recovering from initial shock, starts dressing up in order to present herself as more desirable to the camp men, much to the dismay of other imprisoned women.

After she recovers from the initial shock of bodily brutalization and witnesses several fellow-inmates dying (including a very young girl), Samira resolves to not wait passively to be brutalized to death. Rather, she puts on a persona of a seductress, manipulative in her application of both make-up and feminine attributes. Even though some of her fellow inmates judge her badly for doing this, in a way, she also becomes a problem-solver who refuses to passively accept her doomed fate. Her characterization provocatively runs against the grain of the dominant representations of female Bosnian victims of sexual violence as passive and silenced. Samira consciously manipulates femininity as a means to try to survive her ordeal. That she thinks she can survive by manipulating her femininity is a tragic reminder of the limited and limiting gender roles available to women as a form of survival during a time of war. For Samira, enacting exaggerated femininity also allows her to regain some of her sense of an “I” that had been traumatically displaced through sexual abuse and torture. Gender traits are here again overtly called attention to. After she puts on makeup, another imprisoned woman remarks:

“You look ridiculous.”
“I look like myself,” responds Samira.
Another woman then warns: “The soldiers will go crazy after you now.”
Samira: “It’s not for them. This is for me, for who I am. A woman. And they are not soldiers. Just men.”

In this, As If I Am Not There provides a provocative departure from standard norms of representing victimized women from “far away” conflict zones. The film does not render Samira’s plight in simplistic terms and according to normative gender tropes about female passivity. On the contrary, her survival instinct in the midst of grave trauma jolts her into a deliberate, conscious exaggeration of her femininity, whereupon she engages in a form of gender masquerade in order to seduce the Serbian captain.

By carrying on a sexual relationship with the captain, Samira calculates that it increases her own chances of survival (it also gives her access to more food for other imprisoned women). Her act exposes gender’s impossible double bind: namely, Samira is brutalized to begin with because she is a Bosniak Muslim woman, but she is kept alive only because she is a woman (captured Bosniak men are killed without hesitation). Her sex and gender then become both the condition of her torture and of her survival. She survives but so do several of her fellow inmates who did not exploit femininity this way to their own “advantage.” She seems to have insulated herself from more physical harm; after she becomes the captain’s mistress, other men in the camp do not rape her anymore. Samira’s story and her manipulation—or masquerade—of gender as a means of survival reveal the feminine conundrum without merely reducing it to a morality play about an inextricable, predictive interplay between static gender and ethnic identities. Quite the contrary, the film does not present Samira and her fellow inmates’ plight through a totalizing humanitarian gaze that requires justice to be brought to light through objective exposition or foreign intervention. Rather, As If I Am Not There unfolds more as a devastating snapshot—neither fully representative nor entirely atypical—of a war that destroyed many lives, both male and female, across various ethnic lines of division.

In the Land of Blood and Honey, on the other hand, sees Ajla become a member of the resistance and return to the camp after briefly escaping, in order to be an informant for Bosniak resistance. And while this narrative similarly emphasizes the woman’s active role, Ajla’s arc is here rendered in heroic rather than performative terms. Framed as a tragic hero, Ajla dies as a hero when Danijel executes her upon realizing her betrayal. In that inevitability of doom, the film runs the risk of displacing the particularity of Ajla’s plight for a universalizing framework of female suffering and heroism. With an emphasis on the tropes of heroic suffering and tragic self-sacrifice, the film retorts to the Western humanitarian gaze that frequently casts women either as noble sufferers or tragic heroes (or both).

This film is, therefore, positioned less as an inspection of traumatic affect that (re)produces gender roles for both men and women, and much more as an overtly political, activist work of humanitarian filmmaking that purports to have a didactic role (a point reiterated by Angelina Jolie’s statements during the film’s promotion). As the film’s most visible face during its promotion, Jolie frequently emphasized the “universal nature” of the story (“a love story tragically interrupted by war”) as well as her desire to have her film “educate” the Western audiences about this “little known” conflict.[3] The director is hence positioned here not only as a humanitarian, but also as a producer of important new knowledge about the “far away” conflict. What is more, in her interviews Jolie frequently used the film as an opportunity to criticize Western inaction when it came to this bloody conflict, claiming that the foreign intervention came to Bosnia too late. The film itself contains several tacit instances of this critique, conveyed through news reports about Western inactivity, as well as the film’s closing titles, which round out the ontological circle within which the film is framed. The end titles start with:

“For three and a half years, the international community failed to decisively intervene and stop the war in Bosnia.”

By comparison, Juanita Wilson insisted on the partiality of the story presented in As If I Am Not There. Asked if the film is Irish or Bosnian (the film’s cast is local), she said:

“Well, it’s an Irish film in the sense that it was developed in Ireland and I’m Irish and the producer is Irish, so I would consider it an Irish film about a Bosnian story. But it’s not trying to describe the war by any means because being Irish I couldn’t do that accurately, so it’s really just following one human story.”

Moreover, Wilson added that she was most interested in depicting the notion that

“the complexity of a war situation like that is that [Samira] does whatever she feels like she has to do to survive, but also a lot of the men who become soldiers, their lives are destroyed as well, a lot of them have no choice either. And I think that’s important as well to understand, that it’s not just simplistically male and female roles, but that it’s really the circumstances”[4]

Wilson’s attention to the specifics of local circumstances does not relativize the devastation of violence but rather calls attention to the spectrum of gender roles whose shifts mark a turn to injury and constitute ethnicity as such.

It is important to consider here the fact that throughout these external positionalities of the films’ differing approaches to gender politics and the politics of recognition, an important layer is the humanitarian/interventionist angle ascribed to Blood and Honey, and channeled through the celebrity of its director and scriptwriter. Through its director’s larger-than-life celebrity humanitarian persona, the film received wide publicity that established it as one of the internationally most prominent films about the Bosnian war. Moreover, the film’s critical reception was frequently associated with the director’s celebrity humanitarian persona as well—namely, the film has largely been understood as an organic extension of Jolie’s humanitarian work. With this merging of Western humanitarian discourses and cinematic dramatization, Blood and Honey can be seen as an exercise in cinematic humanitarianism, or humanitarian cinema, that purports to bring to the attention of Western audiences the pain of distant others. The filmmakers conceive of these projects as a way to instigate humanitarian efforts constituted around the unquestioned notion of the West saving the Rest. In that sense, the film embodies the Western humanitarian gaze and its sovereignty over the discourses of universal human rights.

The reception of Blood and Honey by the Anglophone film critics has greatly concentrated on Jolie’s overall humanitarian efforts as a primary prism through which the film is to be viewed.[5] However, celebrity humanitarian activism does not stand in a vacuum outside of the transnational hierarchies of power that position certain regions as always needing to be rescued (from themselves, as it were) and cast Western optics of representational and military intervention as the rescuers (Atanasoski 2014). These optics of power have shaped Western humanitarianism into a “politics of pity” (Chouliaraki 2012: 2), that turns suffering (which is always distant, never close to home) into a spectacle. As Lilie Chouliaraki argues:

“The celebrity seeks to conceal a scandalous contradiction: by appearing to care for the ‘wretched of the earth’ whilst enjoying the privilege of rare wealth, he or she glosses over the ongoing complicity of the West in a global system of injustice that reproduces the dependence of the developing world through acts of charity.” (4)

Jolie’s humanitarian moment, Chouliaraki argues, is marked by a dynamic within which the celebrity herself becomes hyper-centralized in a theater of pity that is Western humanitarianism, framed as an authentic carrier of expertise about the suffering Others.[6] Positioned this way, the celebrity engages in the “performance of the voice of suffering as if it were the celebrity’s own” and thus

“confession collapses the voice of the sufferer—invisible, distant, unnamed—with the voice of the celebrity—visible, ‘intimate,’ and world-famous—and displaces the affective relationship between spectator and sufferer onto a relationship between spectator and celebrity as the most ‘authentic’ figure of pity” (15).

This displacement of identification reorganizes the field of empathy in such a way that the crux of the affective exchange takes place between the spectator and the celebrity, the sufferer acting merely as a conduit. 

Similarly, in Spectacular Rhetorics, Wendy Hesford examines

“an ocular epistemology” of Western human rights discourses in order to show “how the visual field of human rights internationalism often functions as a site of power for and normative expression of American nationalisms, cosmopolitanisms, and neoliberal global politics” (2011: 3). 

In that sense, the humanitarian framing of Blood and Honey, coupled with its ocular epistemology of the all-knowing above, positions the film as a direct extension of Western humanitarian ideology (neocolonialist and neoliberal in its application) in its insistence on the necessity of Western interventions as rescue scripts, the educational detachment of its own politics, the “elsewhere” nature of conflict, the erasure of gray areas, and the treatment of violence as traditionally inherent in entire (far away) ethnic groups. In this model of humanitarianism, suffering is static, its victims portrayed as largely helpless to do anything to relieve it except wait for Western saviors to come rescue them. Such discourses

“include a dialectical politics of recognition caught up in the logic and legacies of Western imperialism parading under the cloak of international humanitarianism and human rights advocacy” (Hesford 3).  

In its all seeing humanitarian approach to ocular epistemology, In the Land of Blood and Honey extends these politics of recognizing the pain of others without problematizing the uneven flows of power/knowledge that are channeled through a humanitarian knowledge-lens that often perpetuates rather than alleviates global inequality. Indeed, according to research conducted by Volčić and Erjavec about Blood and Honey's reception in Bosnia-Herzegovina:

“[T]he film’s story of war rapes and suffering did little to raise awareness about war rape victims generally and was interpreted primarily within two discursive frameworks: celebrity and ethno- nationalistic ones that tend to reinforce the status quo in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina and perpetuate misunderstandings about war crimes. Jolie’s activism, in other words, did not contribute to the reconciliation between different ethnicities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but has, on the contrary, further fostered polarization that continues to plague the region.” (2015: 356)

Women have typically been the most recognizable faces of the humanitarian spectacle of suffering, from Sudan to Afghanistan to Bosnia-Herzegovina. The representation of female agency in such accounts of conflict zones has been questionably simplified at best and premised on problematic Western rescue fantasies at worst. Women in conflict zones are most often seen as the ones in need of rescue, passive victims of masculinist violence without any agency in their own right, unable to do much to change their circumstances themselves. To continue to insist on such a simplified approach to sexual violence is to reduce it to a caricature, neglecting its more complicated angles such as the instability of normative gender performances. On the other hand, to institute this kind of narrative instability might allow for such incidents—inconsistent with the neoliberal humanitarian model of reductive dichotomizing—as having male characters who do not embody violent masculinity or women who in turn do, and so on along the sliding scale of gender performativity.

Conclusion: on the inevitability of obstructed vision

Donna Haraway speaks decisively in words we can apply to the ocular epistemologies about the pain of others:

“I am arguing for politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims. These are claims on people’s lives. I am arguing for the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity.” (Haraway 589)

How knowledge is claimed, framed and positioned more widely is at issue now when empathy is circulated as an exercise in accumulating cultural capital for the civilizationally developed (where up for visual consumption are those who inhabit the perpetually “developing” parts of the world). Especially at stake, yet again, is the resulting knowledge about the subjugated and suffering other—here, a sexually brutalized woman. This suffering other has become a prominently focus of Western-based humanitarianism and its reiteration of the traditional geopolitical hierarchies along the developed/developing scale of civilizational achievement.

However, as I have shown here, the outcome of that representational apparatus is not determined a priori and depends on how ocular epistemologies are framed—from a partial perspective that concedes one’s own role in the mechanisms that perpetuate global inequality, or in a privileged and distanced positioning from the all-knowing above. In analyzing media culture, we need to start by acknowledging that humanitarian ocular epistemologies can easily (even inadvertently) perpetuate the global flows of inequality when it comes to the dissemination of power/knowledge. To develop an ethics of witnessing requires being attuned to an understanding that detached representation is not an a priori act of humanitarian benevolence. Nor does humanitarian benevolence inoculate one from perpetuating the troubling civilizational assumptions hiding behind Western politics of recognition. Libby Saxon argues that “how we view has consequences”:

“spectators are not isolated from the spheres of ethical action and accountability, but .. our privileges – including the privilege of looking – are linked to others’ suffering in ways we need to actively interrogate” (74).

In this essay, I examined two cinematic texts about the privileges of looking at the same conflict that have many parallels between them. My goal in doing so was to trace the intricate differences within their frames and their ocular epistemologies about the pain of others. The ethics of witnessing the pain of others is simultaneously a heightened moral imperative of today’s technologically interconnected world, and a stark reminder that the mapping of some geographies remains locked within the frames of suffering that freeze them into extremely static notions about gender and ethnic identity. There is an urgent ethical need to apprehend the act of looking in terms of its (limited, framed) position, since the ensuing epistemology makes all the difference in our efforts to arrive at non-essentializing, incomplete, always complicated—and sometimes contradictory—accounts of knowing about the lives of others and witnessing their pain. These accounts are inevitably partial and situational, bound by contextual aspects that perpetually obstruct clear vision, especially when hegemonic representations attempt to conceal that partial vision and replace it with all seeing objectivity. If, as Haraway has argued, “only partial perspective promises objective vision” (583), then acknowledging the inevitability of obstructed vision is a good place to start in developing a new ethics of witnessing—or rather, a new ethics of being empathically unsettled by the pain of others.


1. With respect to the ethics of documentary filmmaking, see also Pryluck, C. (1976). Ultimately we are all outsiders: the ethics of documentary filming. Journal of the University Film Association, 21-29; Ruby, J. (1977). The image mirrored: reflexivity and the documentary film. Journal of the University Film Association, 3-11; Boltanski, L. (1993). Distant suffering: Morality, media and politics. Cambridge University Press; Zimmerman P. (2000), States of Emergency: Documentaries, Wars, Democracies, The University of Minnesota Press; Piotrowska, A. (2014). Psychoanalysis and ethics in documentary film. New York: Routledge. [return to text]

5. From Manohla Dargis’ NYT review: “This is Ms. Jolie’s directing debut — she also wrote and co-produced the movie — and there’s a somewhat awkward instructional, at times almost proselytizing aspect to the story that seems of a piece with her laudable humanitarian work.” (Published on December 22, 2011)

6. See also Kapoor, Ilan. Celebrity humanitarianism: The ideology of global charity. Routledge, 2012; Littler, Jo. "“I feel your pain”: cosmopolitan charity and the public fashioning of the celebrity soul." Social semiotics 18.2 (2008): 237-251, and Yrjölä, Riina. "The global politics of celebrity humanitarianism." Transnational Celebrity Activism in Global Politics Changing the World (2011): 175-192.


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