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The industry of trauma: can films about tragedy politicize audiences?

Shortly after 9/11, a transnational network of feminists issued a statement about the trauma of the event on the American psyche. They argued that there was a "culture industry of 'trauma'" which ascribed a certain meaning to the devastation suffered by Americans on that day. "By contrast," the statement said, "people who have lost loved ones as a consequence of United States foreign policy elsewhere are not depicted as sufferers of trauma or injustice. In fact, they are seldom seen on camera at all."

That's not exactly true anymore. This year, the sufferings of non-Western countries and people of color were not only on the big screen, but three of those films--Maria Full of Grace, Hotel Rwanda, Born Into Brothels--made it to the Oscars. The first was nominated for best actress and Hotel Rwanda for best actor, best supporting actress and best original screenplay. Neither took home an Oscar. Born Into Brothels, though, won for documentary feature.

The three films depict people of color as victims of their own circumstances or of situations disconnected from the United States itself. Well-made, the films tend to generate one impulse in audiences: the desire to help. But could the films generate a more radical response?

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Consuming Trauma

Most critical thinkers and activists might agree that U.S. foreign policy has consistently privileged white Americans as indispensable. Certainly, the horror of 9/11 resulted from the images of people falling from buildings and frantically looking for loved ones and imagining the last moments on the hijacked planes. Yet, the horror in many ways also stemmed from the disbelief that this could happen to us, as tragedy usually happens elsewhere, in a disconnected, separate space and time. In short, 9/11 ushered in stricter lines between indispensable and dispensable people. 9/11 was the unimaginable loss of what could supposedly never be lost: American worth, value and innocence.

It is very different from the trauma we witness on film and media every day, elsewhere. Whether it is in the Sudan, Palestinian territories, Kashmir or as a result of the tsunami, the images are ongoing, upsetting. Yet they are the expected suffering of the dispensable people of the world--those who just are not as lucky as we are, those who cannot seem to transcend their circumstances. This is not to say that all U.S. citizens and residents view the world in this way, but that the U.S. government garners support and consent because at some level the hegemonic viewpoint here is that "we" are lucky, special and impenetrable. "They," in fact, come here to achieve dreams of a meaningful life.

This viewpoint is clear in the popularity of this year's three Oscar-nominated films.

When we view such films, we have to politicize ourselves as consumers in the industry of trauma. We have to recognize our gaze, the one-way exercise of power that renders those in our field of vision as objects. Whether we take pleasure in our "lucky" circumstances, feel addicted to the spectacle of gore and anguish or writhe with discomfort when we watch such films, unless we actively rupture the viewing experience and engage with the trauma we witness, we are complicit with the privileging of U.S. policies, perspectives and lives.

What does it look like to deflect our own gaze? Maria Full of Grace, Hotel Rwanda, and Born Into Brothels focus on anguish, and, as they vied for Oscars, these films were basically contenders in the industry of trauma. Maria Full of Grace is a quiet exploration of the life of Maria, a Colombian "drug mule." Writer/director Joshua Marston never makes his presence known, giving us an almost nonchalant portrait of women with few choices but to swallow large pellets that could at any moment burst and kill them during their long journey from a Colombian village to New York City. Maria chooses this job to escape a potential life as a single, unsupported mother living in poverty and boredom in her small town. Hotel Rwanda documents Hutu hotelier Paul Rusesabagina sheltering Tutsis fleeing the genocidal Interhamwe. Rusesabagina's commitment to his family and his own moral compass eclipse his eventual disappointment in the United Nations peacekeepers and Western countries that do not halt the killings. Born Into Brothels follows photographer Zana Briski as she teaches photography to the children of prostitutes in a notorious red-light district in Calcutta. Briski takes it upon herself to battle Indian bureaucracy and societal stigmas to try to enroll the children in school.

Each film, at first glance or gaze, showcases the heroic spirit of "others" that usually gets the progressive juices flowing: such suffering, such anguish! Look at them triumph despite it all! Look at their humanity! Perhaps my sarcasm sounds harsh, but it is not a reflection on the films, all of which are beautiful and contain compelling story arcs, stellar acting and captivating cinematography. Rather, I wonder if we can receive the films in a different way, so that when we empathize or feel repulsed or yearn for change, we mourn in the way we mourn 9/11. We view the murder of a "drug mule" or a Tutsi as the loss of indispensable lives and happiness. We come to see that 9/11 was not the destruction of fortress America but rather, like any other tragic event, made possible by relationships and encounters between political actors.

Movies as Political Moments

These questions are likely to linger in our minds when we are watching these films: Will Maria take advantage of the opportunities afforded in the Colombian area of New York City to start a new life with better choices? Could the West have done more to stop the genocide? Could the photographer solicit more charity to get more children into schools? These questions arise from a desire to help, a "helping" that indubitably empowers those already in power to make decisions. As citizens and residents of the United States we are caught up in the power structures that make possible the situations from which we seek to save others.

As long as we are fixated on helping, we fail to recognize that the

industry of trauma thrives on depictions of good victims--Maria, Paul Rusesabagina and his family, the children in the brothels--worthy of our sympathy, monetary donations and caring thoughts. But others, such as the drug dealer who shows Maria how to swallow large pellets of cocaine, the hotel staffer who threatens to reveal Rusesabagina's protection of Tutsis and Calcutta parents who expect their daughters to "join the line" of prostitution, are the quintessential villains at whom we direct all anger, discomfort, sadness and rage. When we see a film's plot in terms of heroes and villains, we forget relationships of power that stretch far beyond a particular scene, and we easily escape any responsibility for political change when we find a convenient target at which to point an accusing finger.

Instead we can ask: What does equal opportunity for Maria mean in the United States, given rampant xenophobia, racism and the heavy reliance on sweatshop labor? How do the U.S. war on drugs, involvement in Colombian narcotrafficking and consumption of drugs shape Maria's narrative? How can we expect the West to come to the rescue in some situations without recognizing that Western imperialist ambitions have been masquerading as humanitarian in most other situations? How did U.S.-supported IMF and World Bank programs exacerbate economic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda? Do we see Zana Briski as the only loving adult in the Calcutta children's world, or do we recognize the circumstances that force mothers into prostitution and into desperate attempts to keep their children, the only source of unconditional love, out of boarding school? Do we recognize that contemporary prostitution stems from sexual commodification that underscores neo-liberalism and global capitalism? In effect, we should shift from "help" to our own responsibility in these larger structural problems.

Responsibility is the decision to understand the movie-going experience as a political moment. Help, on the other hand, is a commitment to the status quo, an attempt to ensure that the story is really about us, our reactions and our good feelings of caring. To help is to solidify our presumptions about those suffering elsewhere. To help is to think that we have actually learned about someone's story of pain by merely gazing. To be responsible is to realize how little we know, to be willing to disrupt political fantasies about our 9/11 trauma being so much more dramatic and meaningful than other ongoing traumas, to inquire as to alternatives to industries of trauma.

Meghana V. Nayak is assistant professor of political science at Pace University, New York City.
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Title Annotation:culture
Author:Nayak, Meghana V.
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
Words:1457
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