Farrell on Zero Dark Thirty, Complicity and False Memory

We are very pleased to welcome this guest post from Michelle Farrell, a lecturer in law at Liverpool University.

As I was writing this post, my sister reminded me that I am not a film critic and, as such, I would probably be better off sticking to the torture aspect of Zero Dark Thirty. She’s right, but let me get something off my chest: Zero Dark Thirty was not impressive.  As an attempt at documenting “actual events” (with which the public is rather familiar), the film is wanting: predictable, digestible simplicity is favoured over an unpalatable complexity. Elephant sized questions hover outside the frame whilst the camera is busy trying to convince the audience of the dedication of those who work in the service of civilisation. As entertainment, overall, it is bland. We’ve seen much of this before and the main characters, for all that dedication, were not engaging.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, Zero Dark Thirty is the Academy Award nominated chronicle of the hunt (did anyone else just snore?) for Osama Bin Laden. The film has been under media scrutiny for its depiction of torture, particularly, because it seems to oscillate between entertainment/art and an attempt at documenting events, thereby, leaving it open to interpretation into which category the torture scenes might fit. The film claims to be based on ‘first-hand accounts of actual events’. Director Kathryn Bigelow justifies the torture scenes on the basis that the practice was ‘employed in the early years of the hunt’ and she insists both on her artistic right to depict torture and that such “depiction is not endorsement“. On a number of occasions, the success of torture suggested: The confession of the detainee, Ammar, over a plate of hummus (hummus in Pakistan? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-21289994) implies that he had been ‘softened up’ by the preceding torture scenes (in which the hero, Maya, is involved); another detainee earnestly agrees to tell all, having experienced torture in the past, the very idea of it happening again turns him into a chatterbox; and, on a couple of occasions, various stilted CIA operatives recall nostalgically the days of the “Detainee Programme”. Throughout, the audience engages with torture wholly through the eyes of the CIA. For this and many other reasons, viewers will not come away from the film with any insight into the meaning and purpose of torture.

Unsurprisingly then, the film has been criticised for normalising torture, for “misleading” the audience about the effectiveness of the use of torture in the search for Bin Ladenand for generally perpetuating the idea that torture works’   In addition to these commentaries, Richard Falk has persuasively critiqued the partisan worldview captured in the film

The adherence to the narrative of the State combined with the portrayal of torture, through a deafening ethical silence and with deliberate ambiguity on its practical contribution to the overall mission, leads the film inescapably into complicity with the Bush-era position on torture. It’s not so much that the film lacks critique or commentary (which isn’t necessarily its duty); it’s the unthinking acquiescence. This isn’t helped by Bigelow’s insistence in interview on the nobility and dedication of the CIA personnel depicted, not to mention her real-life adoption of that awful euphemism, enhanced interrogation techniques. The film is as liberal as they come. It screams (Maya does, if you read between the lines…):  “torture is bad, we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t have to, thankfully, we have a few committed professionals who are willing to sacrifice their values in our name”.

However, for me, the outcry against Zero Dark Thirty signals something more worrisome than the film itself. Žižek writes that the film is a gift to American power. Perhaps the same can be said about the commentary. That we are indulging in yet another discussion on the practical utility of torture –It didn’t work at all … it didn’t work in the way that the film says it works … it may have worked as an intelligence-gathering technique but it was not decisive…  – is also a form of complicity; it is complicity in that state driven argument that torture is carried out for the purpose of eliciting information. That obtaining information might be a purpose to which torture is legitimately put is the gift that keeps on giving: this is the rationale employed by the State. When we indulge this argument, we are already ethically compromised. This practical question has no bearing on the rationale for absolute prohibition. But the ethical compromise, I can easily live with. It’s the fact that we keep becoming distracted that annoys me: ticking bombs and, then, more fiction, ZD30! Our gaze is fixed in the wrong direction, we are missing the point. It doesn’t matter what you or I or Zero Dark Thirty’s audience think about torture, nor does it matter that torture is prohibited absolutely under international law. A public softened up to torture might be a bonus to the torturing state but it certainly isn’t a requirement. In reality, torture is not an aberrational practice in states of a liberal or democratic tradition. And, in reality, torture is not practiced to elicit information, useful though that justification is as a means both of usurping the moral upper hand and of keeping us preoccupied. Torture is practiced by states which define themselves against those humans who they see fit to exclude.

With this double complicity – the fiction and the reading of the fiction – the false memory of torture lives on. There are parallels here with the French-Algerian war. Torture was systematically practiced by French officers against members of (and those associated with) the National Liberation Front (FLN). It was defended by French officials as indispensable in frustrating pending attacks by the FLN. In the aftermath of the war, the idea was absorbed – also by the crits – that the use of torture was decisive in the overwhelming French victory against the FLN during the Battle of Algiers. Torture won the battle but it lost the war, the story goes. Notably, Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 film, The Battle of Algiers, propagated this idea. Raphaëlle Branche, Darius Rejali and others have done much to restore historical amnesia about this war. Torture, in Algeria, was not about intelligence.

Torture apology will flourish as long as the torturer and the state get to decide the meaning of ‘works’. Kathryn Bigelow hasn’t done anything to improve this.


Farrell on Zero Dark Thirty, Complicity and False Memory

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