Filmmaking irony - the movie about nonviolence features more disturbing violence...
A few months ago I was flipping channels when I came across Ridley Scott's suffocatingly macho Black Hawk Down. I came in right after one of the shootouts on the streets of Mogadishu, and the American soldiers were collecting their dead and wounded. One of the soldiers was severed in half, another was simply in pieces - a helmet here, a blown-off hand on the ground there. Scott took his sweet time focusing in on these bloody casualties of war, no doubt attempting to make us experience a soldier's horror as we gobbled our popcorn and slurped our soda.
It didn't work, at least for me. I hardly reacted while watching these scenes, and I certainly didn't cringe in the same way that I remembered cringing when I saw it in the theater. Why wasn't I bothered by this graphic, based-on-true-life violence in Black Hawk Down? I didn't know, and it was an odd realization.
Flash forward a couple of months, and I'm watching CNN just after the Iranian presidential election results are announced. I follow the story for a couple of days (as I'd recently seen Letters to the President) and, as the protests begin heating up, I see a brief news flash about a protester being shot and killed in the street. This fact doesn't faze me (it happens frequently in many countries), but yet I'm drawn to the significance of it happening in Iran at this time and under the heavy load of state censorship.
Fatefully curious, I go online to read more about what happened (it was still breaking news at the time), and in literally no time at all I find myself almost accidentally watching a video that will over the course of the next few weeks be played repeatedly around the world. Many of you may have now seen it - the death of Neda Agha-Soltan. (The photo used here is from the comprehensive Wikipedia page about the incident, the simple existence of which proves how bizarre of a future is in store for us with cell phone videos and YouTube.)
Because the story was not yet well known and the video not yet widely seen, I really didn't know what I was watching in the first few seconds. Eventually, and ultimately, I have to consider Neda's death the most disturbing footage I've seen since watching the live destruction of the WTC towers on 9/11. Considering the saturation of "torture porn" movies, beheading videos, "Faces of Death" and otherwise increasingly violent video games and movies in the last seven years, some of you might find my statement outrageous. But in fact I've gone to great lengths to avoid all of that stuff, so seeing this video and knowing it was real (as opposed to United 93, which was nearly as unbearable but still ultimately fake), well it shook me to the core.
I felt ill for a couple of days. I couldn't sleep for fear that I was going to have graphic nightmares. The scene replayed in my head over and over and over and over: Felled by a high-caliber shot to her heart, Neda lands on her back in a state of shock. The people around her immediately try to stop the bleeding from her upper chest, but they're clearly no match for a cardiovascular system in chaos. As her brain function diminishes, Neda's eyes go cock-eyed in every direction before rolling back into her head, just as hot, dark crimson blood uncontrollably pours from her nose, mouth, and eventually eyes. In a matter of seconds, she is gone, the screams around her lost to silence.
Just thinking about this again has me disturbed, and I had to make that photo of her deliberately small because I still can't stand to look at it.
Why did this video, which is so much less graphic than so many movies I see on a regular basis, completely wreck me? The obvious answer is that it's real footage, and not fake blood on a set with a director who's just ordered another take before breaking for lunch. No, there's one take, and that's an actual live human, and her life is literally pouring out of her body as I watch. And that deeply disturbs me.
But I don't feel like it's that simple, and in the month or so since seeing the video I've been much more curious about and aware of my reactions to violence on screen. For example, if it looks real, does it really make it harder to watch? If the director wants to make it look "really" real but it ends up looking fake (Black Hawk Down, recently Public Enemies), does it make it easier to watch? If the violence is inflicted on people I don't know or care about, does it make it easier to watch? What about women and children? Am I entertained by shootouts and explosions, or do I simply tolerate them? Surely if there was a gunfight in the hallway of my apartment, or a car bomb explosion on my street, I wouldn't consider it "awesome". Right?
I haven't really gained any clear insights from these questions over the last month, but one clue, or maybe just another confusing addition, came just the other day. Flipping through channels again, I landed on Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, and the scene in which more than 1,000 Indians are violently gunned down during, ironically, a non-violent protest against the Brits. It was horrifying to see men, women, and children massacred, but this being 1982, the death was not visually graphic, at least in the blood-spatteringly way that it would be if it were made in 2009 (indeed, Gandhi was rated PG). Yet despite the lack of gore, body parts, and blood-soaked corpses, I found myself actually more disturbed by the Gandhi shootout than by the Black Hawk Down bloodbath.
There are all kinds of possible explanations for this, and maybe I'll consider them here at another time. This post was really just a spontaneous reaction to the trifecta of the Neda video and those two movie scenes that I saw in the last couple of months. I guess it was my attempt at simply beginning to process how I may or may not have been sensitized or desensitized by violence on screen throughout the course of my life. I would hope that most people have the same thoughts from time to time; if you have any insights feel free to share them.