Friday, December 19, 2014

Cover story: "Cinema of the Dark Side"

Shohini Chaudhuri is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex. She is the author of Contemporary World Cinema: Europe, the Middle East, East Asia and South Asia (2005) and Feminist Film Theorists (2006).

Her new book is Cinema of the Dark Side: Atrocity and the Ethics of Film Spectatorship.

Here Chaudhuri explains the connection of the book's cover to the pages within:
Four blindfolded captives, their hands bound behind their backs, crouch in the sand. Standing guard next to them are two soldiers, while other soldiers, not visible in the frame, cast ominous shadows on the ground. Behind them rises a yellow dust cloud, swirling into the sky. This dramatic photograph is displayed at a vital moment in Alex Gibney’s documentary Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), detailing the capture of a young Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar, who took three passengers for a ride in December 2002 and never returned. In it, the captives stand for Dilawar, who was among thousands arbitrarily detained and interrogated under the aegis of the “War on Terror.” Dilawar was imprisoned in Bagram military base, where he was tortured to death.

Why was this chosen as Cinema of the Dark Side’s cover image? While much of our mainstream news and media is concerned with terrorism of groups such as Al-Qaeda and Isis, my book focuses on the cinematic treatment of state terror. It takes its title from US Vice-President Dick Cheney’s declaration shortly after 9/11 that the US and its allies should “work the dark side” to defeat their enemies, hinting at dirty tactics involving torture and extraordinary rendition. The photograph from Taxi to the Dark Side lends a view into one of the many landscapes of state terror that the book explores, starting with films about torture and the “War on Terror” (including Taxi to the Dark Side itself), then evoking thematic links in other contemporary films about the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the disappearances in Argentina and Chile, the conflict in Israel-Palestine, and science fiction films on immigration, detention and deportation.

As the photograph from Taxi to the Dark Side shows, the aesthetic choices made by filmmakers are key to how we understand and respond to their depictions of atrocity. Each aesthetic choice is at the same time an ethical one. Like the film from which it derives, the photograph illuminates the implications of Cheney’s “dark side” for its victims, which belie his rhetoric that torture is a necessary evil and an effective means of gathering intelligence. The composition of crouching captives, ordinary men snatched from their routine lives, surrounded by sinister, shadowy military figures who exert the power of life and death over them, invites our sympathies for the oppressed and tortured rather than (as in other films such as Zero Dark Thirty) their torturers. Dramatically scaling from deep brown (the ground with its shadows and the men’s somber clothes) to yellow (the dust cloud) and the sky beyond, the chiaroscuro effect sets the tone of the book and invites readers into its study of the “dark side” of state terror in 21st century cinema.
Learn more about Cinema of the Dark Side at the Edinburgh University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue