Monday, June 28, 2010

23rd June - Using the Holocaust as a narrative crutch

I’ve often been inspired, and a little daunted, by the Albert Schweitzer quote : "The tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he lives."  This quote, more than anything else, once convinced me to follow my dreams, no matter where they may lead. Mine is not a life of hardship, but, like anyone else’s, has contained difficult choices.  Do I really have the faculties to understand, let alone write about, the kind of suffering that I can only imagine?

We had this discussion today, my boyfriend and I, regarding the movie Shutter Island.  Spoilers to follow.  While I would like to do terrible things to the composer for going over the top in a way that led to Narm, the main content of the film was mostly bearable.  The problem, for me, in the first half, lay with the depiction of Leonardo Di Caprio as a hardened veteran of the second World War.  To his credit, he’s grown older.  That seems like a funny thing to say, but I was as surprised as anyone to find out he could actually act, and I think being older has given him the chance to take roles that show his ability and experience, rather than casting his as the pretty boy.  But that’s neither relevant nor interesting.  My problem was with the depiction of the Holocaust itself.

In the movie, Di Caprio is at the taking of Dashow, and sees frozen bodies piled in the snow, among them a woman and her young daughter.  This movie was released last year and directed by Martin Scorsese.  Given that the Great War ended in 1945 (Mr. Scorsese was born in 1942), any surviving member of the army would be, at youngest, 83.  I know the movie is set in 1957 – that’s not what I’m getting at.  For the same reason I have a problem with a white guy making a film like Avatar, I’m not sure I’m okay with people who have never been to war writing about it.  We can hear, but we do not comprehend.  We can tell, but we do not believe.  For the shock value, and education, and a hundred other reasons, yes, these things must be remembered, but as history.  Not as entertainment.  Despite film being used for documentaries and other wonderful things, never forget that any feature film is designed primarily to entertain.  I have no ties to the war, or any European relatives, but is the greatest tragedy of humankind really suitable as fodder for a film about schizophrenia?

Some may argue schizophrenia isn’t a fair topic in itself.  They may be correct, if it isn’t handled properly, as some of the horror films of the 70s and 80s handled it.  From what I know from studying psychology at university, Di Caprio’s portrayal is accurate.  It’s even sympathetic.  In this sense, then, I would argue that Shutter Island makes a case for schizophrenia being understood, rather than mistreated, and rather vehemently in both cases.  No, I have no problem with the portrayal of mental illness in Shutter Island.  I do have a problem with partial portrayal of historical fact.

It’s easy to do – you’re making a game, writing the dialogue, you write a line, put it in, the game goes gold, and suddenly you’re flooded with emails or forum queries asking how to get past a certain point of the game.  “But it’s obvious!” you cry.  “The hint is clearly in the dialogue!”  Did you user-test it?  Or did you only have everyone on the development team check it?  The same thing happens with stories, all the time.  Only when someone else reads it can they pick up on the logic flaws that make your work unreadable.  “Of course the key is blue!” you snap.  “It’s written right… hold on…”  Suddenly a vital piece of information that is so clear in your mind that it was integral to the story somehow went without saying.  For your reader or viewer, this is a problem.

For many students these days, the Holocaust has a name, but little meaning.  I don’t know why this is.  When I was at school, I was excused from Modern History class on account of extreme distress regarding the events in East Timor.  They were nothing compared to the concentration camps.  What I have learned in detail I have learned through research for some project or another, and what I did learn was never directly translated into those projects, never taken wholesale.  I respect the source material, even if I can’t understand it, in the sense that I wasn’t there, and am grateful I wasn’t.  I know I will never understand it, in the same way that studying Japanese culture for a lifetime will never make me Japanese.  The content is foreign, but educational.

My students know none of this.  They know the vague outline of events, like one can navigate through a dark room by seeing the forms of the furniture, but they lack comprehension.  This is the generation that desecrates graveyards and war memorials.  They don’t know why the older generations can’t forgive.  I’m not advocating racial hatred.  I’m certainly not saying these events should be described, in graphic detail, to each generation.  I’m only saying that while bodies piled in the snow may seem like an evocative image, to this new generation, they are just that.  An image.  “There were bodies.  Too many to count.  Too many to imagine,” Di Caprio says at one point.  If there are too many to imagine, how can we, safe in our cinema seats?  Do we want to?

What happened in those camps… there are no words.  English itself fails in the face of such treatment.  Only emotion and fact remain, and one cannot convey the other.  An image on a screen can never relate the real horror of what came before those bodies were frozen.  At best, they make evoke the viewer’s own knowledge and horror.  At worst, they seem like a waste, but only a waste.  Can you, or I, or anyone we know, claim to understand the horror of waste that is the loss of human life?  For all of our sakes, I hope not.  No one deserves that responsibility, or that punishment.  We deserve to know, so that we can make better choices for the future, but that’s as far as our claim can extend.  Many of our veterans are dead, and they took the memory of those horrors with them.  We should be grateful. 

These people and their memories are not for entertainment.  I’m not picking on Shutter Island in particular here, but rather a recent rise in the number of Holocaust-centric movies.  Is it better to view something in only partial understanding, or to be ignorant?  What’s the path here?  How can we move forward without understanding our past?  But how can we bring understanding to children who don’t read or watch TV or movies?  Inextricably linked is this : how can we teach those who have no interest in learning?  Should we?

And, as writers, how does this affect us?  Am I able only to write about falling in love and loss, and none of the in-between?  Should I shy away from topics of birth, marriage and war because I have no personal experience?  I believe so.  The fictions I create are based on my experiences.  They may be science-fiction or fantasy-based, but they are only ever my own.  I can imagine how it feels to lose a loved one, be it here, in space, or in the fantastic past.  I can imagine falling in love.  I wouldn’t write about having a child, or getting married, or going to war.  Hopefully one day I can address the first two.  Can I write about living in terror?  Only as much as I fear walking home alone in the dark.  Can I ask other people for their accounts of events I myself have not lived, but want to write about?  Yes.  Should I have them fact-check what I end up writing?  Definitely.  Will it read the same as if I’d experienced it myself?  Never.

And is this fallacy enough?  Sometimes, yes.  The Forever War is all too real for being written by a Vietnam veteran.  If I want to imagine trekking across country with a pack of wolves on my heels, must I go through it first?  No.  Will the fallacy do?  I hope so.  Must I be aboard an 18th century pirate vessel to write about that experience?  Aside from the fact it’s chronologically impossible, no.  I can research, I can talk to experts, and I can do my best.

Can I write about what it’s like to be a child in war-torn Serbia?  No.  Should I write a fictional account of how I imagine life was for my great uncle in Changi?  I wouldn’t even dream of it.  How, then, can one claim to use the Holocaust as a function of entertainment?  I can’t, and I wouldn’t.

That’s my personal preference.  Clearly, many others, and far more successful than I, disagree.  All I ask is for anyone in the entertainment industry to treat the dead with respect.  They can’t return the favour, so you’ve nothing to gain save the honour of all those who have died before us, in war or otherwise, and the thought that, someday, others will accord you the same.  It’s not much of an incentive, I know, but I don’t think it’s much to ask, either.  Don’t let what’s inside you, your history, your knowledge, your learning and your understanding of the world, die because you were afraid of what others might think.  And don’t mock those who had similar hopes and dreams in the past.  We’re all human.  We all dream.  And someday, we will all die.  It’s not important to the dead how they’re treated.  They’re dead.  But as a culture, as a society, and as a world view, if we want to provide a sense of history and belonging to those of the Internet generation, we need to set some boundaries.

If those boundaries start with declaring taboo the sensationalism of the Holocaust and the profanation of the graves of our relatives, then I will be only too glad.

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