We have all experienced the silence before the beginning of a film — but to Prof. Mariam Lam, comparative literature and langues, UC Riverside, when film neglects to address the demographic most affected, silence is not the answer.
Lam, who gave a lecture on Monday regarding the cinematic depiction of genocide, introduced a humanitarian theme into the topic of genocidal witnessing. Using various short movie clips and images, she offered a critical lens through which to view genocide as depicted in Southeast Asian cinema.
She began her lecture by dissecting the misportrayal of populations that are persecuted, deciphering the interference of what she defines as “cultural nationalists.”
In an example, Lam criticized Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing for its lack of firsthand information, adding that it suppressed the voices of those who witnessed the genocide.
“Ethically, this is a highly problematic film in terms of power relations between the three subjects — identity, authority and visual perspective,” she said. “So there are many challenging critiques.”
Lam said that films such as this one can become false sources of redemption for genocide perpetrators — but the spectacle of hunting and killing often featured in genocide films is often appealing to western audiences, making these problematic movies more profitable.
“This is an example of humanitarian politics, human rights rhetorics, humanist recuperation and redemption narratives which is very simplistic,” she said. “We do not have any idea of what reconciliation will look right beyond this.”
The movie industry controls and conceals genocides or reveals one-sided information to its audience due to imperialistic sentiments, according to Lam. This fabricated promise of liberty, inclusion and multiculturalism in a capitalist system could lead to socio-economic, racial and religious exclusionism.
“Films might be deployed to perpetuate exclusion and regionalization,” she said, adding that this is a form of exploiting victims’ emotions. “This way of portraying regionalization leads to redeem those religiously motivated to kill.”
Chairat Polmuk, grad, praised Lam for offering a refreshing perspective on the depiction of genocide.
“Professor Lam and other researchers work collaboratively in order to tackle issues in history which are not widely acknowledged by the media, and they become manipulated by the western media,” he said.
Kun Huang, grad, is teaching a freshman writing seminar in violence and visuality, where she discusses how trauma is represented in fictional and non-fictional violence of genocide.
“I appreciate what [Lam is] trying to bring in what the local artists are doing, how the Oppenheimer’s film is problematic and the way she introduced it,” she said, adding that the lecture prompted her “to look and research further into minorities and regionalism.”
Lam spoke about the forgotten hundreds of thousands in the Indonesian genocide, along with millions of victims of the Cambodian genocide. She emphasized that these people are buried underneath the curtain of silence that so often befalls this film industry.
“Most of [Indonesian and Cambodian] cinemas are underfunded, so they are forcing the viewer to think of countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia in a more charitable way,” she said. “Only through mediation and mobilization can justice shine.”