Torturous Films: the fetisization of real-life violence

Peter Lennon discusses one of the most harmful myths that is perpetuated in cinema; that torture always works.

Peter Lennon
17th March 2020
Torture Scene, Zero Dark Thirty, Image: IMDB.
It has become very easy to forget that film, despite its abundance, is a relatively new form of storytelling. From Ancient Greek orators to the playwrights of the 17th Century, all the way to our contemporaries, storytelling has been the most affluent mode of spreading ideas and building mythology. Unfortunately for film, which has become the most influential medium, it also bears the responsibility for perpetuating harmful myths.

Perhaps the most famous offender in recent years is Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012), which dramatized the international manhunt for Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the events of September 11. So, what harmful myth could this “all-American” Biopic have to offer? Quite simply, torture.

Even if you haven’t seen the film, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that there would be one or two instances of torture that would be revolutionary in the discovery of Bin Laden. After all, torture is tried and true method of interrogation that yields accurate and useful information from the “torturee” every time. Every Time.

Needless to say, that what some might call a “fetishization” of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” came under attack left, right and centre. This included various media outlets, all the way to a publicly signed letter from Dianna Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain – the latter of whom was infamously tortured during his service in North Vietnam.

What is important to note, however, is that it is not the depiction of torture that has been criticised, but rather, as stated by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, the “sidestepping [of] the political and ethical debate that it provoked.” That is to say that sensitive matters should be discussed sensitively.

Both director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal openly defended their film amid these criticisms. Bigelow stated that the film “depicted a variety of controversial practices and intelligence methods”, while Boal has asserted that no method of torture was exclusively responsible for tracking Osama bin Laden.

Zero Dark Thirty, torture scene, Image: IMDB

While, of course, depicting events in films is not the same as endorsing them – after all, there is rarely an outcry for every horror film that is released – care needs to be taken. The reason there isn’t an outcry over horror films (with some exceptions from a particularly extreme audience) is because the films make a moral stance i.e. Leatherface's penchant for killing teens with a rusty chainsaw does not situate him as the good guy.

Though Bigelow states that she hasn’t taken a stance, only depicted the events, the film takes a stance by default. This isn’t to say that films aren’t allowed to explore the moral ambiguities of our anthropologic world without coming to a conclusion; in fact, the best films often do. But not discussing the events depicted at all positions myths such as these as being endorsements. As a visual medium, we can only accept what we see and what we see is torture being effective.

Cultural and racial, as well as gender and sexual, stereotypes have long swept through Hollywood

Naturally, Zero Dark Thirty is not the only offender of perpetuating myths. Cultural and racial, as well as gender and sexual, stereotypes have long swept through Hollywood in films too many to count. Like the depiction of torture, stereotypes can often be harmful in their presentation unless treated with sensitivity and a complete self-awareness.

The situation isn’t an easy one to navigate. And perhaps the fact of the matter is that this as much our responsibility as it is the films we watch. Our psychological ability to separate what we see on screen from real-life has been a point of controversy since the dawn of television and cinema. While, I like to believe, that most of us can separate the two and that we have a responsibility to do so, a crude representation of these myths is harmful for those that can’t, as well as to those that have had to live through the experience.

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AUTHOR: Peter Lennon
English Literature undergraduate. Although I primarily write for the Courier's Film section, I do love helping out in the Televsion and Gaming sections as well. I also organise and host livestreams/radio shows as FilmSoc's inaugural Head of Radio. Twitter: @PeterLennon79

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