For the final installation of our series “Responding to Tragedy,” we look at different narrative methods of documenting and memorializing atrocity. Artistic expression has always been used as a tool for healing and remembrance. But how can pieces accurately express the complexity of a tragedy instead of creating a neat, universal narrative? Below are a few examples of how narrative works have attempted to tackle this question.
Death and The Maiden (Chile)
Ariel Dorfman’s play, written in 1990, responds to Chile’s return to democracy in the aftermath of the authoritarian regime. The story is that of Paulina Salas, a former political prisoner who had been raped by a doctor while he played Schubert’s composition Death and The Maiden. When an unexpected guest, Dr. Miranda, visits the beach house of Paulina and her husband, she is convinced he is her rapist and puts him on a sort of mock trial. Throughout the play, the audience never learns if the accusations are true or a delusion of Paulina’s unresolved trauma. Through the medium of a drama, this play is able to explore the performativity of acts of reconciliation, such as trials. Theatre can be an extremely useful tool of remembrance as it not only reenacts a specific narrative of history but also explores the consequences of reconstructing such a narrative.
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (Poland)
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, a collection of short stories written by Tadeusz Borowski and published 1959, is based on Borowski’s experience in Nazi Concentration Camps. The main character and narrator, Tadek, is a Polish prisoner who works at the camp unloading Jews from trains and directing them towards the gas chambers. It is ultimately a story of complicity. The use of fiction in this work demonstrates to the reader that all individuals are unreliable narrators and every story of horror is primarily a personal account, not a universal fact. This narrative is known for its straightforward, almost unsympathetic prose. Borowski has chosen to forgo lyricism and embellishment because, “there can be no beauty if it is paid for by human injustice, nor truth that passes over injustice, nor moral virtue that condones it” (Borowski). In the actual concentration camps, all language was dehumanizing and frigid; therefore, it seems necessary that the narrative be ripped of emotion as well.
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (Cambodia)
This 2003 documentary film, directed by Rithy Panh, explores the stories of victims and perpetrators of the 1975-1979 Cambodian Genocide during the Pol Pot regime. In this film, two survivors from the Tuol Sleng Prison revisit the site of their imprisonment and face their former captors. The former guards give tours of the prison and reenact their routines of interrogation and torture. In one scene, one of the survivors, Van Nath, confronts the former guards. However, they deny any guilt as they feel they were also victims of the regime. Lines between perpetrator and victim are blurred and distorted. Panh noted difficulties in this project as, “The idea of putting victims and executioners together is very seductive, but it’s also very tricky…You don’t want to be a voyeur. You have to develop a kind of ethic of the image” (Panh). In this type of documentation, there is a conflict between creating a space for dialogue and sensationalizing tragedy. While this type of narrative is controversial, it has been shown to affect real change. The former leader of the Khmer Rouge communist party saw this film and was finally moved to acknowledge the existence of the Tuol Sleng Prison.
Portraits of Reconciliation (Rwanda)
In 2014, 20 years after the genocide in Rwanda, Pieter Hugo went to southern Rwanda and photographed portraits of female survivors and male perpetrators posing together. Some of the portraits are quite disturbing, such as one of a perpetrator reclining on the grass while a survivor leans into him. The individuals photographed worked with the non-profit organization AMI (Association Modeste et Innocent), which counsels small groups of Hutus and Tutsis. While this photo essay is a chilling account of perpetrators and survivors existing in the same space, some have argued that it reduces the narrative to a simple “Good vs Evil” story that creates a problematic binary. In reality, the violence was much more complicated. The portraits have also been criticized for supporting a Western idea of redemption that assumes forgiveness is the ultimate goal. It is often easy for art to play into these simple, satisfying narratives.