Dr. Randi Gray Kristensen is assistant professor in the University Writing Program, deputy director of the Writing in the Disciplines program, and affiliate faculty in the Africana Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies programs, at the George Washington University, Washington DC. She is co-editor of Writing Against the Curriculum: Anti-Disciplinarity in the Writing and Cultural Studies Classroom (Lexington Books, 2009), and has published fiction, poetry, and memoir in Gargoyle, Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America, and A River of Stories from the Commonwealth Trust, among others.
On June 24, 2019, Salvadoran refugee Oscar Ramirez and his not-quite two-year-old daughter Valeria died, swept away by currents as Oscar attempted to get his family across the Rio Grande to what they believed would be safety in the United States, because they faced a deliberately interminable wait on the Mexican side of the border. A photograph of their bodies in death circulated widely in mass and social media, and re-opened an always simmering debate about who gets to represent whom, and for what purpose, particularly with regard to representations of people who have died.
Does a photograph or image of a person’s helplessness in death provoke in the viewer feelings of common humanity and an urgency to prevent further deaths from the same causes? Or is that image a final dehumanizing rendering of the consequences of a lifetime of dehumanization enacted through a hierarchy of assigned meanings dating back to the Great Chain of Being?
Photographer, critic and novelist Teju Cole takes up these and related questions in “A Crime Scene on the Border,” published in the New York Times, one of the major newspapers that published the photo of Oscar and Valeria. In particular, he notes:
Nor is it likely that the asymmetry between those whose pain is turned into news and those who “consume” the news can be corrected. There are powerful, almost incontrovertible, codes of decorum maintained by and for people who are thought of as white, or who have been invited to participate in whiteness. The racial disparity in published photographs of traumatized bodies is by now a recurring, and almost tedious, question. Media organizations have standard (and often grouchy) ripostes to the question each time it arises, usually involving an appeal to newsworthiness. And yet, newsworthiness rarely brings destroyed white bodies to the front page of the newspaper.
The questions we need to ask now are more urgent and more discomfiting. What sort of person needs to see such photographs in order to know what they should already know? Who are we if we need to look at ever more brutal images in order to feel something? What will be brutal enough?
These questions had already been troubling me after my two week residency at the Black Film Center/Archive, which I enjoyed thanks to a summer research repository fellowship from the Institute for Advanced Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. For a book project analyzing and amplifying aesthetic responses to the role of humanitarian interventions before and after disasters in the Caribbean, my goal was to use the resources of the center to learn as much as I could about the work of Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck.
Peck is best known to U.S. audiences for his recent Oscar-nominated documentary based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, I Am Not Your Negro (2017). Also in English, he has directed a feature film on the Rwanda genocide for HBO, Sometimes in April (2005), and a documentary and feature film about Patrice Lumumba.
However, his filmography is extensive and multilingual, and the majority of his work has not received theatrical or broadcast release in the U.S. In particular, I am working with his documentary made in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Fatal Assistance/Assistence Mortelle (2013), which did not find a distributor in the United States. Out of nearly 200 hours of footage that Peck was able to film thanks to his privileged access (in addition to his stature as a filmmaker, he is also a former Minister of Culture for Haiti), he selected 99 minutes that depict the earthquake, the devastation that followed, and most particularly the exclusion of Haitians, from ordinary people to civil engineers to the leaders of the government, from participating in the rebuilding decision-making, with predictable consequences.
My purpose, then, was to gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of Peck’s work through access to archival materials and his earlier work. In addition, I sought to develop a better sense of the context he is working in and against through the availability of related films and documentaries, by other Haitian and Caribbean filmmakers and by foreign entities like PBS Frontline.
I re-watched Fatal Assistance, and put it in dialogue with other feature films by Peck, particularly The Man by the Shore/ L’homme sur les quais (1993) and what I recalled of earlier viewings of Moloch Tropical (2009) and Murder in Pacot/Meurtre a Pacot (2014), made before and after the earthquake, respectively. I also watched a slew of documentaries about Haiti from the Center’s collection, among them two that are becoming central to this project: Ghosts of Cite Soleil (2006) and PBS Frontline’s Battle for Haiti (2011). The immersion in these visual and narrative representations of Haiti, made possible by the resources at the BFC/A, brought to the fore the question of how violence, and Haitians, are represented, resonant with the questions Teju Cole is asking.
Violence stands out in these films in two ways. First, the usual way we think about violence–shocking physical destruction, often resulting in death, or what Johan Galtung calls “direct violence” (1969). And second, the slower, less easily perceptible violence of economic, social, cultural, and historical destruction, also often resulting in death, summarized as “structural violence” (Galtung 1969). Peck’s films shy away from neither. The Man by the Shore, Moloch Tropical, and Murder in Pacot all feature at least one incident of horrific violence. Peck chooses, in each case, to make it clear to the viewer what is about to happen, and then to cut away to the disorienting shock, pain, cries, and reactions of both victims and observers. The film viewer is also located as witness to the event, almost as close to it as the characters who are also observers or participants; the effect is surreal, even as the depiction is realistic. Because Peck has laid the groundwork for what is happening in its economic, social, cultural, and historical context, the relationship between direct and structural violences is revealed in these moments.
When it comes to comparing Peck’s documentary with Ghosts of Cite Soleil and PBS’s Battle for Haiti, there is a stark contrast in the portrayal of direct and structural violence. Fatal Assistance acknowledges the terrible death toll of the earthquake and represents those losses in scenes of mass graves marked with anonymous crosses.
The stark impersonality of the graveyard, with its collapsing crosses, signifies the absence of comfort for both the dead and those grieving that a cemetery usually provides. One grave seems tended, which only highlights the desolation of the rest. Peck carefully layers cause and effect throughout the documentary, until the viewer understands that the mass graves for the dead and the warehouses for the living, shacks built in an unlivable environment by NGOs, are the result of decisions made far outside of Haiti, and in the interests of the decision-makers, who are for the most part not Haitians. Structural violence–historical and contemporary–is made visible, as in his feature films, without the need to rob the dead of their dignity by displaying their lifeless bodies. The graveyard conveys the magnitude of the crime against them without further exploiting them.
On the other hand, the emphasis in the other two documentaries is on direct violence. Both focus on Port-au-Prince as a city overrun by criminals, promising short lives and arbitrary deaths. This emphasis is reinforced by what seem like mandatory and gratuitous shots of Black men lying dead in the street. In the PBS documentary, as if the first viewing of a man’s corpse was not enough, the camera swings back it again, for no discernible reason. There is context, but it is ahistorical and reinforces colonialist tropes of savagery and ungovernability. Part of the work I will be doing with these counter-examples is querying why this seems necessary, and how these works are always already destined for bigger audiences than Peck’s. The contrast raises questions of identification, audience, resources, and purpose. Ghosts of Cite Soleil is a co-production with a Haitian filmmaker; the PBS film took nine months to make, out of which the non-Haitian filmmaker spent ten weeks in Haiti, and responds to his critics that he is telling the “real” story. I am veering away from an essentialist argument that who one is determines what one sees, though, and more towards one that examines commitments, particularly with regard of who gets to be regarded as human, and the fraught dynamic of humanization and dehumanization at play in depictions of direct and structural violence, particularly when Black people are the subjects.
I was hoping to leave the BFC/A with more and better questions than I arrived with, and while that is certainly the case, the fellowship time enabled the possibility of thinking more deeply about those questions and developing momentum in addressing them. The space for this exploration was expertly held and supported by archivist Ronda Sewald, and I was warmly encouraged by program administrator Joy Roberts and research assistant Essence London. With their help, I was able to make a preliminary presentation of this work, meet with scholars like Michael Martin, Rebecca Dirksen, and Akin Adesokan, and write this blog post. The success of this endeavor would not have been possible without the support of Eileen Julien and Suzanne Godby Ingalsbe of the Institute for Advanced Study, and it has been a real privilege to meet with and work in the professional and collegial environment led by Terri Francis, Director of the BFC/A. I hope many others will be able to avail themselves of this fantastic resource in such a welcoming space.
BFC/A Events This Past Semester
- Now – Oct. 4 | Rough & Unequal installation at the Grunwald Gallery
- Sept. 5 – 6 | Paulin Vieyra Screenings at the BFC/A and IULMIA
- Sept. 14 | Once Haunted film program with Crystal Z. Campbell and Madeleine Hunt Ehrlich at IU Cinema
- Sept. 18 | Nikyatu Jusu and Nuotama Bodomo Films at IULMIA
- Sept. 19 | Dr. TreaAndrea Russworm Public Talk in FF 312
- Sept. 23 | Jezebel screening with Numa Perrier at IU Cinema.
Sept. 24 | IU Cinema Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Program with Numa Perrier
- Sept. 27 – 28 | Rough & Unequal Symposium with Kevin Everson
- Oct. 7 | Jahmil X.T. Qubeka and François Verster at IU Cinema.
- Nov. 4 | Do the Right Thing screening at IU Cinema.
- Nov. 6 | Hyenas screening at IULMIA
- Nov. 8 | Babylon screening at IU Cinema.
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