(Public domain; source: Wikipedia)
WHILE channel surfing, I stumbled upon a documentary on the History Channel on the attack on Pearl Harbor.
On 7 Dec 1941, the Japanese fleet sent their fighter planes to decimate the US naval base, which was caught off-guard. It’s an event that has been dramatised on the silver screen numerous times, most notably in 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora! and the woeful Ben Affleck starrer, 2001’s Pearl Harbor. (Okay, the actual attack was marvellously depicted in the latter, but the romance that bookended the movie was mind-numbing.)
Watching the documentary got me thinking about journalists who go into a war zone, and the risks they take in filming what in some cases turn out to be iconic war imagery.
There are many striking images of war that live on till today: the raising of the flag in Iwo Jima; the killing fields in Vietnam; the allied landing in Omaha Beach, Normandy; and the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki. All of them are important records of events that shaped our future.
There is a treasure trove of uncut recorded footage filmed by combat camerapersons, which have found their way into numerous documentaries and news features. Other sources of information include official and private records of life in wartime, including training films, propaganda, documentaries, fiction films, newsreels and amateur footage.
Documentaries with punch
An excellent documentary on World War II, which includes footage and images taken during the battles in the African, Atlantic and Pacific theatre, as well as new interviews, is The World At War.
This 26-episode documentary series, which took four years to produce, was released in 1973. Produced by Jeremy Isaacs, it was memorable for a number of reasons, not least of all the narration by Laurence Olivier.
Mussolini and Hitler, June 1940 (Public domain)I remember watching it as a kid in Johor Baru in 1975, when it was screened on Singapore television. The haunting score by Carl Davis would echo through the house as my dad would settle down to watch each episode in rapt attention.
That was my introduction to Hitler and Nazi Germany, to the Blitzkriegs, the Battle of Britain, Operation Barbarossa, Pearl Harbor, the Siege of Leningrad, the war in the Pacific, Kamikaze pilots, D-Day, and the atomic bomb.
But the images that linger longest feature in episode 20: Genocide. It begins with the founding of the SS and follows the development of German racial theory. It ends with the implementation of the Final Solution.
It was the first time I ever heard mention of the Holocaust. The footage of skeletal bodies, barely standing, and peering out from behind the fences of concentration camps haunted me for a long time. It made me wonder just what beastly horrors humans can inflict on their own kind.
When the series was finally shown over here in Malaysia, the networks tellingly left out this episode. Perhaps because of the gruesomeness of it all. And perhaps it was because it portrayed the Jews in a manner that evoked sympathy.
Video on the Nazi Holocaust
Real or reel?
Which leads to the question: should war imagery — real ones, not the Hollywood stylised versions — be shown on television?
I’ve seen plenty of violent, Rambo-killing-machine-type movies that make watching people being gutted on screen seem so passé. Yet, when the footage is live, and real, the impact is far different.
In 2000, I chanced upon a documentary film, Cry Freetown, shown over CNN International. I confess, what attracted me was the warning before its start — certain visuals may be too disturbing … blah blah blah … viewer discretion is advised.
Yet, I was unprepared for Sorious Samura’s eyewitness, film-footage account of the civil war in Sierra Leone, and the battle that raged through Freetown in 1999. Watching a man take a machete and chop off a baby’s arms in a movie is one thing; watching real life footage of the same is shattering.
Samura took the footage with a handheld camera at great personal risk to himself. But he kept at it, believing that the “strong images he recorded were the only thing that could shake the world from its indifference to the plight of his countrymen, women and children.”
And he was right. The footage, which many network broadcasters refused to screen due to its violent content, outraged the world, and spotlighted the growing conflict over control of the country’s diamond mines.
Inured to violence
Yet, as more and more acts of violence pan out in front of the cameras, broadcasters are being put in a difficult situation. What constitutes an acceptable level of violence in the news? Should viewers, impervious to the murder and mayhem that is our daily diet thanks to numerous cop shows on TV, be exposed to the real consequences of human depravity?
An ambulance hauls away bodies from rubble in Gaza city (© blhphotography / Flickr)
As handheld video cameras and cameraphones become more ubiquitous, the chances of capturing violent confrontations as they unfold increase. As such footage makes its way to news networks, producers end up in a dilemma: is it right to show masked terrorists executing a prisoner? Should footage of a mob dragging apparent enemy targets down the streets, and setting fire to them, be aired? Would showing such footage encourage more violence? Or will the moral outrage it causes be enough to overwhelm such scruples?
There is plenty of disturbing evidence of human cruelty available on the internet, such as execution of prisoners by terrorists, genocide, and cold-blooded murder.
The increasing tolerance to showing images that go beyond the bounds of decency can be witnessed by the recent front-page photos of victims of the Israeli attack on Gaza. TV stations, too, seem quite unperturbed about showing footage of the carnage — complete with blood-soaked babies and mangled bodies.
The images are no doubt meant to shock. But when repeated too often, there is a great danger that such shock tactics will ultimately fail. And then, where would we be?
Contrary to belief, N Shashi Kala has retained her capacity to be shocked by examples of violence in real life situations.