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Life Arts    H4'ed 2/24/13

Zero Dark Thirty and the Problem of the Onlooker

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Message Jean Rahbar

In the Fall of 2011 I began researching for my doctoral dissertation American ambivalence on the topic of torture as reflected in film.  I felt that the examination of popular films containing Americans torturing Middle Easterners would give insights into the nature of our ambivalence when confronted with evidence of torture during the war on terror.  The recent controversy surrounding the film Zero Dark Thirty has only proven the salience this topic. 

My research examined films released from 2001 to 2011, a logical ten-year time span after 9/11. One of my main findings after reviewing big budget "Iraq War films" containing torture scenes in them, was that when torture was used to benefit American interests, three characters were utilized: the torturer, torture victim, and a third individual whom I have called "the onlooker." I found that the use of this triad is an important psychological tool for allowing audience members through their identification with "the onlooker" to maintain their ambivalence. From this position audience members can passively participate in and apparently benefit from the torture, while not having to administer it. Furthermore, across the films I examined,  "onlookers" were depicted in the same way, as turning their head away and cringing in discomfort while torture was being conducted nearby.  In contrast to this triad, in films where torture was administered on behalf of Middle Eastern interests, there were only two characters in these scenes: "the torturer" and "the torture victim," suggesting that the audience's relationship with the torture was far less complicated than when Americans were doing the torturing.

When I saw Zero Dark Thirty I was not surprised to find that this film, too, uses an "onlooker."  Jessica Chastain who plays the character "Maya," fits the pattern of  "the onlooker" that I had found in other films.  While she becomes more aggressive as the film progresses, as shown through swearing, as well as her becoming more proactive in torture scenes, she always maintains the position of passive participant, never actually torturing herself. Perhaps the closest Maya comes to torturing, is where she aggressively pushes the torturer's arm directing the torturer to hit the torture victim. 

While it would be easy to argue that Maya is a hero in this film due to the fact that she risks her own life in pursuit of a "terror free" America, she is also a participant in torture.  In the opening torture scene, she cringes and fusses with her sweater while the torture victim is waterboarded.  Then, in a particularly telling moment after the torture victim begs for her help, she sternly replies "you can help yourself by being truthful."  Her position on torture after this scene appears unclear at first glance, however her passive participation, standing by and not stopping the abuse, indicates her collusion in this abuse.  One might wonder whether a person who stands by knowingly as a crime is committed, and willingly uses the products of that crime might in fact have the same degree of guilt as the person directly committing the crime.

While much of Washington seems focused on whether Zero Dark Thirty promotes the effectiveness of torture in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, it seems that Maya's ambivalence and the audience's identification with her is a fact yet to be talked about by this country. Perhaps suggestive of the power of the public's identification with her character "Maya," is Chastain's Oscar nomination for best actress.   

In essence, in the films I studied for my dissertation, as well as in Zero Dark Thirty, the onlookers, including Maya, were more subjectively portrayed than the torture victims and torturers. Close-ups highlighting "the onlooker's" struggle and discomfort, in addition to camerawork and lighting which sensitively captured their need to look away while the torture was being performed, was present in all films containing this triad. Meanwhile torturers and torture victims were narrated in a relatively flat light, without any kind of narration of their inner struggle.  Cries of pain were often paired with visual references of the "onlooker's" discomfort rather the torture victim's visual display of physical discomfort, which seemed suggestive of the onlooker's pain rather than the torture victim's. 

In light of the dynamic that occurs between the torturer, "the onlooker" and torture victim, it seems that two possible metaphors among others for how Americans may feel about torture emerge: 1) torture is acceptable, as long as we feel uncomfortable about it, our discomfort absolves us of blame; and 2) it is acceptable for us to outsource our sadistic impulses onto another person. 

While American ambivalence is nothing new (such as Americans' ambivalent attitudes towards guns, particularly in the wake of the Sand Hook Massacre), perhaps Americans should rethink a celebration of Chastain's performance. With so much focus on the brilliance of her performance, suggestive of the public's strong identification with her as the character Maya, it will be interesting to see if she actually wins the Oscar for best actress.  

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Jean Rahbar is a doctoral level candidate whose dissertation research centers on ambivalent attitudes on the topic of torture as is represented in "Iraq War films." Her dissertation chair is Dr. Stephen Soldz, who publically challenged the American (more...)
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