Films that have an observer to torture:

The onlooker to torture in these films passively particpates in the act yet is uncomfortable, expressing ambivalence about what is happening.



U.S. ambivalence about torture: an analysis of post-9/11 films

by Jean Rahbar

In the Fall of 2011, I began researching U.S. ambivalence on the topic of torture as reflected in film. I felt that the examination of popular films depicting Americans torturing Middle Easterners might give insights into how U.S. viewers manage their ambivalence when confronted with evidence of torture during the War on Terror. The recent controversy surrounding the film Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow et al. & Bigelow, 2013) has provided further evidence for the salience of this topic in collective consciousness. Even though lawmakers and key individuals in the film industry have criticized Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow et al. & Bigelow, 2013) for implying that torture was an effective means toward the elimination of Osama Bin Laden, Kathryn Bigelow, the director of this film has countered this criticism through statements such as “those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement” (Bigelow, n.d., para. 8). Despite the nature of Bigelow’s comment about the power of film, she was not nominated in the best director category in 2013 for an Academy Award despite her previous win for the film The Hurt Locker (Bigelow et al. & Bigelow, 2010) in 2010. With interest and focus on the power of film not only from the film community but also from politicians alike, research which examines the nature of film on the topic of torture is perhaps more relevant now than before the release of this hugely popular film (that earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and a reported $24 million in the box office). This essay is also one contribution in the long, on-going discussion among Jump Cut authors[1] [open endnotes in new window] about the United States’ involvement in torture. This dialogue in Jump Cut began after the release of the first Abu Ghraib images published in The New Yorker and broadcast on CBS’ 60 Minutes program in April 2004.

Major finding

I began this project by examining the responses to Pew polls, which revealed that most Americans support invisible forms of torture (e.g. beating the soles of feet, social isolation) but disapprove of more visible forms (physical beating of the whole body). I then viewed a number of feature films from a genre that film bloggers often refer to as “Iraq War films.” Through an investigation of how attitudes are promoted via the technical aspect of filmmaking (e.g. choreographing of characters, lighting, sound), I was surprised to find out that six out of the seven films[2] I studied had plots that narrated a pro-human rights, “torture-is-wrong” stance, but other moments in these films expressed the belief that torture is a necessity, but only when it is used to benefit U.S. interests. (Only one film—Syriana (Nozik et al. & Gaghan, 2005—appeared neutral about torture.) The attitude of a provisional acceptance of torture demonstrated in six of seven the films was facilitated through the film’s setting up a triangular relation between “the torturer,” “the torture victim” and another character whom I call “the onlooker.” The onlooker is the third individual in a torture scene, who emotionally struggles while viewing the abuse, as evidenced by their wincing, but never actually stops the torture.

Given the consistent presence of an onlooker in six out of the seven films, I realized two important points are likely communicated to the public through the depiction of such a character’s discomfort:

  • that torture is acceptable as long as one feels uncomfortable about it—our discomfort absolves us of blame; and
  • as Americans, it is acceptable to outsource our sadistic impulses to others (in this case the Middle Eastern torturer, who tortures and does so without apparent guilt).

These findings led me to wonder whether the guilt experienced by the onlooker (and ultimately the viewer) is due to the U.S lack of adherence to its explicit commitment to human rights, or to the viewer’s actual concern for another person. Psychoanalytically, the viewers’ discomfort allows them (through identification with this character) to reap the benefits of torture while outwardly expressing their disapproval of the torture itself. According to Darius Rejali (2007), author of Torture and Democracy, the United States (and other democratic nations) have a history of engaging in “invisible” or “silent” forms of torture that make it harder to prove that the abuse has actually occurred. Therefore, in such a mise-en-scene with an onlooker witnessing torture, a need and desire to engage in torture is reflected in the onlooker’s passive participation, yet s/he is simultaneously uncomfortable, expressing ambivalence about what is occurring before him/her.

Feminist film theory

Despite the fact that all torture victims were male in this particular study, examining feminist film theory provides insight into the nature of the torture victim’s objectification and how the onlooker (and ultimately the viewer) is cinematically directed to look at the torture victim. To capture and explain how women in film are simultaneously being looked at and displayed for the audience, feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the term “to-be-looked-at-ness,” (Erens, 1990). According to Mulvey, women in film are visually coded with strong erotic impact and as a result become the “bearer[s] of meaning, not maker[s] of meaning” (Erens, 1990, p. 33). This important distinction reveals that female characters do not establish how others see them—instead, the viewer (and in this case the onlooker) does. In a similar manner, the torture victim is an object for both the onlooker and ultimately the viewer to manipulate. The torture victim’s captive position is used to justify the onlooker’s need to look at the torture and desire to dominate him/her, as well as why the onlooker does not physically participate in the physical abuse. The torture victim’s position in the film is not meaningful in of itself (his subjective experience of pain is of no importance), rather his meaning is contingent upon viewers who may only value his suffering in so much as it reminds them of their own.

“Male gaze”

Foucault (1973) first used the term “medical gaze” to describe the process of medical diagnosis in the power dynamics between the doctor/patient relationship. The gaze is therefore not something that one has, but is a relationship that one enters. The “male gaze,” similar to the medical gaze, is a term used in feminist film theory to describe power relations between the male looker and a female object. It occurs when the camera puts the audience into the perspective of a heterosexual man. For example, the camera can facilitate power dynamics and the male gaze by lingering over the curves of a woman’s body. The individual being objectified in film is both an erotic object for the other character and the viewer. In this regard, what matters

“is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance” (Erens, 1990, p.33).

In precisely the same manner, the torture victim is unimportant. The torture victim is sexualized and degraded, affording the onlooker and ultimately the viewer an emotional distance needed so that the audience does not need to know the subjectivity of the torture victim. The torture victim is eroticized and marginalized cinematically (to be discussed in the examples below) in a ways that alleviate the onlooker’s possible sense of wrongdoing.

Three looks

Mulvey (Erens, 1990) describes three “looks” that help to establish a power imbalance in film. The first is the perspective of the male character on screen and how he perceives the female character. The second is the perspective of the spectators as they see the female character on screen. The third look brings the two perspectives together, involving the male audience member’s perspective of the male character in the film. The third perspective also allows the male audience member to take the female character as his own sex object, because he can relate it himself through looking to the male character on screen. While these looks have been developed in reference to the male gazer and the female object in cinema, film theorists have acknowledged that the gazer and object of desire may be either male or female. In fact, Hanson (1986) argues that men too have the capacity of being viewed as objects of desire (Bergstrom, 1979; Hanson, 1986). Additionally, authors Bergstrom (1979) and Clover (1992) note that men and women can identify with male or female characters successively or simultaneously, and that our identification is essentially without gender (e.g. male audience members identifying with the domineering aspects of a female character).

Film examples

The following still shots exemplify how the viewer is encouraged to take the torture victim as their object. Nearly all films contained an uncomfortable onlooker and used a similar cinematic language to facilitate the onlooker’s taking of the torture victim as their object. Figure 1 features a torture scene from the film Rendition (Golin et al. & Hood, 2007) with a naked torture victim.


Not only is his sexuality emphasized through lighting which highlights his tense musculature and body positioning (legs squeezed tightly together), but the audience member can also take the torture victim as his or her own sexual object through their identification with the male character on screen (in this case, the torturer) based on Mulvey’s third perspective. While the onlooker is not visible in this particular still shot, he is present in the scene. The viewer’s primary identification or conscious identification is with the onlooker, and his/her unconscious or secondary identification is with the torturer. The camera facilitates the process of the onlooker taking the torture victim as the audience’s object by filming the torturer at a higher position than the torture victim. Simultaneously the audience is looking at the two individuals through an observing position (suggesting the audience’s passivity in the torture). From this particular positioning, the audience is afforded the opportunity to remain neutral and at a distance emotionally from the torture.

Objectification of both
the torture victim and the torturer

Figures 2 and 3 (from the film Rendition) are still shots that not only reinforce the objectification of the torture victim, but also the objectivity of the torturer. The torturer is someone who can be used in respect to audience member’s sadistic desire to administer torture, while at the same time not having to consciously own this desire. By rendering the torturer as someone who lacks subjectivity, it is easy to place this character into Western collective unconscious about what a Middle Eastern torturer might look and behave like.



His objectivity is reinforced by the way the camera looks up at the torturer. Similarly figure 3 uses an “over the shoulder” shot as the torturer stands in a classic authoritarian position with his legs apart. Without any direct view of his face and expression as he tortures, he—like the torture victim—is a tool used to fulfill the onlooker’s and ultimately the viewer’s ambivalent attitudes about torture. Aside from the camera’s field of vision, cool colors and Islamic chanting—which all help to instill a sense of purpose in administering the torture—the torturer is a brutal and unflinching object that delivers the torture. The only person with complicated or mixed feelings about the torture is the onlooker. The onlooker in this particular film is played by actor Jake Gyllenhaal, who is narrated as both feeling the need to be present for the torture and at the same time desiring to look away. The emotional difficulty of his position is demonstrated not only by the confused look on his face, but also through the way he is placed always in the distance yet at the same time present. The camera often looks to him to register his expression.

Go to page 2

To topPrint versionJC 56 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.