copyright 2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 56, winter 2014-2015

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:

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. (1) 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 (2). Similarly figure 3 uses an “over the shoulder” shot as the torturer stands in a classic authoritarian position with his legs apart. (3) 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.

Detailed analysis of the cinematic techniques

The following section offers the reader a shot by shot analysis of the cinematic techniques used in the first torture scene of the film Rendition. Rendition embodied the classic characteristics of the uncomfortable onlooker, sadistic torturer and objectified torture victim.

This particular torture scene uses a number of overlapping techniques (i.e. the simultaneous use of dark music, along with the use of cool colors and a camera viewpoint angled up) that help to contribute to notion that the torture victim is guilty (even though he is not guilty at the time of the torture or even deemed guilty later in the film). This appears to justify his being tortured. These techniques also suggest the torturer’s comfort with administering the torture (and the onlooker’s discomfort). For purposes of simplification, the torture victim (El-Ibrahimi), the torturer (Naor), and the onlooker (Freeman) will all be referred to by their generalized name: (i.e. torture victim, torturer and onlooker).

1. 32:30: (4) The torture victim is hooded and forced out of the back of a car. The audience can hear his moans of pain as he is physically forced out by two men. The camera focuses very little on the identity of the men who are taking him from the back of the car and into solitary confinement. The scene is also very dark, helping to suggest that the audience too should not focus too long on what is occurring. After the torture victim is thrown into solitary confinement, the door quickly shuts and the scene abruptly ends. No narration of what his confinement feels like is offered, aside from a brief shot detailing the artificial light which is also illuminating the center of the cell. The audience understands that the torture victim is forced into confinement, and then the scene changes as the door slams shut. The entire scene is relatively brief and lasts 36 seconds until 32:45, suggesting again that the audience should not focus too long on what is occurring.

2. 32:45: The next scene begins with the torture victim’s American wife seeking information on her missing husband’s whereabouts. She is shown in bright natural lighting in contrast to the darkness of the prior scene, and natural light suggests her innocence. The torture victim’s wife is inquiring about his whereabouts as she talks to an U.S. friend who has political connections. He tries to help by making a phone call. Both characters are in natural light, reinforcing their goodness and desire to help.

3. 34:57: (5) The onlooker enters the compound where the torture is about to take place. He enters through a large wooden door. Sunlight illuminates his face, suggesting his innocence relative to the darkness of the torture, which is about to take place. He looks weary and vigilant in this setting, looking side to side, checking his surroundings in this unfamiliar place. Overall he looks disoriented and uncomfortable within the compound, suggesting his ambivalence.

4. 35:04: (6) The camera offers an establishing shot of the compound and the building where the torture is conducted. The long shot helps to demonstrate the emotional distance that exists between the onlooker and all that is associated the torture. The torture is about to take place in the building located at the end of the shot.

5. 35:08: (7) The camera cuts to a frozen frame of the torturer standing in the doorway of the building where the torture is about to take place. His body language looks bold in contrast to the onlooker’s hesitation about the space. The torturer looks confident and prepared for what is about to take place (torture).

6. 35:11: (8) Once again the onlooker looks awkward and ill at ease. We hear the sound of his footsteps marking the long distance from the entry gate to the building where the torture is about to take place. His awkwardness and his walking a long corridor help to reinforce his hesitation about the torture and that he is not in total agreement about the torture that is about to occur.

7. 35:12: (9) The torturer looks squarely at the camera, appearing confident and prepared for what is to come next (torture). His attitude contrasts to the awkwardness of the onlooker. He is appears resolute and unemotional compared to the onlooker’s awkwardness and emotionality.

8. 35:18: (10) The onlooker’s small size relative to the torturer’s large size is emphasized—the onlooker is the small dot located at the end of the long walkway, while the torturer’s back is in the foreground. The use of a long shot again helps to reinforce the onlooker’s innocence and discomfort about the torture.

9. The onlooker enters the torturer’s office (not the room where the torture is conducted) and takes a seat, whiskey is offered, the onlooker refuses, almonds are offered. Gyllenhaal hands over a folded-up list of questions to ask the torture victim. The torturer explains that Gyllenhaal can observe, but not participate. The handing off of a list of questions helps to emphasize the onlooker’s passivity in the torture.

10. The film cuts to a different scene entirely, narrating Middle Eastern youth in a large room. They are being taught and influenced by Muslim extremist thinking.

11. 38:11: (11) The film cuts back to the torture victim as he is forcibly stripped and his clothes are cut off his body. The camera is careful not to show the torture victim’s face during this process. This helps to depersonalize the experience of being stripped naked, a process which might make the viewer overly uncomfortable. The audience only sees the torture victim’s back. The scene is set in harsh lighting. The audience does not see the individuals administering the torture in any detail. The audience can hear his struggle. He moans while his clothes are stripped from his body, but again his face is not shown, helping to emotionally distance the viewer from the discomforts and emotional trauma of being stripped naked.

12. 38:14: The scene goes dark, facilitating the audience’s sense of disorientation and perhaps the audience’s need to not bear witness to the torture for too long. Dark music and shots of young extremists being taught by their leaders are interwoven throughout the scene. Interwoven are visual and audible information of the torture victim being stripped naked, dark music, and radical Muslim teachings, all of which help to establish a connection between the three in the viewer’s mind. While the torture victim is not known to be guilty at this point, the use of dark music and extremist chanting in addition to brief shots of him being tortured all suggest that these three components are interrelated.

13. 38:25: Interwoven between shots of the torture victim grunting and struggling continue as his clothes continue to be cut off, are the voices of Muslim extremists and their teachings

14. 38:31: (12) The torture victim’s clothes continue to be cut off while only the lower portion of his head is shown. Not showing the torture victim’s eyes seems to dehumanize and depersonalize the experience of being stripped naked.

15. 38:3: (13) The Muslim radical teachings continue in between shots of the torture victim being tortured, again helping to suggest a connection between Muslim extremism and the presumed guilt of the torture victim.

16. 38:56: (14) The torture victim stands shackled and barefoot on dirty wet, hard ground. Cool colors and dark music are used to facilitate the audience’s emotional disconnection from the scene.

17. 39:49 Muslim extremist teachings continue, as students chant the English equivalent of “God is great” while raising their fists in the air.

18. 39:55: (15) The onlooker follows the torturer into the torture area, again suggesting the onlooker’s passivity in this scene (i.e. he is a follower and not a leader in the torture). The sounds of extremist chanting continue, helping to heighten the viewer’s sense of emotionality about the torture.

19. 39:58: (16) The lighting shifts to cool blues and grays from the red tones found earlier in the torturer’s office and the natural sunlight used in the long shot (35:04) of the torture compound.

20. 40:22: (17) The onlooker looks at a well-illuminated torture victim but catches the torture victim returning his stare which causes him to look away. He also appears to lick his lips in discomfort (40:22). The onlooker’s discomfort appears to absolve him of blame.

21. 40:23: (18) The torture victim is well illuminated and appears nervous, but it is unclear as to why he feels nervous. There is a tense expression on his face, so that his nervousness seems to suggest that perhaps he is guilty.

22. 40:24: (19) The torturer appears confident and prepared to administer the torture as evidenced by his authoritative stance in this scene. The angle of the camera (looking up at the torturer) suggests that the torturer should be feared. Meanwhile the onlooker is not in the frame for a number of seconds, suggesting his disconnection to the torturer and torture itself. The audience understands that the onlooker is at the back of the room and is not to interfere—as he was instructed by the torture prior to entering this torture room.

23. 40:41: (20) The torture victim nervously explains that no one has told him why he is there and he asks for his clothes (torture victim is presumably naked, although the camera does not narrate this fact, again helping to emotionally distance the viewer from the act of being tortured). This particular shot conveys the onlooker’s confusion and perhaps concern as the torture victim explains his emotionally rattled state. The camera focuses on the onlooker as the torture victim explains himself, suggesting that onlooker has empathy for the torture victim. Thus the onlooker is able to occupy two positions: 1) his role as a passive participator in the torture and 2) the role of an empathetic person who watches the torture with discomfort.

24. 41:07: After the torture victim raises his voice demanding justice for himself and the torturer calmly replies that the prisoner needs to answer some questions truthfully first, the camera shifts back to the onlooker. “Sir, are you American?” the onlooker asks. The onlooker looks down for one second in what appears to be discomfort and then looks back. The onlooker’s body language expresses his ambivalence. On the one hand he stays in the room and watches, but on the other, he does not stop the torture. Rather he just feels uncomfortable about it.

25. 41:25: (21) The positioning of the torturer’s body as the camera looks up at him from the torture victim’s perspective suggests that the audience should be afraid of the torturer.

26. 41:36: (22) The camera highlights half of the onlooker’s face, helping to suggest his ambivalence about being in the room while the torture is being conducted.

27. 42:57: (23) The camera focuses on the onlooker while the torture victim explains himself nervously, suggesting that the onlooker’s emotions and thoughts about what the torture victim is saying are more important than his discomfort.

28. 44:47: (24) This particular shot highlights the torturer’s sadism with the camera eye level with the torturer’s waist after he strikes the prisoner without warning. The camera’s angle up helps the audience to fear the torturer. The torture victim looks up at the abuser from the ground, naked and shackled. The torturer also instructs his assistants to put the prisoner “in the hole.” However, yet again, the torture victim’s experience of the “hole” is entirely neglected.

29. 44:50: (25) High contrast lighting illuminates the onlooker’s face, suggesting his ambivalence about being in the torture room.

30. 45:00: (26) The torture victim is carried off into solitary confinement; however, the torture victim is not well lit, nor are the individuals carrying him off as he struggles. This helps to keep the audience’s attention off the experience of being dragged away to solitary confinement.

31. 45:06: (27) The onlooker looks down as the door to the solitary confinement room is slammed shut. His looking down suggests his ambivalence about what has and is taking place (torture).

32. 45:17 (28) The torture victim’s screams are audible and the torturer looks to the onlooker after washing a drop of blood from his hands. The torturer’s face is fully illuminated, suggesting his emotional clarity about striking the torture victim and sending him off to solitary confinement.

Further investigation of the onlooker

Figures 29 and 30, from two separate films: Green Zone (Bevan et al. & Greengrass, 2010) and Unthinkable (Weber et al. & Jordan, 2010), narrate the discomfort of two different onlookers. (29) (30) Figure 29 narrates the onlooker scratching his neck and looking away and to the side, while figure 30 shows a female onlooker covering her mouth and looking down. Aside from the specific body language of these two onlookers, close-ups and the diegetic sound of the torture victims’ groans and whimpers are used to highlight the onlooker’s emotion rather than to gain the sympathy of the audience on behalf of the torture victim.

Rules versus caring

Upon even deeper examination of the concept of guilt, an important question emerges: does onlookers’ conflict arise from the feeling that they (i.e. Americans) should adhere to a rule without exception (i.e. the United States’ anti-torture policy, even in the case that such information could be used to save innocent U.S. lives), or does their guilt arise from watching another person suffer? Furthermore, what does this particular body of film suggest about viewers’ guilt—i.e. from which path does their guilt originate? Sagan (1988) illustrates the distinction between conscience and superego (feeling that rules must be adhered to without exception) by referencing “Huck’s dilemma” from the book Huckleberry Finn. While Huck’s racist superego demands that he must turn his runaway slave companion to authorities, his loving conscience longs to protect his friend. While Huck’s dilemma is clearly delineated by Sagan (1988), it is unclear where the onlooker’s guilt originates. Even though Sagan (1988) suggests that caring for others comes from an early identification with a nurturing mother, it is unclear if in fact the onlooker cares personally about the pain being inflicted upon the torture victim or is uncomfortable because rules are being broken and an exception to the United States’ strict pro-human rights position is being made.

Evidence of caring

In some moments in films that depict torture, the onlooker does in fact feel for the pain of the torture victim. For example, the character Agent Brody (from the film Unthinkable) attends to the torture victim with a towel after the prisoner has been heavily hosed with cold water, which demonstrates at least the appearance of someone who cares about his pain. Similarly, Freeman’s character (the onlooker) in the film Rendition yells “enough, enough” mid-electrocution of the torture victim. However not only do these attempts appear weak in alleviating the torture victim’s overall pain, but also both onlooker-characters are narrated through the bulk of their respective films as standing by, fully knowing that torture is occurring, in addition to the fact that these two specific characters also physically participate in torture.

The ambiguity of the onlooker’s caring is further elaborated through the artistry and cinematic techniques used in these films. For example, in one scene Agent Brody’s physical stance is facilitated by an angled camera, suggesting an uncertainty or hesitation about the torture occurring in the next room over (figure 31). Then, seconds later, the camera squares up to her shoulders narrating a more resolute body posture (Figure 32). While in the first figure she appears uncertain about whether the torture should occur, the squaring of her shoulders to the camera suggests that ultimately she believes in the necessity of the torture. A different scene from Body of Lies (Scott et al. & Scott, 2008) narrates of a close-up Ferris’ character (the onlooker). He appears to be not only in discomfort but anguish as another man is tortured. By choosing to narrate a close-up of Ferris’ face, rather than a shot of the torture victim being beaten, Ferris’ anguish feels more important than the torture victim’s pain. He appears to be in disagreement with the torture by not participating and the look of anguish upon his face, yet he does not make any physical efforts to stop it. Thus he and other onlookers are able to play both sides of the fence (i.e. at times feeling pain for the torture victim, and at other times passively and even actively participating in the torture), while the rationale for their discomfort is not clearly delineated.

Conflict within the superego

Aside from the demands the superego places on the self to protect innocent U.S. life, it is also a rule violation to harm another person. The superego[3] is instrumental in controlling the sadistic impulses of the id by adhering to rules that work in protection of the greater good. However, a tension exists between the part of the self that feels that they should participate in torture in order to protect innocent U.S. lives and the part of self, also governed by the superego, which feels that it is wrong to hurt another person. While Sagan (1988) stresses that people who perform evil acts on other people are not necessarily evil in nature but are working under the banner of a racist, classist and/or sexist internalization of cultural values, he neglects to resolve the part of the self (i.e. superego) that feels it must adhere to a no-harm policy. Lifton (1986) helps to illustrate the demands of an authoritative superego based on his research about the famous Nazi concentration camp doctors. Lifton (1986) stresses that these particular doctors were not psychopaths, but misguided idealists who were working strongly under the “banner of the superego” (Sagan, 1988). They also thought of the idea of death camps as a necessary component in the elimination of disease. Carveth (2010) explains that although outsiders viewing the Nazi doctors’ actions would like to think of them as “sadistic, id-driven psychopaths” (p. 109), they were neither brilliant, nor stupid, neither inherently evil nor particularly ethically sensitive. They were by no means the demonic figures (sadistic, fanatic, lusting to kill) people have often thought them to be. Based on the presence of this psychological tension (struggling between the desire to protect innocent life and at the same time the desire to do no harm), the onlooker (and U.S. audience) may be experiencing some degree of emotional paralysis (as evidenced by their discomfort, yet passively standing by as the torture occurs). On an emotional level, their paralysis might also serve as punishment for condoning torture.

“Assertion of the ideological”

When considering the larger implications of this study and what it might mean in terms of gaining the U.S. support for using torture on real life terror suspects, Davis’ (2003) theory on the “assertion of the ideological” is useful to consider. Davis (2003) explains that individuals, rather than resolving the “ego shattering trauma” of events like 9/11, will do almost anything in their power to make sure that their experience of pain has been “fully constituted” (Davis, 2003, para. 3). Thus audiences, through their identification with the onlooker, get to play out fantasies of being the freedom-loving, do-gooder American while simultaneously reaping the benefits of torture and engaging in fantasies of sadistic and sexual pleasure. Davis (2003) argues that the only way to move forward beyond tragedy is to recognize, be aware of one’s loss and mourn it without trying to fill voids through wishing or causing destruction to others.

As Nancy Hollander (2010), a defense lawyer who has famously represented a number of thought-to-be terrorists, poignantly summarizes:

“I was more afraid of the reaction to the terrorists than of the terrorists themselves ... What kind of question is ‘Why do they hate us? We know that for years the aim of this country’s foreign policy has been to control others’ resources and governments’ ... there is this constant battle: on the one hand, this terrible thing that has happened; and on the other, the retaliatory revenge strategy that was developed almost immediately, which I could not bear.” (Hollander, 2010, p. 5)

By participating in the discourse utilized in this particular body of film, U.S. film watchers are afforded the luxury of not having to own their own destructive impulses and as such, not having to know their own sense of loss as a result of 9/11. Without having to acknowledge one’s destructive impulses, one does not have to mourn and therefore acknowledge how one’s participation in film-watching might be contributing to the real-life treatment of U.S.-held terror suspects. Audience members can therefore engage in guilt-free watching, without being labeled a watcher or even someone who enjoys watching torture. After all, the audience member is not the onlooker, even though their identification may be tied up in this particular character.

Additionally post 9/11 films with torture scenes in them appear to suggest that a country can actually obtain something real (e.g. information to prevent future terror attacks) on a consistent basis through people’s passive participation in torture (Salek & Flynn, 2013). The films do not narrate the ineffectiveness of torture, or how innocent people have been and continue to be tortured at U.S. hands. Instead, they focus on the necessity of torture and our passive participation. Films only become relevant to a large number of people if the films reflect, augment or deny some aspect of the current wave of thinking. Thus successful or even moderately successful films communicate and reflect the current culture of thinking, even if a given film is thought to be merely fantasy-based (Salek & Flynn, 2013).


1. Articles on torture in Jump Cut over the past five years:

Jump Cut, No. 51, spring 2009:
Special section: documenting torture—
"Imagining torture" by Chuck Kleinhans. Survey of the fundamental political facts of torture in the present moment in U.S. history and a brief introduction to the visual imagination of torture in fiction film and television.
"Torture documentaries by Julia Lesage." With a close analysis of Taxi to the Dark Side, Standard Operating Procedure, and The Road to Guantanamo, Lesage analyzes the torture documentary in terms of genre structures, torture epistephilia, and affect.

Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010:
Special section: Reframing Standard Operating Procedure—Errol Morris and the creative treatment of Abu Ghraib—
"Introduction" by David Andrews. This conference report provides an analysis of the debates surrounding Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure and introduces the two conference panels on this documentary at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies in Los Angeles, with an emphasis on the panel moderated by Linda Williams.
"Feelings of revulsion and the limits of academic discourse" by Bill Nichols. Standard Operating Procedure was a monumental box office flop. Does that anything to do with the feelings of revulsion that it produced in one viewer?
"Speech images: Standard Operating Procedure and the staging of interrogation" by Jonathan Kahana. Drawing on the adjacent histories of U.S. war documentary and military psychiatry, Standard Operating Procedure provides its subjects with a powerful historical weapon: the confession that functions as an excuse.
“'Cluster fuck:' the forcible frame in Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure" by Linda Williams.Williams defends Errol Morris' film through an examination of its framings, metaphorical and literal, arguing that even Lynndie England needs to be seen as an ethical being wrestling with her acquiescence to an unethical situation.
"Response" to papers and comments on Standard Operating Procedure by Irina Leimbacher

Special section on torture and horror film—
"Torture porn and surveillance culture" by Evangelos Tziallas. A group of "extreme horror" films, known collectively as "torture porn," let us contemplate the social and political ramifications of visibility, exploring the evolution of "the gaze" in the 21st century.
"Tortured logic: entertainment and the spectacle of deliberately inflicted pain in 24 and Battlestar Galactica" by Isabel Pinedo. 24 and Battlestar Galactica, two television series about our post-9/11 world, tackle the issue of torture from right wing and progressive perspectives, respectively, arriving at diametrically opposed positions.
"Cross-cultural disgust: some problems in the analysis of contemporary horror cinema, part 2: Public Toilet, Visitor Q" by Chuck Kleinhans. Film artists can expand cinematic disgust beyond shock and gross out. Fruit Chan rewrites human waste in a humanistic global framework while Takahisi Miike uses it for dark social satire.

Jump Cut. No. 50, spring 2008:
"Torture and the national imagination," Jump Cut editorial [return to text]

2. Seven films meeting film criteria and used in the research study:
Syriana (Nozik et al. & Gaghan, 2006)
A Mighty Heart (Pitt et al. & Winterbottom, 2007)
The Kingdom (Mann et al. & Berg, 2007)
Rendition (Golin et al. & Hood, 2008)
Body of Lies (Scott et al. & Scott, 2008)
Green Zone (Bevan et al. & Greengrass, 2010)
Unthinkable (Weber et al. & Jordan, 2010)

Research criteria for this particular study:

3. The use of “superego, id and ego” within the context of this paper, is in reference to the everyday, popular discussion about psychological drives.


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