Female precarity through an
humanitarian ocular epistemology

The politics of representing gender in sexual wartime violence are treated fairly differently in the two films when it comes to women as well.  In As If I Am Not There, Samira, after recovering from initial shock, starts dressing up in order to present herself as more desirable to the camp men, much to the dismay of other imprisoned women.

After she recovers from the initial shock of bodily brutalization and witnesses several fellow-inmates dying (including a very young girl), Samira resolves to not wait passively to be brutalized to death. Rather, she puts on a persona of a seductress, manipulative in her application of both make-up and feminine attributes. Even though some of her fellow inmates judge her badly for doing this, in a way, she also becomes a problem-solver who refuses to passively accept her doomed fate. Her characterization provocatively runs against the grain of the dominant representations of female Bosnian victims of sexual violence as passive and silenced. Samira consciously manipulates femininity as a means to try to survive her ordeal. That she thinks she can survive by manipulating her femininity is a tragic reminder of the limited and limiting gender roles available to women as a form of survival during a time of war. For Samira, enacting exaggerated femininity also allows her to regain some of her sense of an “I” that had been traumatically displaced through sexual abuse and torture. Gender traits are here again overtly called attention to. After she puts on makeup, another imprisoned woman remarks:

“You look ridiculous.”
“I look like myself,” responds Samira.
Another woman then warns: “The soldiers will go crazy after you now.”
Samira: “It’s not for them. This is for me, for who I am. A woman. And they are not soldiers. Just men.”

In this, As If I Am Not There provides a provocative departure from standard norms of representing victimized women from “far away” conflict zones. The film does not render Samira’s plight in simplistic terms and according to normative gender tropes about female passivity. On the contrary, her survival instinct in the midst of grave trauma jolts her into a deliberate, conscious exaggeration of her femininity, whereupon she engages in a form of gender masquerade in order to seduce the Serbian captain.

By carrying on a sexual relationship with the captain, Samira calculates that it increases her own chances of survival (it also gives her access to more food for other imprisoned women). Her act exposes gender’s impossible double bind: namely, Samira is brutalized to begin with because she is a Bosniak Muslim woman, but she is kept alive only because she is a woman (captured Bosniak men are killed without hesitation). Her sex and gender then become both the condition of her torture and of her survival. She survives but so do several of her fellow inmates who did not exploit femininity this way to their own “advantage.” She seems to have insulated herself from more physical harm; after she becomes the captain’s mistress, other men in the camp do not rape her anymore. Samira’s story and her manipulation—or masquerade—of gender as a means of survival reveal the feminine conundrum without merely reducing it to a morality play about an inextricable, predictive interplay between static gender and ethnic identities. Quite the contrary, the film does not present Samira and her fellow inmates’ plight through a totalizing humanitarian gaze that requires justice to be brought to light through objective exposition or foreign intervention. Rather, As If I Am Not There unfolds more as a devastating snapshot—neither fully representative nor entirely atypical—of a war that destroyed many lives, both male and female, across various ethnic lines of division.

In the Land of Blood and Honey, on the other hand, sees Ajla become a member of the resistance and return to the camp after briefly escaping, in order to be an informant for Bosniak resistance. And while this narrative similarly emphasizes the woman’s active role, Ajla’s arc is here rendered in heroic rather than performative terms. Framed as a tragic hero, Ajla dies as a hero when Danijel executes her upon realizing her betrayal. In that inevitability of doom, the film runs the risk of displacing the particularity of Ajla’s plight for a universalizing framework of female suffering and heroism. With an emphasis on the tropes of heroic suffering and tragic self-sacrifice, the film retorts to the Western humanitarian gaze that frequently casts women either as noble sufferers or tragic heroes (or both).

This film is, therefore, positioned less as an inspection of traumatic affect that (re)produces gender roles for both men and women, and much more as an overtly political, activist work of humanitarian filmmaking that purports to have a didactic role (a point reiterated by Angelina Jolie’s statements during the film’s promotion). As the film’s most visible face during its promotion, Jolie frequently emphasized the “universal nature” of the story (“a love story tragically interrupted by war”) as well as her desire to have her film “educate” the Western audiences about this “little known” conflict.[3] [open notes in new window] The director is hence positioned here not only as a humanitarian, but also as a producer of important new knowledge about the “far away” conflict. What is more, in her interviews Jolie frequently used the film as an opportunity to criticize Western inaction when it came to this bloody conflict, claiming that the foreign intervention came to Bosnia too late. The film itself contains several tacit instances of this critique, conveyed through news reports about Western inactivity, as well as the film’s closing titles, which round out the ontological circle within which the film is framed. The end titles start with:

“For three and a half years, the international community failed to decisively intervene and stop the war in Bosnia.”

By comparison, Juanita Wilson insisted on the partiality of the story presented in As If I Am Not There. Asked if the film is Irish or Bosnian (the film’s cast is local), she said:

“Well, it’s an Irish film in the sense that it was developed in Ireland and I’m Irish and the producer is Irish, so I would consider it an Irish film about a Bosnian story. But it’s not trying to describe the war by any means because being Irish I couldn’t do that accurately, so it’s really just following one human story.”

Moreover, Wilson added that she was most interested in depicting the notion that

“the complexity of a war situation like that is that [Samira] does whatever she feels like she has to do to survive, but also a lot of the men who become soldiers, their lives are destroyed as well, a lot of them have no choice either. And I think that’s important as well to understand, that it’s not just simplistically male and female roles, but that it’s really the circumstances”[4]

Wilson’s attention to the specifics of local circumstances does not relativize the devastation of violence but rather calls attention to the spectrum of gender roles whose shifts mark a turn to injury and constitute ethnicity as such.

It is important to consider here the fact that throughout these external positionalities of the films’ differing approaches to gender politics and the politics of recognition, an important layer is the humanitarian/interventionist angle ascribed to Blood and Honey, and channeled through the celebrity of its director and scriptwriter. Through its director’s larger-than-life celebrity humanitarian persona, the film received wide publicity that established it as one of the internationally most prominent films about the Bosnian war. Moreover, the film’s critical reception was frequently associated with the director’s celebrity humanitarian persona as well—namely, the film has largely been understood as an organic extension of Jolie’s humanitarian work. With this merging of Western humanitarian discourses and cinematic dramatization, Blood and Honey can be seen as an exercise in cinematic humanitarianism, or humanitarian cinema, that purports to bring to the attention of Western audiences the pain of distant others. The filmmakers conceive of these projects as a way to instigate humanitarian efforts constituted around the unquestioned notion of the West saving the Rest. In that sense, the film embodies the Western humanitarian gaze and its sovereignty over the discourses of universal human rights.

The reception of Blood and Honey by the Anglophone film critics has greatly concentrated on Jolie’s overall humanitarian efforts as a primary prism through which the film is to be viewed.[5] However, celebrity humanitarian activism does not stand in a vacuum outside of the transnational hierarchies of power that position certain regions as always needing to be rescued (from themselves, as it were) and cast Western optics of representational and military intervention as the rescuers (Atanasoski 2014). These optics of power have shaped Western humanitarianism into a “politics of pity” (Chouliaraki 2012: 2), that turns suffering (which is always distant, never close to home) into a spectacle. As Lilie Chouliaraki argues:

“The celebrity seeks to conceal a scandalous contradiction: by appearing to care for the ‘wretched of the earth’ whilst enjoying the privilege of rare wealth, he or she glosses over the ongoing complicity of the West in a global system of injustice that reproduces the dependence of the developing world through acts of charity.” (4)

Jolie’s humanitarian moment, Chouliaraki argues, is marked by a dynamic within which the celebrity herself becomes hyper-centralized in a theater of pity that is Western humanitarianism, framed as an authentic carrier of expertise about the suffering Others.[6] Positioned this way, the celebrity engages in the “performance of the voice of suffering as if it were the celebrity’s own” and thus

“confession collapses the voice of the sufferer—invisible, distant, unnamed—with the voice of the celebrity—visible, ‘intimate,’ and world-famous—and displaces the affective relationship between spectator and sufferer onto a relationship between spectator and celebrity as the most ‘authentic’ figure of pity” (15).

This displacement of identification reorganizes the field of empathy in such a way that the crux of the affective exchange takes place between the spectator and the celebrity, the sufferer acting merely as a conduit. 

Similarly, in Spectacular Rhetorics, Wendy Hesford examines

“an ocular epistemology” of Western human rights discourses in order to show “how the visual field of human rights internationalism often functions as a site of power for and normative expression of American nationalisms, cosmopolitanisms, and neoliberal global politics” (2011: 3). 

In that sense, the humanitarian framing of Blood and Honey, coupled with its ocular epistemology of the all-knowing above, positions the film as a direct extension of Western humanitarian ideology (neocolonialist and neoliberal in its application) in its insistence on the necessity of Western interventions as rescue scripts, the educational detachment of its own politics, the “elsewhere” nature of conflict, the erasure of gray areas, and the treatment of violence as traditionally inherent in entire (far away) ethnic groups. In this model of humanitarianism, suffering is static, its victims portrayed as largely helpless to do anything to relieve it except wait for Western saviors to come rescue them. Such discourses

“include a dialectical politics of recognition caught up in the logic and legacies of Western imperialism parading under the cloak of international humanitarianism and human rights advocacy” (Hesford 3).  

In its all seeing humanitarian approach to ocular epistemology, In the Land of Blood and Honey extends these politics of recognizing the pain of others without problematizing the uneven flows of power/knowledge that are channeled through a humanitarian knowledge-lens that often perpetuates rather than alleviates global inequality. Indeed, according to research conducted by Volčić and Erjavec about Blood and Honey's reception in Bosnia-Herzegovina:

“[T]he film’s story of war rapes and suffering did little to raise awareness about war rape victims generally and was interpreted primarily within two discursive frameworks: celebrity and ethno- nationalistic ones that tend to reinforce the status quo in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina and perpetuate misunderstandings about war crimes. Jolie’s activism, in other words, did not contribute to the reconciliation between different ethnicities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but has, on the contrary, further fostered polarization that continues to plague the region.” (2015: 356)

Women have typically been the most recognizable faces of the humanitarian spectacle of suffering, from Sudan to Afghanistan to Bosnia-Herzegovina. The representation of female agency in such accounts of conflict zones has been questionably simplified at best and premised on problematic Western rescue fantasies at worst. Women in conflict zones are most often seen as the ones in need of rescue, passive victims of masculinist violence without any agency in their own right, unable to do much to change their circumstances themselves. To continue to insist on such a simplified approach to sexual violence is to reduce it to a caricature, neglecting its more complicated angles such as the instability of normative gender performances. On the other hand, to institute this kind of narrative instability might allow for such incidents—inconsistent with the neoliberal humanitarian model of reductive dichotomizing—as having male characters who do not embody violent masculinity or women who in turn do, and so on along the sliding scale of gender performativity.

Conclusion: on the inevitability of obstructed vision

Donna Haraway speaks decisively in words we can apply to the ocular epistemologies about the pain of others:

“I am arguing for politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims. These are claims on people’s lives. I am arguing for the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity.” (Haraway 589)

How knowledge is claimed, framed and positioned more widely is at issue now when empathy is circulated as an exercise in accumulating cultural capital for the civilizationally developed (where up for visual consumption are those who inhabit the perpetually “developing” parts of the world). Especially at stake, yet again, is the resulting knowledge about the subjugated and suffering other—here, a sexually brutalized woman. This suffering other has become a prominently focus of Western-based humanitarianism and its reiteration of the traditional geopolitical hierarchies along the developed/developing scale of civilizational achievement.

However, as I have shown here, the outcome of that representational apparatus is not determined a priori and depends on how ocular epistemologies are framed—from a partial perspective that concedes one’s own role in the mechanisms that perpetuate global inequality, or in a privileged and distanced positioning from the all-knowing above. In analyzing media culture, we need to start by acknowledging that humanitarian ocular epistemologies can easily (even inadvertently) perpetuate the global flows of inequality when it comes to the dissemination of power/knowledge. To develop an ethics of witnessing requires being attuned to an understanding that detached representation is not an a priori act of humanitarian benevolence. Nor does humanitarian benevolence inoculate one from perpetuating the troubling civilizational assumptions hiding behind Western politics of recognition. Libby Saxon argues that “how we view has consequences”:

“spectators are not isolated from the spheres of ethical action and accountability, but .. our privileges – including the privilege of looking – are linked to others’ suffering in ways we need to actively interrogate” (74).

In this essay, I examined two cinematic texts about the privileges of looking at the same conflict that have many parallels between them. My goal in doing so was to trace the intricate differences within their frames and their ocular epistemologies about the pain of others. The ethics of witnessing the pain of others is simultaneously a heightened moral imperative of today’s technologically interconnected world, and a stark reminder that the mapping of some geographies remains locked within the frames of suffering that freeze them into extremely static notions about gender and ethnic identity. There is an urgent ethical need to apprehend the act of looking in terms of its (limited, framed) position, since the ensuing epistemology makes all the difference in our efforts to arrive at non-essentializing, incomplete, always complicated—and sometimes contradictory—accounts of knowing about the lives of others and witnessing their pain. These accounts are inevitably partial and situational, bound by contextual aspects that perpetually obstruct clear vision, especially when hegemonic representations attempt to conceal that partial vision and replace it with all seeing objectivity. If, as Haraway has argued, “only partial perspective promises objective vision” (583), then acknowledging the inevitability of obstructed vision is a good place to start in developing a new ethics of witnessing—or rather, a new ethics of being empathically unsettled by the pain of others.