Gendered visions in
As If I Am Not There
In the Land of Blood and Honey
: female precarity, the humanitarian gaze and the politics of situated knowledge

by Dijana Jelača

Introduction: on the politics of visual recognition

“To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways we might prefer not to imagine—be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”
—Susan Sontag (2004: 103)

“The only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular.”
—Donna Haraway (1988: 590)

In the global digital era, the relation between screen technologies and their visual representation of suffering poses increasing challenges to the ethics of witnessing. How can we visually frame suffering in ethical ways that avoid the pitfalls of oversaturation, simplistic objectification, or fetishization of pain or pity? In her influential work Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag (2003) suggests that to look at someone’s pain and capture it through a lens requires that one not intervene to alleviate that pain; she implies that the two activities—screening and aiding—are often mutually exclusive. In her earlier work, On Photography (1973), Sontag notes that photographic images make an event seem more real, yet the longer those images are displayed, they paradoxically make the same event less real, or more disconnected from and having less of an impact of “realness” on those who see them. Sontag (who personally played an important, if at times problematic role as a Western “celebrity” witness to the Sarajevo siege during the Bosnian war) raises the question of whether the inevitable oversaturation that accompanies mediated depictions of others’ pain makes those who visually witness that pain less likely to be moved to meaningful action. Witnessing the pain of an other, according to Sontag, needs to be a starting point for an ethical encounter rather than an end unto itself.

This critical insight poses a challenge vis-à-vis the global politics of representing distant suffering, a challenge that Judith Butler expands upon in The Frames of War (2009). Referring to Sontag’s denouncing mediated depictions of suffering others, Butler considers the opposite: such depictions also often bring to light the injustices inflicted during far away conflicts—injustices that might otherwise never receive international scrutiny. Butler does not resolve this dilemma but admits to no easy resolution. In the case of the Abu Ghraib images that Butler analyzes, for instance, the pictures both represent the medium by which abuse came to light and also function as a torture device in their own right. The photos were taken by the abusers themselves to further denigrate their captives. In such cases, the ethical conundrum has no easy resolution.

The issue becomes arguably more complicated when moving images take primacy over photography’s static frames. Today, when digital technology allows for instantaneous worldwide dissemination, the image can render events as seemingly immediate and real (Chouliaraki 2006). Furthermore, in her exploration of “the manner in which cinema frames and mediates pain and works to implicate its audience in this process” (2010: 63), Libby Saxton finds that “the relationship between cinema and distant suffering has become a discernable concern in certain forms of modern and postmodern filmmaking” (64). She argues that in narrative cinema, “scenes of suffering can bring into focus the ethically fraught interconnections between film protagonists and spectators” (64).

Nevertheless, it is as true now as when Sontag wrote in 1973 that the context within which an image circulates and the discourse that envelops it play a key role in an image’s interpretation and social effect. That context and its accompanying discourse are always changing. Additionally, as Butler notes, a single image can be framed in many different ways. One possible way of framing the pain of others is through documentary filmmaking, where, as Julia Lesage (2009) argues with respect to torture documentaries, the framing can be multifold:

“Because there is so much information about the issue of torture, far more than any one person can remember or easily draw upon, the documentaries offer a structure for organizing that knowledge, setting out main ideas that can shape further exploration or be modified as the viewer reads more about the subject on his/her own.”[1] [open notes in new window]

In the context of the former Yugoslavia, a notable documentary by Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić tackles the ethics of relations between image, suffering and objectification.  In her documentary Images from the Corner (Slike sa ugla, 2000), the filmmaker reconstructs a painful episode from the wartime siege of Sarajevo, when one of her schoolmates was gravely wounded in a shelling attack. Žbanić recalls that a foreign journalist took a picture of her wounded schoolmate lying on the street corner where the grenade fell; that photo went on to become an internationally recognized, award-winning depiction of the plight of Sarajevo’s citizens. However, Žbanić refuses to show the image in her documentary. Instead, the filmmaker wonders how this lasting depiction of the wounded woman’s pain perpetuates her suffering and additionally, how the fact that the journalist took photographs during the moments of her agony implies he did nothing to help the wounded girl. In one poignant scene, we see the empty corner where the event took place while we hear the sound of three rolls of film being snapped (supposedly the number of images the photographer took). With this sequence, Žbanić viscerally illustrates the duration of time that it took the photographer to take the images, and consequently the duration that the girl lay wounded while her pain was transformed into an object for the Western journalist’s award-winning lens. Guided by Sontag’s division between screening and aiding, Žbanić condemns as inhumane the journalist's priviledging of documenting over giving relief.

My essay refocuses the lens. I take as my point of departure the uncertain ground on which screen technology—here narrative cinema—both fetishizes the pain of others and addresses the imperative of ethically bearing witness in ways that challenge simplistic identification or representation. I examine two films about the Bosnian war and practice of mass rape, both made by Western filmmakers: As If I Am Not There (Juanita Wilson, 2010, based on a novel by Slavenka Drakulić), and In the Land of Blood and Honey (Angelina Jolie, 2011, based on the director’s own script and conversations with survivors). Both films have similar themes, attempt to ground themselves in the local history of the conflict that they depict, and posit the need to bear witness to the pain of others as an ethical focus. Thus the two films share remarkable similarities in both extra-cinematic and narrative domains. And it may at first seem that their politics of representing the distant suffering of a foreign female subject align as well. Quite the contrary. I show in this essay how, with all their surface-level similarities, the two films frequently differ with respect to the visual language used to represent the female victim. This very difference in visual grammar indicates important divergence in the films’ ethics of representing the pain of others.

In the sections that follow, I examine some implications about how the cinematic apparatus of vision may depict the pain of others. It can control and limit how a conflict is interpreted, especially when staging a humanitarian gaze from an all-knowing above. Alternatively, a partial field of vision can become a site of opportunity for undoing fixed historical emplotments. I analyze the films’ different visual approaches, enabling the spectator to see (or not see) the pain of others, by looking at their spectrum of gender performativity. The films’ visual styles reflect differently framed ethics of spectators’ witnessing distant, sexual, wartime violence. Before I turn to the films themselves, I first need to outline some of the complexities and controversies that arose around the practice of mass rape in the context of Yugoslav wars.  

Mass rape, feminist interventions and
the western humanitarian gaze

The horror of rape used as a weapon of war during the violent break-up of Yugoslavia has been well documented and parsed in journalistic, legal, academic, historical, and feminist discourses. According to some estimates, between 20,000 and 50,000 women were systematically raped during the Bosnian war (1992-1995), although the exact number will likely never be known. Out of the known counts, the greatest number of victims were Bosniak Muslim women, and the perpetrators Bosnian Serb soldiers (de Brouwer, 2005). Few authorities dispute that in the Yugoslav succession wars mass rape was used as an instrument of ethnic cleansing (Stiglmayer 1994). In her book Innocence and Victimhood (2013), Elissa Helms details how soldiers imprisoned women as sex slaves, raped them daily, and often made particular efforts to impregnate them and not release them until their pregnancies were too advanced to be terminated. These practices, where biopolitics meets war crime, reflect a desire to “spoil” the perceived purity of the ethnic other, or rather to invade it through women’s bodies. Such war crimes, premised on an unquestioned notion of ethnic purity, specifically link ethnicity to gender and sexual violence.  Moreover, Helms documents the social stigma that many survivors of mass rape have encountered upon release, which made some of them unwilling to come forward to testify (and this is one of the main reasons why the precise number of victims is difficult to determine). The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague (ICTY) tried a number of men for the crime (although many others remain at large), and one of its cases represents the first time that a person was convicted for using rape as a weapon of war.[2] Furthermore, Dubravka Žarkov's insightful work in The Body of War (2007) painstakingly documents how, during the Yugoslav wars, gender became not only a marker of ethnicity but also constitutive of it.

The practice of mass rape sparked an early controversy among feminist scholars and activists. Catherine MacKinnon (1993, 1994) firmly aligned rapist tendencies with ethnic identity; moreover, she argued that the culture’s saturation with pornography made Serbian men objectify women to such an extent that they could turn women into victims of systematic genocide (played out through rape). While MacKinnon helped bring this war crime to international prominence, she also a priori limited the conversation about sexual wartime violence by playing into the problematic local politics of ethno-nationalism. Some Yugoslav feminists called out MacKinnon for her tendency to simplify the issue. For example, Croatian feminist Vesna Kesić (1994) argued in her critical response that MacKinnon’s interpretations did little to address sexual violence in a meaningful way and gave little explanation beyond positing ethnic animosity rooted in the imposition of normative gender roles. Moreover, because of MacKinnon’s insistence on one-sided ethnic delineations between perpetrators and victims,

“her work has become a part of the war propaganda which stirs ethnic hatred and promotes revenge, both of which often find expression in violence perpetrated by men against women” (Kesić: 268).

According to Kesić, MacKinnon’s “approach demonizes Serbs and feminists” alike (1994: 274). It demonizes Serbs because, in MacKinnon’s account, they seem collectively predisposed to violence. With such homogenizing claims

“from the beginning of her involvement in this issue, [MacKinnon] has chosen to take an active part in this one-sided, nationalistic creation of an enemy” (275).

Importantly, according to Kesić, MacKinnon’s account was highly damaging to the anti-war efforts of local feminists from all sides, because she sidelined their refusal to play into ethnic and nationalist identity politics as they criticized the region’s sexual violence. In other words, prominent local feminists (from Croatia’s Vesna Kesić, Slavenka Drakulić and Rada Iveković, to Serbia's activist group Women in Black) refused to play the numbers game and reduce their condemnation of violence against women just to the question of either the victims or perpetrators’ ethno-national belonging. In contrast, MacKinnon’s view of events posited national and ethnic identities as central prisms through which to organize critical thinking about the gendered atrocities taking place. With this, argues Wendy Hesford,

“MacKinnon is more interested in linking human rights violations (in this case, rape warfare) to her antipornography stance than in exploring these women’s testimonials for what they say about the complexities of women’s victimization, cultural location, and agency” (2011: 95).

As I show below, a similar dialectic informs the ways in which the female victim of mass rape is represented in one of the films I discuss in this essay, particularly with respect to cultural location and agency.  

In 1996, Mandy Jacobson and Karmen Jelinčić made Calling the Ghosts (Dozivanje duhova), a documentary that focuses on the wartime abuse and torture of the women imprisoned in the notorious Omarska camp near the northern Bosnian town of Prijedor. In the film, the survivors openly struggle with the dilemma of whether to speak or stay silent. “If I speak, how good is that for me?” asks one of them. She concludes that it is important to speak up as a way to help those who remain imprisoned. It took several more years before local filmmakers tackled the issue of mass rape.

Jasmila Žbanić's feature fiction debut Grbavica (2006) represents an intricate study of female survival in the wake of sexual wartime violence without perpetuating either ethnic or gender stereotypes (Jelača 2016). This Golden Bear-winning feature focuses on the aftermath of the war, where a rape camp survivor is raising the daughter she conceived during her forced stay at the camp, while attempting to conceal from her daughter the truth about her origin. Moreover, Žbanić tackles the issue from another perspective in her more recent For Those Who Can Tell No Tales (Za one koji ne mogu da govore, 2013). This time, an Australian traveller reenacts her trip to Višegrad, during which she unknowingly stayed at one of the infamous motels that served as rape camps during the war. Both of Žbanić's films tackle the aftermath of the conflict rather than depicting the events of the war directly. In that, the filmmaker is concerned with postwar silencing and denials, as well as the shaming that the female survivors have continuously faced during post-conflict times.

Similalrly, a recent feature from Kosovo, Isa Qosja's Three Windows and a Hanging (2014), illuminates the social stigma that women survivors of wartime rape face in traditional patriarchal societies. The emergence of regional films that tackle this taboo topic is an important milestone towards coming to terms with the role of gender and sexual violence during war. Moreover, these films frequently refuse to graphically depict the spectacle of suffering, focusing on its aftermath instead.

Positioning the humanitarian gaze:
situated vision vs. the all-knowing point of view

The ethical dilemmas that arise around the question of how and what we know about distant places, events and (victimized) people are not new. Nor is it shocking anymore to detect reductive bias in the formation of epistemologies about subjugated, victimized, and violated others. Quite the contrary, it has become the norm to expect such biases. At the same time, as Libby Saxton argues,

“the act of contemplating others’ suffering is not innately problematic, but rather those modes of representing and responding which instrumentalize this spectacle to shore up or naturalize the socio-political status quo” (66).

A point of view, as a way of framing discourse, dictates how we see, what we see, which elements our viewpoint obstructs and which it more firmly focuses on. As Judith Butler has noted, variously positioned frames of vision (which exclude as much as they include) become central to our understanding of the world (2009).

Explaining this phenomenon, Donna Haraway (1988) has used the metaphor of vision to argue for what she calls situated knowledges. Haraway says that objectivity is positional and always partial; understanding this should shape what counts as knowledge to begin with. Attempts to embody multiple points of view simultaneously and to cover many, or all, angles of the story (as traditional objectivity purports to do) merely mask the fact that to be everywhere also means to be nowhere in particular. As a result of trying for such “objectivity,” people might miss a chance to acquire situated knowledge firmly rooted in the partiality and messy inconclusiveness of a lived experience. Haraway further argues that to critique pseudo-objectivity should not mean arguing that representation is impossible nor that all things, places, events, and people are relative. To wit, to critique the neocolonial humanitarian discourses centered around the figure of the witnessing celebrity, for instance, is not to dismiss or relativize the suffering witnessed. Rather, it is to complicate humanitarian discourse’s many vectors and frames of representation. It requires a more complicated politics of recognition than humanitarianism’s underlying rescue fantasies and good-versus-evil morality plays would allow for.

In what follows, I analyze the visual language and its narrative implications in As If I Am Not There and In the Land of Blood and Honey, two fiction films about wartime rape. In fact, the two films frequently position themselves quite differently vis-à-vis the aforementioned problems of gendered and ethnic norms or their undoing, as well as the politics of (im)partial vision. I approach the films without assuming that the filmmakers’ “external gaze” or “outsider’s perspective” are singular or one-sided states of mind that a priori imply inadequacy, separation, objectification, or an inevitably problematic point of view. Rather, in my understanding, the terms “external gaze” and “outsider’s perspective” are unstable positionalities whose effects are not a forgone conclusion. Quite the contrary, they depend on a politics of recognition inscribed in each film’s construction of meaning in intricate ways. The fact that both filmmakers are outsiders to the conflict that their films deal with—in that they did not experience the conflict firsthand—is not by any means the defining factor for the various levels of insight their respective films offer. The insider/outsider binary itself too often fixates on postulating the authenticity of experience as evidence, a notion that feminist historian Joan Scott critiques (1991). Moreover, in their production process, both films gained significant cooperation from local residents who did have firsthand experiences of the war, be they the survivors themselves, or members of the cast and crew, or both. As my analysis of the differences in their visual language shows, the two films nevertheless frequently reflect differing attitudes towards the inevitable limits of (im)partial vision.

In each film, the protagonist is a Bosniak Muslim woman forced into a rape camp, and in each story, the heroine develops a complicated, at times even romantically-inclined relationship with the camp’s Serbian commander. The two films have significant narrative parallels, yet their visual treatments of the affective complexities experienced by the women who went through such horrifically traumatic wartime experiences diverge in important ways. In light of the aforementioned debates around the ethics of visually representing the pain of others, such differences in the films’ visual grammar indicate differing approaches to this ethical problem. In As If I Am Not There, the protagonist, Samira, survives the ordeal. Moreover, she likely survives only because she deliberately develops a relationship with the camp commander and thus actively, if controversially, deploys her feminine traits as a survival skill. She is impregnated in the camp and gives birth later on, safely in exile somewhere in Sweden. Avoiding the child at first, in the film’s sentimental final moments Samira takes the baby into her arms and starts breastfeeding. It is a tentative signal that she may accept this child as her own, no matter how much the baby reminds her of the traumatic circumstances of its conception.

In In the Land of Blood and Honey on the other hand, the heroine, Ajla, does not survive her ordeal but is rather killed by Danijel, her Serbian lover/captor, who then surrenders to the UN forces with the film’s dramatic last words, “I am a criminal of war.” Jolie’s film thus ends with the Serb’s admission of guilt for the atrocities committed, albeit too late for the heroine to be saved. And indeed, the heroine of Blood and Honey remains an elusive figure. She seems to harbor some feelings for Danijel (whom she has known since before the war) regardless of her capture. At the same time, the plot indicates that Ajla betrays Danijel towards the film’s end by giving away his location to the resistance. When he narrowly survives an explosion, he storms her room and confronts her. She seems to admit the betrayal with a quiet: “I am sorry.” These are her last words, as Danijel kills her with a gunshot to the head.

My analysis of both films follows Butler’s argument in Frames of War, where she argues,

“the ‘frames’ that work to differentiate the lives we can apprehend from those we cannot (or that produce lives across a continuum of life) not only organize visual experience but also generate specific ontologies of the subject” (3, emphasis mine).

I show how two initially similar films enact fairly different frames of recognition for their ensuing ontologies of the subject at hand. As If I Am Not There, which I will discuss in more detail later, deploys partial vision framed around gender performativity and its protagonist’s subjective experience. It does not engage in rationalizing the origins of the conflict or offer historical explanation. In the Land of Blood and Honey, on the other hand, utilizes several overlapping and mutually informative frames: a Western humanitarian lens with its objective, all-seeing vision, and an interplay between two standard tropes—ancient hatreds and a multicultural utopian vision of pre-war Bosnia. I turn now to tracing the narrative trajectory of the latter film.