Monday, November 17, 2008

Movies: "It was in people's brains."

Today we're talking about some pretty grim stuff. Next post, I promise, goof-central as we look at Bava the Younger's take on love, death, and family – and all the various combos thereof – in his classic Macabre. But today, as the utterly unofficial (and somewhat ill-cast) "torture porn dude" of the LoTT-D, I thought I should cover this.

In The Forever War, Dexter Filkins's book-length survey of America's open-ended "war on terror," Filkins discusses one of the more subtle barriers to the growth of a fully-functional, participative democracy in Iraq: the long term psychological effects of life under Saddam. From his book:

Murder and torture and sadism: it was part of Iraq. It was in people's brains.

As an example, he details the fascination of many his Iraqi co-workers with what can only be dubbed real torture porn:

Sometimes I would walk into the newsroom that we had set up in The New York Times bureau in Baghdad, and I'd fin our Iraqi employees gathered round the television watching a torture video. You could buy them in the bazaars in Bagdad; they were left over from Saddam's time. The Iraqis would be watching them in silence. Just starring at the screen. In one of the videos, some Baath party men [The dominant political/ethnic group in Iraq under Saddam – CRwM] had pinned a man down on a floor and were holding down his outstretched arm, while another official beat the man's forearm with a heavy metal pipe until his arm broke into two pieces. There was no sound in the video, but you could see the man was screaming. None of the Iraqis in the newsroom said anything.

In America, these torture tapes got very limited exposure. After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, several right-wing media outlets produced edited "greatest hits" tapes that they then presented as proof that what Americans were doing simply wasn't that bad. Aside from missing the entire moral point of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the outlets questionably sourced the videos. Most made dubious claims that the source videos were "favorites of Saddam's" or "from Saddam's personal collection" and so on, ignoring the fact that these videos were actually readily available to civilians at fairly modest prices. Perhaps these right-wing talking heads felt it wasn't the right thing to pitch as an emblem that neo-con efforts to revamp the Iraqi economy along more free-market lines was clearly a success.

Oddly enough, the videos origins were mired in profit motive. Saddam's secret police were, evidence suggests, running what amounts to torture-for-profit racket. Again, from Filkins's book:

Al Hakemiya [one Saddam-Era Iraq's numerous torture centers - CRwM] was the first stop in the Baathist detention network, a place where Iraqis were tortured and interrogated before being sent to prisons like Abu Ghraib. But the files strewn about the floors suggested something else. There were receipts for funds and stock certificates and bank ledgers. There were files of title certificates and change-of-ownership forms. Whatever else it was, Al Hakemiya was a shakedown operation.

The torture tapes were partially intended as part of a revenue stream – initially, they were proof to accompany ransom demands; later, after the collapse of the Baathist regime, they became a capital asset.

I've seen one of the edited torture tapes. I'm not going to link it up here because 1) I have doubts as to its "authenticity" insomuch as it has clearly been re-cut by American editors and 2) I don't think I would be comfortable knowing I'd directly contributed to the proliferation of this material.

Why did I watch it?

Partially because I feel, perhaps unnecessarily, that I have a responsibility to do so. As a regular fan of horror films, I basically make play out of some of the worst elements of human existence. I participate in the regular commodification and trivialization of death and suffering for kicks. A quick tour of links on my sidebar will most likely expose you to everything from Holocaust-themed porn and serial rape to all manner of torture and homicide. But it's all played for laughs. Part of me thinks that I shouldn't be allowed to do this unless, when provided the opportunity, I'm also willing to look squarely at the reality of these same things. I know this is an indefensible stance, so I never ask anybody else to take it. It's strictly my hang up and I understand that.

Also, I won't lie and tell you that simple old curiosity didn't play a factor as well. As Conrad wrote: "We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there - there you could look at a thing monstrous and free." The question of torture hangs there like some zero-point of human behavior. I have to see for myself. There's nothing particularly noble about it. Some people just can be told and I guess I'm one of those people.

Finally, and flimsiest of all, I talked a lot of theory and whatnot about the subset of horror known as "torture porn." It kinda made this blog. If you're reading me, chances are you found me through a LoTT-D member link and they hunted me down after my series on torture porn. Or, if my stats are any indication, you've probably come seeking info about some real life horror incident, such as the Likens torture-murder. Given that my comments about torture porn have, in essence, put me on "the map," specifically bold statements about what real torture was like and how little this was reflected in the movies that supposedly trafficked in torture imagery, I should have to see. If I'm going to talk the talk, I should have to be willing to see if I'm right.

On to the film. If you don't want to know – which is understandable – come back tomorrow.

The film opens with a blue warning screen about the graphic nature of the material to follow. These blue screens were slapped on the beginnings of tapes released by the Department of Defense to US journalists. In accordance with DOD rules, the screen plays for 30 seconds. Already the low quality of the much re-recorded VHS source is apparent. Source artifacts blur the bottom of the screen or make it appear as if your viewer has lost its vertical hold. These flaws in the image will occur, on and off, throughout the video.

Next there is a close up on face of a middle-aged man with short black hair and a black mustache. He repeatedly looks nervously to his left. Somebody is speaking off camera, but it is unintelligible. The camera makes a rough cut to a close up the man's right hand. Pan back to a medium shot, revealing that the man wears a knee-length black thoub, the traditional long one-piece top worn by so many Arab men. The dark color suggests that he's in winter wear, but since he's a prisoner and this outfit might be all they gave him, you can't assume the season by his clothing.

He is standing in what looks like a hospital room. Behind him are two made beds, clean white sheets. Two blankets, one dark green and one black with a multicolored pattern on it, are folded at the foot of the bed behind him. A white towel hangs on a hook on the wall over his right shoulder. There's a window behind him. Through the drawn blinds you can still tell it is daytime.

Cut to a close up of a right hand being surgically removed. The hand lays palm up. The skin around the wrist opens in a wide and oddly bloodless gapping whole. Three clamps, one, one up, one down, and on running parallel to the wrist, keep the flesh open. Two hands, one holding a probe of some sort and the other wielding a scalpel, work efficiently inside the whole. The hand holding the scalpel is making jabs at the edge of the hole, widening it. There's a cut and the camera has changed positions, further from the hand. It's later, the removal process is further along. Flesh from the wrist to the mid-forearm seems to have been stripped away. There are no faces visible, but the doctors' – are they doctors? – hands can be seen. One holds the victim's hand steady while another saws away at the connective matter at the wrist. The hand comes off. Cut to a green surgical towel. The hand is tossed on to the towel. The camera records it in a close up. It's on display. The finger-loops of a pair of scissors are just visible in the bottom left hand corner of the screen.

Cut to a crowd scene – dozens of men chanting. Subtitles inform the viewer that they are shouting that they are ready to give blood for Saddam. It was not unusual for Baathist torturers to force their victims to sing or chant or otherwise praise Saddam. Infamously, one victim was forced to sing "Happy Birthday" to the dictator, only to be beheaded as soon as he finished. I cannot tell if these chanting men are torturers or victims.

Next, there are a series of hand dismemberments by blunt force. The victims, several young men, are blindfolded and their right arms are tied flat to a thin plank of wood. It looks, ironically, like their undergoing a process to mend a broken arm. What happens, though, it that they are told to sit down and lay their bound arm on top of a short wall made of cinderblocks. Off camera, somebody chants "Ready?" in distorted and accented Enlgish. Then they shout "Go!" in Arabic. From off camera, a man in a uniform holding a short, thick, slightly curved club runs into frame and takes a lunging chop at the bound arm. Sometimes he takes a practice lunge, mostly he doesn't. If he misses, which he does occasionally, or hits off target and fails to sever any fingers, which he does often, he tries again. Whenever he succeeds, the camera zooms in to survey the damage. The process scatters severed fingers around the seated victims. The victims scream. There's more chanting. The camera pans to the right as one victim is removed to reveal that the chanting comes from a line of club wielding men in uniforms. They chant pro-Saddam phrases as they wait to pulverize someone's hand.

The next scene involves a shirtless man, bound by the wrists and knees so that hangs to the side of a vertical pole. He wears yellow prison uniform pants. He's got a black beard and mustache. Large patches of what appears to be medical gauze are held to his eyes by wind after wind of white medical tape that wraps fully around his head. Behind him is a darkened window and large murals bearing Arabic phrases. As the man hangs off the pole, another man in head to toe black spins him clockwise and counterclockwise. As this man spins him, another beats his ribs with some sort of semi-flexible lash. The two torturers appear to be enjoying themselves. They are almost playful. Whatever one calls this, it's been going on for longer then the viewer sees: the bound man's sides are mottled black and purple, his body gives in a spongy way with every blow. He screams throughout the process.

Cut to two men, one in a military uniform, the other in a tan jacket and black slacks. The man in uniform reads aloud to an unseen audience from the Koran: "In The Law of Equality there is saving of Life to you, O ye men of understanding; that ye may restrain yourselves." The uniformed man then reads out a charge of "failing to complete a special mission" against a man identified as Saddin Ezzedin al-Arousi. The penalty is to have his arm broken in front of his unit. Cut to a prisoner, yellow jumper and black bag bound over his head, seated next to two stacks of cinderblocks. He lays his arm over top of the blocks, forming a sort of bridge between the two stacks. A man in a military uniform, wearing a dark blue bulletproof vest, holds the prisoner's upper arm. Another soldier, again in uniform and vest, brings down a thick wooden club. It bends the arm into the slot between the cinderblocks and then bounces back. The prisoner recoils. The man holding him grabs his arm. The video ends.


First, watching this makes me wonder what kind of mind sees this and thinks, "This should shut up those liberals who are bitchin' and moanin' about torture?" What mind wants to circulate this stuff for a presumed political advantage? (And does the fact that you hope for political gain rather than outright financial gain make you that much different than the amoral shills pedaling these tapes in the Baghdad marketplace?) Admitted, the physical suffering revealed by the Saddam-Era torture tapes is greater, but the calculus of pain and damage done to the victims isn't what tugs on the brain long after you've quit looking at the photos or turned off the video. It's the torturers themselves that stick with you. It's their incomprehensible immunity to the madness they visit on their victims. From the pointing and grinning US jailer to the Iraqi guards who appear to have made a game out of turning a man's insides to pulp. There's something both childlike and monstrous about them, a sickening mix that reminds me of a line from Berloiz's opera of Faust: "Now we will see brutality in all its innocence." That's the line. Once it is crossed, everything seems to be just a matter of time, distinctions of fine degree rather category.

Second, though it hardly seems important, I stand by the division I drew about fictional torture porn and the real thing. There's no real comparison to be made.


Sasquatchan said...

"a shitless man" -- I know it's supposed to be shirtless, but the typo I think is much more descriptive..

I recall watching a number of such videos 9 years ago on stile project. Gosh what a cesspool that place was, a trainwreck montage of grotesque that beckoned you, demanded you watch it all..

Always thought everything there was faked, as that's my cognitive dissonance at not believing such things happen.

CRwM said...

Thanks for the catch, Screamin' Sassy.

spacejack said...

CRwM, boldly going where few horror bloggers dare...

Many years ago, a friend of mine who was otherwise pretty liberal, or libertarian even, in most things, believed that viewing "snuff" material was to become a party to it, and that the viewer must share some of the burden of guilt in its creation.

I'm not sure if I believe that or not (I don't judge you for watching this.) I'm also not sure if his belief would hold up in the internet age. But it was an idea that stuck with me and I've not really been able to shake it.

Anyway, I think one of the facets of fictional "torture porn" that interests people is not so much seeing veteran practitioners of the craft, but to see a "normal" person put into the situation where they have the opportunity to try it for themselves, and to see how they react. Is there a weak or strong psychological barrier between being a "normal" person and a torturer?

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

Your friend does have a point, too a degree.

Obviously, in this case, where the materials were being systematically produced under orders, the presence or non-presence of an external audience wouldn't have made a difference.

Still, participation, even as simply a spectator after the fact, implies a link to the filmed deed.

I don't know that it is always a matter of approval - which is what I feel is implied by your friend's statement.

But, are there some things you just shouldn't see. That no matter what your personal position on it might be, there's no criticism, no amount of critical distance that will make consuming that image innocent or right?

I don't know that I could say.

sexy said...
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