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When Reel Violence Captures Real Violence

from Violence and Nonviolence: Pathways to Understanding by Gregg Barak

Two films from 2002, Bowling for Columbine (a Cannes Film Festival winner) and Bloody Sunday (featured at the Lincoln Center Film Festival in New York), represent documentary works that capture the complexity of violence and nonviolence. Both films, for very different reasons, are tours de force. Both films are ideological works that present multiple sides of issues in very direct and unbalanced ways. Neither film exploits violence for the sake of violence, yet each uses techniques of cinema vérité; the first incorporating news footage and surveillance video shots of the actual assault at Columbine in combination with a series of interviews with various known and unknown Americans, the second employing hand-held cameras and a Brechtian newsreel technique that invites the audience into the action of murder and mayhem. Both films are also disturbing, if not infuriating, and each is intensely emotional and political. Yet, these two films are quite different; one is presented as a comedy of sorts and the other as a Shakespearian tragedy. One will be a box office hit and go on to be a contemporary classic antiviolence film; the other, with little popular audience other than Irish people worldwide, will quickly fade from repressed obscurity into artistic oblivion.

This passage is from Violence & Nonviolence: Pathways to Understanding Ch 6, which explores America's fascination with mediated violence. 
Other excerpts include

Reel, Real Violence
Altruistic Killing
Victim Recovery

The author's website has a rotating selection of his writings. 
Violence Theory Workshop Sponsored by the National Institute of Justice 

Bowling for Columbine, written, produced, and directed by Michael Moore, is a provocative and complex examination of violence, culture, and American social structure. Moore’s brilliance in delving into the relationships between the layers of interpersonal, institutional, and structural expressions of violence are unmatched by other commentators. It matters little whether you agree with Moore’s analysis or not, because either way you are appalled by or caught up in his message. Moore actually raises questions and makes his audience think. He has few answers and does not preach per se. However, in his narrative, he does away with all of the simple explanations of violence offered up by media pundits, politicians, and experts alike. More important, he addresses the repressed histories and the denied social realities of America that envelop its relative propensity for violence, especially lethal violence, in both the individual and the nation-state as a whole.

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Moore brings a passion and sensibility to his work that resonates with the little guy or girl; a class consciousness that energizes the popular masses and infuriates the power elites. Certainly, Moore is “over the top” and “in your face” because he realizes that if one is going to tackle such issues as gun violence, foreign policy, health care, community development, paranoia, racism, and more, one had better “bury the message” (as it were) in a barrage of scattered bits of humor. After all, we live in an age in America where Jackass: The Movie, a spin-off from a much-maligned MTV series, can become a number-one box office smash. Accordingly, Moore reaches the masses with serious questions about controversial issues vis-à-vis the medium of pop entertainment, incorporating the likes of South Park, contemporary arms manufacturers and military installations, classic media footage from eras past, and inserted lessons of history rarely found in traditional texts. In the process, Moore captures an American culture that is as belligerent and callous as it is immune to compromise or compassion.

Related StopViolence pages:

See also 

Class, Race Gender & Crime by Barak, Flavin & Leighton

Integrating Criminologies by Gregg Barak

Should the U.S. Televise Executions? from Criminal Justice Ethics 

By contrast, writer-director Paul Greengrass’s magnetic and impassioned melodrama Bloody Sunday [reviews, factual background] a story about the 1972 massacre in Northern Ireland in which British troops shot and killed 13 civil-rights marchers and IRA sympathizers, succeeds with strong and shocking images of violent horror. There are no laughs of any kind in this serious docudrama, which takes the side of the 15,000 Irish Catholic demonstrators who turned out to make a nonviolent statement on their grievances against the Protestant majority in the Ulster Government. Indirectly, Greengrass captures the real-life tragedy of that day, a day that was inevitably taken over by historical circumstances and by the institutional and structural forces of violence.

Related Books

Violence and American Cinema (American Film Institute Series)

Nicole Hahn Rafter, Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society

Ray Surette, Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice: Images and Realities

Greengrass is able to tap into the unconscious movements attached to other timeless civil-rights struggles from around the world. For example, the protagonist in this movie, Ivan Cooper, is a Protestant member of Parliament. His behavior is full of gestures and nuances associated with the likes of Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Cinematically, the director’s work is reminiscent of such classic political–civil-rights films as Costa-Gavras’s Z and Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers. All in all, the artistry of Greengrass’s work is plain, as he is able to move his audience beyond the bloody bodies of the 13 unarmed civilian marchers to the rush of the blood within the institutionalized hearts and minds of the unprepared British paratroopers who were assigned, that fateful day, to police a situation that had already been established as volatile.

In the end, both Bowling for Columbine and Bloody Sunday work because they capture the interchange between the politics of violence and the violence of politics. Both films, although very different, are nevertheless able to make the necessary connections between the private and the public domains of violence as they examine the everyday relationships between the interpersonal, institutional, and structural levels of social engagement.

Other excerpts include

Reel, Real Violence
Altruistic Killing
Victim Recovery



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