I Witness: Re-presenting Trauma in and by Cinema
Department of Communication Studies, Ben-Gurion University, Beer-Sheva, Israel and School of Communication, Sapir College, D.N. Hof Ashkelon, Israel
This article considers how ﬁlm helps reconcile a traumatic collective past through representation of a personal trauma. It focuses on the role of witnesses in conveying their experiences regarding events that have traumatized them. The author suggests that a witness to a traumatic event performs the excess of an event that has transformed him or her. By framing the witness as a performer rather than a mere conduit for transferring knowledge to the uninformed, the article underscores the communicative dimension of witnessing by studying this process as an ongoing interplay between addressers and addressees who undergo mutual transformations in and by this action. These arguments are presented through an examination of the ﬁlm Waltz With Bashir (2008), in which its director documented his struggle to come to terms with his personal trauma surrounding the part he played in the Lebanon War. The author suggests that by performing this loss of experience, the director turns the audience into witnesses, thus transforming a personal loss of experience into a collective experience of loss.
Trauma and the effects of catastrophes and victimization on the formation of self and collective identity are one of the key issues in recent academic research (e.g., Agamben 1999; Alexander, Eyerman, Giesen, Smelser, & Sztompka, 2004; Caruth, 1996; Felman & Laub, 1992). Overall, the vast literature on trauma strongly suggests that an individual’s failure to work through his or her traumatic past often induces symptoms of psychological distress. Studies have also revealed how the self relies on a sense of
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continuity that makes it impossible to repress the past without paying a substantial psychological price. Yet it has been claimed that this phenomenon is less applicable on a large scale, given that social communities can alter or repress memories of traumatic events with psychological impunity (e.g., Cohen, 2001; Kansteiner, 2002; Margalit, 2002; Sturken, 1997). By looking at the construction of traumatic events in cinematic artifacts, this article examines the ways in which cinema helps reconcile traumatic collective history through representation of a personal trauma (e.g., Ashuri & Pinchevski, 2009; Hyun, 2002). I show that the role of witnesses is crucial in mediating their experiences of events that traumatized them to those who were absent from these events. I suggest that a witness to a traumatic event should not be seen as a mere conduit for transferring knowledge to the uninformed but rather as a performer of an excess of an event which has transformed him or her. By performing the excess of a transformative event, the witness calls upon the audience to participate in the performance, to shed the raiment of the observer and turn into performers who re-enact the painful event that changed him or her. By framing the witness as a performer of a traumatic event, I attempt to bridge the gap between two lines of investigation. The ﬁrst derives from the ﬁeld of trauma theory and focuses on questions of victimhood and the social implications of suffering (e.g., Agamben, 1999; Caruth, 1996; Felman & Laub, 1992). The second concerns the engagement of audiences in distant suffering (Boltanski, 1999) and with the moral standing of mediated experience (e.g., Chouliaraki, 2004; Couldry, 2006; Silverstone, 2007; Sontag, 2004). In availing myself of both research strands, I hope to...