Ticking bombs and torture

What do directors want us to see?

Flandres (2006) is a French movie about a man who experiences the horrors of war. 'The violence is very in your face.'

Vincent Bongers

Hollywood favourites: torture scenes to make terrorists talk. Film researcher Odile Bodde took a closer look. "Sometimes I wanted to look away, but you get used to it in the end".

Tick. Tock. Tick. The seconds on the timer of a nuclear bomb keep ticking away. The explosion could kill tens of thousands. Luckily, the FBI have arrested terrorists who might know where the weapon is hidden. But the suspects refuse to talk. Is it time to torture them? Perhaps waterboarding would loosen their tongues?

The "ticking-bomb" scene is a Hollywood favourite. Film researcher Odile Bodde was awarded a doctorate for her study on torture scenes in American and European films featuring the war on terror. How do these films compare with the political and cultural context? What do directors want us to see, and what do they hide from us? What are the differences between Hollywood and European productions?

The films Bodde researched for her dissertation show fingernails being pulled out and searing hot pokers being applied to naked flesh. It’s not for the faint-hearted. "I’m not a fan of extreme violence and don’t like the ‘torture porn’ genre at all", says Bodde. "Sometimes I wanted to look away, but I still managed to analyse everything carefully, and you get used to it in the end."

In fact, Bodde only found two of the eight films difficult to watch: The French film Flandres (2006), in which includes scenes with rape and castration, and the American thriller Unthinkable (2010). In the latter film, an American interrogation expert cuts the throat of a terrorist’s wife while the captured terrorist is forced to watch. "That is rather extreme. Then he picks up the terrorist’s two kids and threatens to murder them too if he doesn’t get answers. It’s really, really horrible."

A study on torture in films wasn’t actually the first thing that came to mind, she recalls. "I got the idea from the controversy surrounding the film Zero Dark Thirty (2012) by Kathryn Bigelow." The film, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, sparked a fierce debate. Prisoners are tortured by the Americans in an attempt to obtain information on the whereabouts of Bin Laden and his plans. The methods they use include humiliation, lengthy exposure to very loud metal music, being locked up in a tiny space and waterboarding.

"A normal Hollywood film is easy to digest", explains Bodde. "Everything that happens is explained very clearly. By contrast, Zero Dark Thirty is very ambiguous. The viewers are forced to work out what happens for themselves, and that’s what started the debate. The characters seem to dislike the idea of torture but see it as a necessity. However, the film does not sanction torture."

Bigelow and the scenario writer, Mark Boal, both deny that their film condones torture too. "The story of Zero Dark Thirty covers an entire decade and by doing so, it demonstrates very clearly how torture has become part of the routine, which is shocking when you think about it."

Both Bodde and the director suspect that the criticism was stronger partly because the protagonist, CIA analyst Maya, is a woman. "It was personal: if Maya had been a man, there would have been less to-do. In the series 24, Agent Jack Bauer hardly stops torturing people in order to prevent terrorist attacks, and hardly anyone made a fuss about that character. The same applies to the male characters in Zero Dark Thirty. Moreover, this film was funded partially by the Pentagon and the CIA, but still didn’t turn out to be a propaganda film."

Unthinkable exposes political torture, but does so in an extreme way. The film is about a white American, Yusuf, who has converted to Islam. He has hidden a number of nuclear bombs and an interrogation expert, ‘H’, played by Samuel L. Jackson, uses excessive force to persuade Yusuf to reveal the whereabouts of the bombs.

"Unthinkable is much exaggerated, and feels a bit like a Tarantino film. It’s a ticking-bomb scene with dark humour. The film never did well in at the box office because of its graphic and abhorrent violence in the torture scenes, but became a cult film on DVD. Initially, ‘H’ seems to be a respectable professor, complete with glasses, and carefully ironed shirt. It looks as if he’s just been plucked from his desk at university. He’s the last person you’d expect to chop off one of Yusuf’s fingers with an axe."

When that happens, other agents in the interrogation room stop him. "It’s only a finger", says "H" facetiously. "It’s not even a whole one." After his promise - "Alright, no more fingers" - he tells his colleagues not to whine. "You’re so selfish, but this is not about you. This is war."

Bodde remarks: "It looks like unpretentious pulp with lots of blood, but it does actually have a political message. The film plays around with all sorts of stereotypes. The torture scenes are very obvious. Killing people to save others is taken to the extreme here: what are the extreme implications of this policy?"

The European films Bodde analysed focus on the consequences of the violence committed. What is the impact of torture on both the perpetrator and the victim? An American version, Brothers (2009), was made of the Danish film Brødre (2004). Bodde adds: "The Hollywood version is quite a faithful remake of the Danish film, but there are some significant differences." In both films, an officer captured in Afghanistan is forced to beat a fellow prisoner to death with a lead pipe.

"In European films, there is less criticism on the political choice to take part in the war on terror. It’s true of Brødre, where the focus is more on the trauma of war. The question is: ‘If you are forced to do something terrible, how does that affect you?’

"Brothers centres more on the conflict itself. The focus is far more on the struggle against the barbarian Taliban: this is the awful opponent we’re dealing with. In Brothers, the Taliban set up a camera and force the prisoners to make an anti-American statement under torture. The commander also threatens to decapitate the soldiers, which refers to those infamous decapitation videos. This camera doesn’t feature in the Danish version at all. Brothers is critical of the intervention while on the other hand agrees that it is necessary because: look at how evil the Taliban are."

European films tend not to refer to a specific geopolitical conflict. "The Polish film, Essential Killing, is a good example. The film tells the story of a man, presumably somewhere in the Middle East, who is arrested and tortured by the Americans. Eventually, he is taken to a secret ‘black site’, probably in Poland, and manages to escape. Soldiers use dogs to hunt for him and he has to survive in the snow. There’s no more context, making this film is a far cry from Hollywood. It’s about human cruelty rather than the war on terror, although there are some references to it.

In Flandres, the connection to modern reality is even less explicit. "That film is about young Frenchmen who are fighting in an unspecified war. The characters mess around, and it’s very worrying. The violence is very in your face. It’s up to the viewers to make something of it."

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