Upon Screening Night and Fog by Alain Renoir
An email to the Visible Evidence documentary listserv
by Ken Paul Rosenthal © 2015
February 15, 2015
Thank you one and all for the breadth of astute insights and sensitive perspectives that are informing this thread. The very evening before the very first post appeared, I just so happened to be discussing my relative trauma watching this film as a 16-year-old high school student with a house guest from Austria. I'd like to provide some context to that experience as it pertains to the topic:
I was raised Jewish in a middle class, suburban neighborhood in northern New Jersey. When I was seven years old, my family endured our own Kristallnacht; broken glass, swastikas and invectives scrawled on the street. I learned that half my family on my father's side did not survive the camps. My parents had consciously moved us from Brooklyn to Bergen County because the K to 12th grade educational system was so highly rated. So as an AP English student and nascent filmmaker, I had access to Literature Through Film classes where we read a short story or novel, then screened the film adaptation. I was taught to think and write critically for the first time in my life. Study halls were also frequented by film screenings, though removed from any learning curriculum. Oddly, one day in study hall we watched, Night and Fog. Just as the film ended, the bell rang and the class filtered out. I sat alone in that classroom, overwhelmed by the graphic images, wondering if I'd watched my own relatives being bulldozed into the pits.
Given that all art—whether driven by form or content—fundamentally embodies ideas and feelings that the common citizen would not otherwise have the opportunity or sensitivities to embrace, artists have the power to transform culturally mediated standards of comfort and knowledge. In a free society, how artists articulate that power is second to how it is contextualized by teachers, curators and cultural institutions. So the responsibility is entirely ours to present provocative works that are potentially triggering—even trauma-inducing—in a manner that informs and expands viewer experience.
In light (and dark) of the breadth and diversity of our individual and cultural histories, it is impossible not to offend. As a filmmaker who makes mental health-themed documentaries, and has presented them extensively to college students, symposium, and peer-support networks throughout North America and parts of Europe, I have learned that trauma exits in many forms; a violent action can be perpetrated upon us, we can witness or learn of someone else's suffering, and we can inherit historical traumas that were experienced generations before us. While madness may have some biological components, it is also largely a reflection of a social condition. I firmly believe that much of my own adult psychological distress stems from the extraordinary amount of violent imagery I imbibed from television in my youth, right up to today where it appears to suffuse the mediated air we breathe. Despite my attempts to make films that are lyrical, transformative, even redemptive, members of my audiences can get triggered based on what they bring to the film. So I always introduce the work in a way that prepares the viewer, including specific suggestions for what they can do in the event of their feeling newly traumatized or re-traumatized. Such suggestions might include simply closing one's eyes and focusing on the sound track, or deep breathing, or leaving the room—but with a marked invitation to return for conscious dialogue, post-screening.
Trigger warnings do not have to constitute a brand of censorship if contextualized with respect to the particular needs and experiences of a given audience. I'd be hard pressed to screen a film as graphic as Night and Fog to a 16-year old, regardless of whether or not they had lost family in the Holocaust. At the same time, I believe the film can become a tool that serves to sensitize viewers to the suffering of others, transpose the violent impulses at the core of human nature, and collectively heal the wounds that history has imposed on us all. The challenging decision of when, where and to whom to present, Night and Fog must be considered anew for each and every screening with respect to the particular make up of that audience. Was my troubling high school experience about my Jewish heritage, my Jewish upbringing, or the lack of an informed introduction and facilitated post-screening discussion? And even if I were provided the latter, would I have felt any less triggered? We cannot decree how Night and Fog should be presented any more than we can prescribe a magic bullet medication for managing one's mental distress. Each person's mental health is contingent on a variety of interdependent wellness practices based on their particular needs. Similarly, a film instructor's responsibility is to craft a teaching plan that shape shifts to the needs and personalities of any one particular classroom.
The term 'trigger warning' need not be seen as a brand of legislating what we are permitted to do and not do with our culture's provocative art works. If that warning were issued as naively as a rating on a film review or a stamp on a record cover, it is a limitation of the messenger, not the message. So I perceive the call for trigger warnings—especially in the context of screening Night and Fog—as a blossoming, societal sensitivity towards those whom are marginalized in a culture that pathologizes difference of any sort, be it racial, religious, emotional, or psychological.
Thank you all for this critical dialogue. It really makes me miss my teaching career.
Best regards, Ken Paul Rosenthal