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in Filmmaking
on Apr 23, 2007

There’s been so much in the mainstream media in the last week about the horrible tragedy at Virginia Tech — much of it rather soul deadening in its own right — that I hate to direct you to one more story. But if you’ve been following the MSM coverage you’ve probably come across a quote from or reference to Paul Harrill, an independent filmmaker who teaches film at the school. Harrill was the one who discovered a similarity between the images in Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy and the homemade videos of the killer. On his blog, which I’ve linked to several times before, Harrill provides context for his commentary, discusses the coverage of the tragedy, and also tells you what you can do to help.

First, on the Old Boy comparison, which I’m going to quote at length:

Last night, I was disgusted that the various media outlets were giving airtime, ink, and webspace to the videotape and writings of the person behind the massacre here at Virginia Tech.

Amidst the images I saw on the New York Times website, one that stuck out as odd — an image of the young man brandishing a hammer. To me, the image called to mind a still from a movie — at first, I thought, something from a Gasper Noe film. Then, later, I remembered it was the revenge movie, Old Boy.

For others, the image might have suggested something else, but I am a filmmaker and I suppose I am inclined to make comparisons between images of cinematic texts, if one can use such coolly academic terminology for a killer’s self-taped imagery. Both images feature people looking into a camera’s eye brandishing a hammer and, importantly for me, both images are “revenge texts.” The fact that both images are of Asian males was largely inconsequential to me; if either person had been of a difference race, nationality, etc. I would have, I feel, made the same connection. As I said, at first I thought the image came from a French film.

Certainly, I thought, some readers and viewers would be perplexed by such an image, and I wanted to suggest a possible reference. Mainly, though, I wanted to use this opportunity of having the Times’ attention to tell them how I would prefer that they did not show such images in the first place. This message was included in my email to them though, perhaps not surprisingly, they chose not to acknowledge that comment. I believe that giving airtime to a killer’s ramblings does a disservice to those of us here in Blacksburg who are deeply, actively grieving; I also believe that it likely gives the killer the attention he so desperately desired. For me, sharing these images publicly goes beyond pornography.

How misguided and naive can a person be, particularly in light of the comments in my last post? I should have said nothing, done nothing, and ignored it all. I made the mistake of attempting to make sense of the nonsensical, assuming that my comment could be a simple footnote to a single still image, and above all, presuming that a person can have any control over any comment he feeds to the Media Machine.

This morning I awoke to several emails and blog comments accusing me of everything from racism against South Koreans to blaming cinema for the carnage on Monday. And all day I have been courted by several major media outlets salivating for an interview with me, as if I could somehow explain the events of Monday to them by way of a movie. How sad. How absurd. The answer to all of these individuals has been “No.”

Let me be clear: My comparison of these two images was not meant to suggest in ANY way that movies, any movie, “made him do it.” Likewise, my comparison of these two images is IN NO WAY an attempt to make ANY generalizations based on racial, nationalistic, or any other sorts of lines.

The fact that the comparison of these two images has been co-opted in various ways is extraordinarily painful to me, particularly the accusations of racism. Anyone who knows me knows that this truly, truly breaks my heart. As if it weren’t already broken.

To everyone outside of Blacksburg, the events of the past few days are a circus, an opportunity to use others’ tragedy for their own ends. It is not a circus for me. There is only the event, the profound sadness of its aftermath, and the utter confusion about what has happened.

I am mourning the loss of my colleagues, friends, family, and students. Here in Blacksburg we are all grieving. Deeply. The headline writers for many news outlets have determined that today “The Healing Begins.” It has not.

If what was intended to be my tiny footnote on a minor point has stirred up passions in you, I truly regret that. If you have taken my comment to be implicitly or explicitly racist, I hope you can believe me when I write with utter sincerity that this was never the intention.

And if you are with the media, do not bother contacting me. I have learned my lesson.

Finally, to reiterate: My point in all of this, however misguided the effort, was to initiate a conversation about what Jill Godmilow calls “the pornography of the real” — in this case, news outlets using a mass murderer’s fantasies as sick spectacle and — let us never forget — as a source of revenue.

In another post, Harrill elaborates on the “pornography of the real.”

The past 48 hours have been one long, ongoing demonstration of what Jill Godmilow, in both her incomparable film What Farocki Taught and her essay “What’s Wrong with the Liberal Documentary?, labels “the pornography of the real”:

The “pornography of the real” involves the highly suspect, psychic pleasure of viewing “the moving picture real” … a powerful pornographic interest in real people, real death, real destruction and real suffering, especially of “others”, commodities in film. These “pleasures” are not brought to our attention. The pornographic aspect is masked in the documentary by assurances that the film delivers only the actually existing real — thus sincere truths that we need to know about.

As I said in my previous post, I think of storytelling as a kind of citizenship, so I don’t blame people for wanting to know the stories unfolding in Blacksburg, nor do I blame journalists for telling those stories. Still, how one gathers the facts, why you gather them, and the way you tell them can’t be separated from the story you’re telling. Sadly I’ve been witnessing firsthand how many journalists, particularly those from out of town, seem to have forgotten that common decency is also facet of citizenship.

Finally, Harrill posts what you can do to help the school, the victims’ families, and yourself process the tragedy:

* If you are as concerned and offended as I am about decision of the various news outlets to share the killer’s self-taped images and/or manifesto, let them know your thoughts about it.

* If you have no connection whatsoever to the events of the past week I request that you pause, for at least 24 hours, reading any news stories on the event, especially from news outlets that have featured the killer’s vanity kit. Instead, use that time — even if it’s 5 minutes — to do something positive in the world.

* If you feel compelled to read the news, I encourage you to visit The Roanoke Times, whose in-depth and respectful coverage has been a source of pride for many of us in the area.

* If you are able to do so, I encourage you to donate to one of the many memorial funds set up to honor the victims.

* Finally, if you are a film professional, in the coming weeks I will be looking for internships and summer work for my 26 filmmaking students. It’s vital, to me, to help them find meaningful summer activity, which will move them forward in their career goals and get their minds off of the terrible recent events.

Please contact me directly if you can offer an internship or, even better, paid summer work: pharrill AT selfreliantfilm DOT com

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