This past weekend, the passing of Elie Wiesel, the inspirational writer, speaker, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, reminded me of something I’ve wanted to try to wrap my head around for a while now. One of the most important ideas that Wiesel addressed in his books and interviews is the importance of preserving memory in the attempt to build a better world. Surrounding any given event, every individual – whether they experienced it firsthand or not – thinks about it through their own unique filters, and will interpret things in different ways. Thus, the best way we can hope to teach others to be and do better, is to attempt to form a complete picture of what has happened in the past, which demands that we preserve as many perspectives as possible.
In November of 2015 it was the 35th annual Holocaust Education Week in Toronto, and on November 9th, a date significant to the history of the Holocaust, I attended one of the events sponsored by the Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre. One of the movie theatres in midtown Toronto hosted the presentation of a documentary that contained never before seen, raw footage of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp soon after it was liberated.
Along with this footage – which was collected under the directorial supervision of Alfred Hitchcock – an additional film was shown in order to help viewers process the traumatic visuals of the primary footage, which displayed the starved, emaciated bodies of Bergen-Belsen’s tortured prisoners, including both the dead and the barely-alive. Much of the footage focused on how the Nazi former-leaders of the camp handled and buried the hundreds and hundreds of recently-killed prisoners, when tasked to do so upon the camp’s liberation. Unsurprisingly, but horrifyingly, the bodies were handled like sacks of grain that needed to be stored in a hurry, without any show of respect or acknowledgement of the fact that these lifeless objects were once people with lives, and friends and family who cared about them.
The showing of this film was restricted to those who were over 18-years-old, but the majority of viewers were middle-aged and older. The film was shown in the middle of the day on a Monday. The event reached its pre-set capacity, largely filling an average-sized movie theatre auditorium. The event was one of several held during a week devoted to education. A University of Toronto professor provided some brief context for the film, gave a warning about the difficulties of watching such footage, and stated that it is rare that such a film is made available for public consumption.
So, taking the details about the event and the film itself into account, my question is: if we are to preserve memory in an attempt to teach others how to make the world a better place, do we have the right to classify such films as so disturbing that most people are restricted or prevented from attending and learning from them?
Films and the use of imagery in general are vitally important media when it comes to forming a more accurate, empathetic perspective of things we have been fortunate enough to not live through. How are younger generations supposed to learn such important lessons about humanity and inhumanity if the events that teach them are made so inaccessible and rare?