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Brother Number One and the White Savior Industrial Complex

The official description of the 2011 documentary film Brother Number One reads:

Brother Number One is a New Zealand documentary on the torture and murder of New Zealand yachtie Kerry Hamill by the Khmer Rouge in 1978. It follows the journey of Kerry’s younger brother, Rob Hamill, an Olympic and Trans-Atlantic champion rower, who travels to Cambodia to retrace the steps taken by his brother and John Dewhirst, speaking to eyewitnesses, perpetrators and survivors.

More or less, it is an accurate description. But in the context of documentaries about the Cambodian mass killings and genocide, of which there are very few (read my review of Enemies of the People on N+1 here), we need to read between the lines: this is a documentary about the white experience of a unique and definitive part of Southeast Asian history. It is one tragic story among almost two million—Rob’s tale one of fourteen million survivor’s tales. Only a handful of which are the stories of white English-speaking folk. In other words, the events documented in Brother Number One happened, certainly, but they are not the story.

Keep in mind: genocide is a term that does not apply to all the killings that occurred under the Khmer Rouge, and certainly not most of the almost 12,500 that occurred in the S-21 prison where Kerry Hamill and John Dewhirst met their ends. But in the Westerners’ case, because they were of a different race and ethnicity from the killers, it does.  This is a significant point, because the justification for this film—uttered several times within the film itself, and by the filmmakers in texts that present the film, as well as by the human rights organization that hosted the screening I saw—is that having a Western perspective on a non-Western occurrence is necessary to capture the attention of the international audience. (Whether or not “the attention of the international audience” is itself necessary is an issue we can address at some future point.)

In other words, for Kerry Hamill and John Dewhirst—and for the two other white people killed at S-21, as well as other non-Cambodians—the Khmer Rouge regime was, clearly, a system of genocide. For Cambodians, however, who made up the majority of the population of the torture prison, it was not.

So already the story Olympian and Trans-Atlantic rower Rob Hamill tells is atypical. Because of their white skin, height, and inability to speak Khmer—and because, as the film explains but does not explore, Kerry and John had sailed thoughtlessly into a war zone—the Westerners were targeted as outsiders. Brother Number One does not therefore convey what life was like for all but a handful of those who met their ends at the S-21 prison, nor does the film address the most pressing ongoing difficulties the majority of Cambodians face in seeking justice today. In fact, as we will see in a moment, it skims over them completely. Although this particular story would not have been told without Rob Hamill—one of the most internationally renowned New Zealanders to emerge from this otherwise under-understood country (still better understood than Cambodia, however, at least from a US perspective)—his privilege in telling the story of S-21 is significant, because it changes the story he tells.

Kerry Hamill and John Dewhirst’s linguistic and physical differences also offered the filmmakers privileges—unacknowledged in the film. Take for example Rob Hamill’s method for retracing the steps of his brother and companion: The hero wanders around the countryside with a photograph of the Westerners, asking people (with the help of a translator, natch) if they remember seeing a tall white man at S-21 prison. Sure, they say. There were only four of them. Rob’s difficulty in finding people who remember Kerry is not high. But keep in mind that even the photograph—any photograph—was itself a privilege inaccessible to the majority of families who lost members at S-21. The country was simply too poor for photography to be common. Nor, of course, could Cambodians so easily query each other on their memories of medium-height, ragged-clothed, dark-haired, brown-skinned men or women. There were slightly less than 12,500 of them during the almost four-year run of the facility.

So the method of inquiry the film utilizes was not available to the majority of those whose family members suffered the same fate as Kerry Hamill. And although surviving family members of Cambodians killed at S-21 were also invited to testify at Duch’s hearing, Rob Hamill’s fame and foreignness certainly offered him the freedom and flexibility to attend, which many Cambodians could not afford, financially—or perhaps more significantly, socioculturally—to do. The country is still quite poor, and the tribunals viewed with skepticism. Not to mention that the funding and marketing of the film hinged on Rob Hamill’s fame. Neither, in other words, could this film have told the story of a Cambodian killed under the Khmer Rouge, nor would there have been a film at all, had this not been Rob Hamill’s story to tell.

Much of which is reflected in the title: “Brother Number One” is supposed to refer to Kerry’s status as the elder brother, not only the Khmer Rouge regime in power at the time of his death. However, the real, actual Brother Number One was Pol Pot, or Saleth Sar, who makes only a marginal appearance in the film (seemingly stuck in to justify the title, n fact). The film is not so much about the Khmer Rouge as a whole, however, as it is about S-21 prison, which many former Khmer Rouge have since attempted to marginalize in relationship to the Angkar. This is theoretically a way of distancing former party members still active in politics (including the prime minister himself) from the most evil Khmer Rouge invention, the prison. But it is also smart politics: Duch’s hearing was the first slated in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, and only three others slated at all, now each in jeopardy. Pretending S-21 was the worst of what the Khmer Rouge had to offer, and then punishing Duch for it, lends the appearance of justice to a much more complicated situation. The film’s title builds on the false equivalence that the prison was the worst part of the four-year regime, which is problematic. Yet the self-importance and cuteness of referencing Pol Pot in the title, only to position Kerry as the central figure in this history of mass killings, torture, and other evils, is distressing. Imperialistic. Orientalist. And will go unnoticed by most viewers.

Most viewers, of course, are what the film’s creators call that desirable “international audience”. They are Westerners, prized ostensibly for cultural predominance, ability to influence international affairs, and control of the majority of the world’s resources. It is true that the film would not have been made were it not about Rob Hamill’s brother. This is what the filmmakers, the organizations that sponsor screenings, and Rob Hamill himself feel is its true value. That a film exists on this subject at all, that Westerners can relate to. But. While what happened to Kerry Hamill and John Dewhirst was awful, and what Rob Hamill and his family went through must have been unbearable, too, this film does not tell a larger truth about Southeast Asian history. It tells a story about the persecution of Westerners. Who, the film fails to explain at all, played an extremely significant role in the events that lead to the Khmer Rouge revolution in the first place.

I am reminded of this line in Brecht’s Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties:

[I]t is not untrue that chairs have seats and that rain falls downward. Many poets write truths of this sort. … [but] their truths are truths about chairs or rain; they usually sound like truths about important things. But on closer examination it is possible to see that they say merely: a chair is a chair; and: no one can prevent the rain from falling down.

They do not discover the truths that are worth writing about.

Brother Number One is certainly a true story. It is meaningful, it is sorrowful, it is unfortunate. But in telling this truth, other ones—the ones worth telling—get hidden.

Written by Anne Elizabeth Moore

June 27, 2012 at 11:17 am

The cartoonist, the marketing agent, and the terrific male graphic novelist

Now, before you ask, I’m not going to tell you who sent this, either to me, or to whoever sent it to me. I don’t think it matters and on condition of publishing it I agreed to keep all names out of it. (I have taken the liberty of keeping Twitter, You Tube and Facebook logos intact just for visual pizazz. Also because those logos are now so bland that they may actually counteract the notion that a single entity may be behind a note like this one, when in fact, it’s a bigger phenomenon than that—just try finding someone interested in “male graphic novelists” on Facebook!)

What I will tell you is that this happened fairly recently. And that the person who received it identifies as female, and as a cartoonist, although has a gender-ambiguous name (kind of), which I’m not exactly certain the marketing agent, who is also female, understands. I won’t here go into the full range of implied differences between calling someone a “cartoonist” and calling someone a “graphic novelist”, but the bottom line is that the latter was a term invented to try to sell more expensive books inside bookstores—as opposed to comics shops—which makes it a marketing term, and kind of a useless distinction. Unless you’re a marketing agent, I suppose, when marketing terms are what matters. And in this case, a “graphic novelist” was seen as necessary to the project.

A male one.

The cartoonist’s response was thoughtful and far more engaged than mine would have been, considering that the cartoonist had no hope of being compensated for either the friendly suggestion of the graphic novelist—or of landing the gig herself. In other words, by even responding, she was donating her labor, to the cause of terrific male graphic novelists.

To which the marketing agent responded, quite hurriedly:

Now, as I said, the specifics of this project don’t matter to you: it’s dumb, you can trust me on that. And the brand I’ve hidden from your view—the reason “it has to be a guy”—is equally unremarkable (although you can apparently find them on Facebook, if you’ve ever seen that site). To put this plainly: the individuals involved in this particular exchange don’t matter. What matters, and I think it matters a lot, is this logistics of this exchange:

CARTOONIST: Hm, I can try to do some free labor for you if you tell me a little bit more about what’s involved and also why you are specifying a gender for the laborer?

MARKETING AGENT: Now you must sign a NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENT.

So I write about gender, and labor, and IP issues, and marketing. You all know that. And when the cartoonist first asked me about this situation, I thought it sounded bad, the perfect conflation of friendly-seeming but coercive marketing and the standard-issue gender-based discrimination that we’ve come to expect in comics. But I didn’t think it was illegal. Now I’m not so sure.

Here’s what the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says about such things [emphasis mine]:

Sex discrimination involves treating someone (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of that person’s sex. … The law forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment. … Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted). The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.

Smartly, the cartoonist flatly refused to sign the NDA, and politely begged off of recommending anyone for the project.

Still, the marketer persisted …

… utilizing the “we’re all in this together!” theory of marketing (forgetting that, in fact, she wasn’t actually helping out this particular cartoonist, but using her to find one she could “help out”), with a heavy helping of “I used to be just like you!” BARF.

The cartoonist, sympathetic, understandably responded with an email agreeing not to mention her name, or her employer’s, or the client’s, to anyone. I respect that. As I said: this type of exchange happens often enough that it’s not actually just about this one bad marketing agent, or this dumb firm or lame brand. It’s about who believes who owes who what, and who owns what is said in the course of negotiating it. In an email I won’t reproduce, the cartoonist again refused to sign the NDA, and refused to recommend anyone for the project, but she did agree not to make a big stink about it.

I agreed to no such thing. From this moment on, with full respect (and admiration) for the cartoonist who sent me this exchange in the first place, I’d like to request this: If you’re asked to sign an NDA during an informal exchange, don’t do it. If you’re a female identified creator in the comics industry asked to work for free on anything, don’t do that either. And if someone uses gendered, raced, or classed language—even if we’re just talking about art, or comics—get a lawyer, file a complaint, go public, or do whatever else you have to do to shut them down.

Why? Because these are bigger issues than any individual can see. We’ll soon be releasing Ladydrawers stats that talk about average earnings by gender, average submission rates by gender, and average publication acceptance rate by gender, and they. Are. Bad. I won’t ruin the surprise for you. What I will tell you now is this: male-identified creators are earning over three and a half times as much as female-identified creators, at the same average level of experience and doing the same amount of labor in the industry, in a divide that just barely straddles the poverty line (favoring, of course, the higher earners). Those who don’t identify along a gender binary in comics? That’s where it gets really rough:  We’re seeing numbers that indicate they pull in about a seventh of what female creators do. Not enough to cover a single month’s rent in any city I know of.

In other words, for people who work in comics that don’t identify as male (or, for that matter, as “graphic novelists”), biased hiring practices and our widespread willingness to remain silent about them are an issue of survival.

Written by Anne Elizabeth Moore

May 22, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Privatization and Public Space

It is ridiculous, hilarious, and true that the US government was threatening to shut itself down recently over what amounts to women’s access to a full range of reproductive health options. I mean: we know this was merely a preposterous salvo in an ongoing war over control of resources, meaning mostly money, but for those of us concerned about the sovereignty of our own (female) bodies, it was something else, too. Because however hard we may be laughing over the inflated numbers, specious reasoning, and basic fucked-up-ness of a roomful of moneyed white men making decisions about women’s needs—and most of us, really are not—what we’re seeing is that the battlefields in the fight for women’s basic human rights are, again, shifting.  Read the rest of this entry »

Taking on Reality TV [from Truthout]

I interviewed my long-standing colleague and pal Jenn Pozner on the occasion of the release of her first book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV for Truthout this week. Here’s an excerpt:

“Reality Bites Back,” a new book on the phenomenon of unscripted television programming from feminist media critic Jennifer Pozner, distills into 386 pages an entire decade full of the cheapest, sleaziest TV shows in history. It’s also the most popular genre of media the information age has yet produced. But with whom, readers might be asking themselves, is it popular?

Of course, the shows are popular with corporate advertisers, who cannot contain their drool at the thought of a thinly disguised representation of everyday life that they create and control, filling each dramatic scene with soda, hot tubs, clothes, personal hygiene products, entertainment systems, makeup, gym equipment, expensive sports cars and luxury, high thread-count sheets. All brand-name, all readily available, all thoroughly integrated into something we’ve agreed to call reality TV.

Regardless of whether or not viewers accept reality TV as reality IRL (as in “In Real Life”), the same decade in which the genre’s taken over the boob tube has seen an unprecedented rise in for-profit educational environments, heavily branded infotainment, sponsorships, guerrilla marketing and ad-friendly social media. These have all worked to erode any critical capacity we may have been born with, and they’ve also supplanted any cultural institutions erected to provide same. We’re left, not as empty vessels ready to be filled with whatever meaning the products sold on reality TV can provide, but without any facilities to gut check our gag reflex.

Enter “Reality Bites Back,” [which] touches on the deeply disturbing manner in which unscripted programming legally skirts years and years of advancements in the labor, civil and women’s rights movements, and notes in occasional asides the disturbing manner in which participants willingly throw away these rights for a shot at televised humiliation and a decent wad of cash. But the purpose of Pozner’s book is to provide a very harsh and very thorough content analysis of over a thousand hours of these shows.

Read the whole thing here.

Written by Anne Elizabeth Moore

December 17, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Unmarketable Release Party Podcast The Final: The Hair Down There

Written by Anne Elizabeth Moore

November 28, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Episode 6: Ms. Elizabeth Crane

I remain pleased as punch to have been joined at the Unmarketable release party by one of my favorite all-time writers Elizabeth Crane. Ms. Crane perhaps doesn’t recall that I first came across her work when we were published next to each other in the 2001 Fiction edition of the Chicago Reader. Her story, Something Shiny, was so good I emailed her and demanded we become friends. Then I published her book You Must Be This Happy to Enter on Punk Planet Books. One of the stories featured a character based on me. The story was well-liked by the press, which was very bizarre, to hear someone refer to you as a “character” like you’re fictional, but even more bizarre when I eventually realized that when I thought about how weird that was? I kept thinking of the main character in “Something Shiny,” who is having a movie made about her life.

Then some other stuff happened. I mean, this all started like a decade ago.

Anyway, you can hear Betsy Crane reading, out loud, (and believe me, you will want to) here:

Hair of the Dog, Retrieved from the Floor (Elizabeth Crane, 2007)

 

Here are all the previous editions of the Unmarketable Release Party Podcast series:

Unmarketable Reading (Anne Elizabeth Moore, 2007)

Ring Around the Rosie Enterprises (Richard Fox, 2007)

Your Former Teenage Self (Mairead Case, 2007)

Television Commercial (Fiona Bradley, 2007)

Get Sympathy Kit (Laura Pearson, 2007)

The Anne Elizabeth Moore Award for Excellence in Awesomeness, November 2007

Written by Anne Elizabeth Moore

November 21, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Unmarketable Release Party Podcast: Five! With Richard Fox!

Poet Richard Fox continues our Unmarketable release party podcast series with this recording of his testimonial on behalf of the company Ring Around the Rosie Enterprises. Which is a business plan that, if I recall correctly, he made up as a joke, and then later discovered was sort of a real thing. Check the whole series here:

Ring Around the Rosie Enterprises (Richard Fox, 2007)

Your Former Teenage Self (Mairead Case, 2007)

Television Commercial (Fiona Bradley, 2007)

Get Sympathy Kit (Laura Pearson, 2007)

The Anne Elizabeth Moore Award for Excellence in Awesomeness, November 2007

 

 

Written by Anne Elizabeth Moore

November 7, 2010 at 1:58 pm

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