My paper on mimetic theory and three films

Per a few requests, I post my (very brief) paper delivered in Freising, Germany, at the Colloquium on Violence and Religion. Apparently unable to attach the doc, I've simply pasted the 9 pages here. I have not included some final edits made on site. Proceed to be marginally interested.

Three Films as Violence Exegetes

Many films offer penetrating insight into macro-economic and political trends as they relate to violence, as in the 2005 documentary Why We Fight, for example. Therein, the chilling words of Dwight Eisenhower are recalled, coinciding with Girard’s latest book: that the containment of war has grown out of governmental, presidential control. While such macro analysis is illuminating, there are other factors to consider in examining violence today, especially in light of the recent shifts in the types of violence: since the end of the Cold War, there has been a marked decline in international conflict, replaced by smaller-scale, protracted, intra-national conflict.[1] Though Eisenhower’s warnings about world-war styled military build-up are still valid, we might also consider the micro-dynamics of conflict that would lie at the roots of intra-national conflicts: civil unrest, community strife, local justice, the personalities and habits of conflict, and, in Girardian terms, the cultural dissolution sacrificial safeguards. In this sense, I will here discuss three films that display the more interpersonal psychological, mimetic dynamics of violence.[2]

With such a focus, these movies lead the viewer toward a sort of personal conversion or repentance—particularly in the way Girard has referred to conversion as “recognizing that we are persecutors without knowing it.”[3] One comes to see how much imitation has a grip on our social dynamics—often to detrimental effect. At the same time, parts of these films can also illuminate ways one can be a healing peacemaker against the odds of the crowd. In sum, they turn attention closely to the social anarchy of perpetrators—be they a wife-beater, a crowd stoning a woman, a mass murdering paramilitary “gangster”—or the ways a victim transcends their victimage with positive action.
The Stoning of Soraya M.
This 2008 dramatization of the 1990 book, La Femme Lapidée,[4] is set in a small village in Iran. It depicts the events surrounding the stoning of a woman named Soraya. Her violent and antagonistic husband had harbored festering desire for a young 14-year-old girl. Seeking to rid himself of his wife, he polarized villagers toward him and against Soraya, compelling an ad hoc sharia court to sentence her to death for adultery.
The most prescient mimetic analysis here is in the psychology of the mob, the powerful lure this process had on the bystanders: besides village gossips and betrayers caving before the force of accusation, and the villagers fearing that they too must accuse lest they be accused, even Soraya’s young sons and father were drawn into throwing the first stones. At the forefront here is an illustration of how, being puppets of accusation and mimetic dynamics, Christ might say of us, “forgive them, they know not what we do.”
The film corresponds with almost breathtaking precision to Girard’s notions of mimesis and the “surrogate victim mechanism.” The Stoning’s director, stated that, “most of all, I wanted to capture the whole ritual design of [the stoning and its causes] and how it affects the crowd.”[5] For example, the antagonist’s object of desire (to marry the young girl) “disappears” over time as obsession with ridding himself of Soraya (his stumbling block) and gaining supporters takes over.[6] Or also, the antagonist spurs attention and fascination toward himself by flaunting his exotic and conspicuous car around town. In the passenger seat is his young crush with some foreign (blonde) wig, adorning their unisex coquettetry. Later, as the accusations against Soraya snowball, the verdict is “unanimous” by the village leaders, and people begin to believe she has “defiled” our village. They say that with each stone, honor will return. The townspeople afterward are all celebrating, having been united by their polarization. And yet, it is just Soraya’s aunt and a few silent, women who grieve at the margin, which are made the center of truth—the truth of the victim.
Even criticism of this film coheres with Girard’s notion of modern anti-ethnocentrism.[7] One critic at the The Telegraph (UK) calls the movie “boring racism” for its cartoonishly evil antagonist and unwelcome depiction of Muslims; “Christian extremists will love it,” she writes.[8] But while the antagonist was indeed almost unbelievably sinister, this misses the fact that, in accord with the journalist’s real life account, this man was actually mentally deranged. The film’s lesson is not, as this critic facetiously agreed—that we should not stone women to death—but that law is often driven by paternalism and the arbitrary tides of the crowd. To whip up a stoning may indeed only take a deranged man with a few others who are vulnerable, fearful, or mimetically piqued.[9] And, it is true, many religious figures are depicted here as fiends, as they use piety as a cover.[10] And yet the protagonist of The Stoning of Soraya M is Soraya’s aunt, an outspoken and pious Muslim who resisted the mob and championed the truth of the victim, even if it endangered her life.[11]
Overall, the film sets before the viewer a conflict: between the dangers and lies of the crowd and the innocence of a crowd’s victim. And this is not necessarily a conflict that is ebbing with the march of modern progress: the film mentions how Iran used to be more humane decades earlier, and has since developed pockets of Sharia law. The film is not about Sharia per se, and one need not praise all of Western society as pacific to note that the major advances of ISIS in Iraq this summer uncomfortably suggest that mob justice and mimetic accusation are not quite going extinct.
The Act of Killing
This second film, released in 2012, is quite unique in its raw exposure of the personalities of a few mass-murderers. In 196x, a military coup overthrew the Indonesian government; and in subsequent years some few million “communists” were “purged” in supposed prevention of any counter-revolution. These now-aged purgers were asked to recount those events, and they chose to awkwardly act them out in a sort of B-movie style—the scenes of which make up only a portion of this documentary.
What is lost in cultural translation here is revelatory: we are cast into a culture that, by Western standards and taboos, completely fails to hide its atrocities. Far from hiding what they have done, these men often brag about how many people they have killed and how they did it. Even more, they seem without shame in how their atrocities were done in imitation of U.S. gangster- and western-cowboy films, which were so popular in the wake of the pro-capitalist coup and inspired them to dress fashionably and strangle people with wire. A rich newspaper manager states without shame the corruption his paper served during the purge: “my job was to make the public hate [the Communists]”; they would trump up charges against detainees just so they could kill them. Another man brags of how he would stab any Chinese person he met, given their stereotypical association with communism; he even stabbed to death his girl friend’s father, recounted without remorse. Another gangster laments of how “he was more free” in the time of his mass killing work. Even the vice president of Indonesia himself, before a large crowd, boisterously lauds how gangsters “work outside the system,” keeping governance light and free of bureaucracy.[12] These old gangsters threaten shopkeepers to give them money, with apparently no shame of their intimidation and graft being caught on film. Another proudly brags how he would rape any woman, particularly young girls, “especially back when we were the law.” Another gangster, running for office, describes how he plans to extort building owners for bribes when he gets into office.
Even amidst bombastic U.S. nationalism, known for its staunch gun rights, Confederate flags, and so on, it is still generally taboo to brag about massacres. In the U.S. debate surrounding the Iraq-Afghanistan wars, supporters make sure the civilian death counts are as subdued as possible; any gloating over the bodies of detainees (as in the case of Abu Gharib) is shunned. But, we find in this film that the manners of covering over guilt (or guilty consciences) is apparently culturally conditioned—and gloating is simply an alternative way to hide guilt. The viewer is left, if they consent to the introspection, wondering in what ways we hide our society’s murders under other methods.
One most obvious and superficial lesson from this film is that the stereotypical demonization of communists qua communists—who so uniquely repressed and killed millions—in contrast to more sane and humane capitalists, is proven an untenable prejudice. One comes to see that some of the henchmen in the battle between capitalism and communism have no concern whatsoever about Smith’s Wealth of Nations or Marx’s proletariat. They are living upon whims of fashion, drugs, and the lure of the crowd.
But the more important lesson comes late in the film, as the focal gangster, Anwar, begins to open up to the perspective of the victim. As he was re-enacting a scene of the purge’s torture, he played the role of a torturee. And while he was being faux-strangled with wire, he anxiously called off the scene. He later reflects: “Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here? I can feel what the people I tortured felt….All the terror suddenly possessed my body.” The director responds behind the camera, “Actually, the people you tortured felt far worse because you know it’s a film. And they knew they were being killed.” And a spark of both revelation and confusion comes upon his face. “But I can feel it Josh. Really, I feel it. Or have I sinned?” And he begins to cry. “I did this to so many people, Josh,” crying more intensely. “Is it all coming back to me? I really hope it won’t.” The final scene of the movie is unbearably awkward, as he cannot stand the memories, and involuntarily dry vomits for several minutes. One is reminded of the intense bodily shocks, or “blinding light,” that the apostle Paul experienced as he came to see that his violence was violence against God’s innocent One.
Very few films so effectively demonstrate with such clarity people truly not knowing what they are doing, even while they apparently want to and know what they are doing. The film displays the utter incomprehensibility of the torturer, his personality, while also humanizing him—and, most eerily, inviting us to not disassociate ourselves from them through demonization. One is left feeling all of human culture exposed to its darkest, most arbitrary forces of mimetic violence.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell
This third film is surely the most constructive and hopeful among the three, but not through a rosier picture of our penchant for chaotic violence. Indeed, similar to the Indonesian gangsters, we see children and adult soldiers mimicking Rambo on their way to committing unspeakable acts. And the directors don’t fail to note the bitter irony that the LURD’s Army leaders regularly attended mosque, while Charles Taylor was an observant Chrisitan. But in a more constructive manner than merely depicting certain evils, this film briefly accounts the women’s movement of Liberia (Women’s Peace Coordinating Network) as they sought to put an end to the civil war of the late 90’s-early 2000’s. Led in part by (the now Nobel Laureat) Lehmah Gbowee, this movement is usually best known for its “sex strike,” wherein all women refused any sex until the war ended. While this made some difference, a most pivotal event was in Lehmah Gbowee and her fellow activists closely monitoring the stalled peace talks and then acting with passionate abandonment to block all entrances to the building. She then stripped naked before them in severe violation of cultural taboo. This effectively set talks back into motion, leading to a cessation of conflict and the election of the first woman president in Africa.
            While perhaps lacking what the other films have in production value and complexity, this film makes up in offering a clear and resolute model from which we can be inspired. The notion of a “forgiving victim” that has stemmed from Alison’s extension of mimetic theory is vibrantly visible in these women. Many of these women have suffered rape and awful displacement, even while caring for or bearing children. Few people would be more “justified” in seething with vengeance. And yet they nonviolently act with impressively little vitriol. In Yoderian terms they display a “revolutionary subordination,” toward the political actors they are influencing, as they don’t seek to overthrow, despise, or depose them. The movement ecumenically drew together Christian and Muslim women, breaking some cultural-religious barriers. Their forgiveness is even further present when these women describe the painful, yet necessary, way that they sought to reintegrate former soldiers into their communities. One can think of few more difficult tasks than to love and work with soldiers who have been, perhaps, abusing drugs, guns, and people in the most heinous ways since they were children.
In conclusion, I hasten to note that all three of these films dangerously direct attention outward, toward foreign, perhaps too exotic theaters of action. The Stoning critic still has a point that some films, especially like my fist two, can dangerously incite revulsion at how other cultures are caught in violence. Viewed this way, these films would entirely loose their pedagogical value. If we are to value their foreignness, it is in viewing another culture’s violence that we are invited to see our own, which is often hidden in plain sight by our over familiarity. True, stonings and mass gangster purges are foreign to most of us: but what about torture, waterboarding, distant drone bombing, mass military intervention, latent cultural racism, an immense and baroque penal-imprisonment complex, and so forth. When we see that others, too, can be blind to their cultural corruptions, attention must turn to the mote in our own eye.
            With attention ultimately drawn toward our own susceptibility in becoming persecutors, these films are among the cultural material that helps prepare us for the stage of human culture that is coming, and has already arrived. And that is a world where we have not only proven capable of mass scale, intercultural and international warfare, but we have tripled world population in a century, making the world quite cramped, and conflict has become more haphazard, more omni-directional. What can help us proceed with caution in a growing media culture of constantly being scandalized by the other evil people, of being polarized against others? Scholars of mimetic theory can and must produce erudite reflection on how to disarm vengeance and inspire the type of love that women like Ms. Gbowee demonstrate. But it is cultural, artistic works like these films that can compellingly and contagiously spread concepts (or events) like the forgiving victim.

[1] E.g. “Armed Conflicts, 19462011,” Lotta Themnér and Peter Wallensteen, Journal of Peace Research 2012 49: 565-575.
[2] Naturally, there are countless other films that could rightly be reviewed here, and this paper modestly highlights only a few. One might consider an entirely different genre, like the very plain and conflictless documentaries, like Into the Silence or Étre et Avoir, as weighty meditations on the quieting of desire.
[3] Girard, Rene, Evolution and Conversion (New York, NY: Continuum, 2007), 198.
[4] Sahebjam, Freidoune, La Femme Lapidée (1990).

[5] See interview at
[6] When in the last scene the wedding is called off, the anti-climax is expected and obvious; it was never ultimately about her.
[7] Western culture is quite obviously ethnocentric. But it is no more ethnocentric than any other, even if its ethnocentrism has been more cruelly effective on account of its power…Unlike all other cultures, which have always been unashamedly ethnocentric, we in the West have always been simultaneously ourselves and our own enemy. (Girard [2014], x; 2001, 165, 169; 2007a, 145; 2011, 3; [1977], 232; 214, 226).
[8] "The Stoning of Soraya M is little more than boring racism. Christian extremists will love it." Telegraph Online 20 Oct. 2010. Business Insights: Essentials. Web. 5 June 2014.
[9] What did gain dramatic gravity by perhaps smoke and mirrors was the depiction of the town: an entirely dusty, mud-hut, impoverished type town in which, somehow, magically, the very near countryside is breathtakingly verdant. The town as corrupt, nature as heavenly, serves a backdrop
[10] for example, the mayor, just having sealed Soraya’s fate, says his prayers toward Mecca; the mullah gets his beard trimmed as he prepares for the stoning; the townswomen, peppered with the gossips who abetted the crisis, are rolling their prayer beads.
[11] The above critic has a point to balk at this film’s association with Mel Gibson’s The Passion, given the gruesomeness of the stoning scene. (Besides James Caviziel, playing the journalist in this film and Jesus in The Passion, a producer and composer is also shared between the two films). “The stimulation of blood lust in the guise of moral righteousness has its appeal” (Stephen Holden, New York Times, But this film is unlike The Passion in that Gibson spent so little time portraying the mimetic psychology of Christ’s pseudo-legal, mob driven lynching. Christ’s suffering was there unfortunately quite decontextualized, lending itself too easily to penal substitutionary interpretation. In The Stoning, however, there is no jungle of atonement theory to chop through: the wrongness of the lynching and the importance of the truth being told takes center stage.
[12] The largest “gangster” grouping in Indonesia is Pancasila Youth: 3 million members. Its leader appears in the film as a virtual madman, under the hypnosis of imitating Americans as he plays golf, and bragging of the pleasures of the wealthy: “relax and Rolex” is his motto. To this day a culture of “gangsters”—paramilitaries, in effect—permeates parts of Indonesian culture in which gangs are given free reign to extend the hand of coercion and policing where the state leaves off.