Students Staff

03 March 2015

Researcher explores the ethics of spectatorship in film

With Hollywood still buzzing from the excitement of the Oscars, a new book by a University of Essex researcher offers a new perspective on how contemporary cinema depicts human rights violations.

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Drawing on films such as Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, and science fiction film District 9, Dr Shohini Chaudhuri’s book Cinema of the Dark Side investigates cinematic interpretations of state-sponsored atrocities including torture, genocide, and deportation.

Dr Chaudhuri, who will speak about her book at Essex Book Festival, argues that: “The choices filmmakers make create a certain kind of viewing experience for their audiences and this effects how we think and feel about those violations.

“Cinema can create a moral universe in which violent acts are made acceptable. And films can do this because they can get us to sympathise with their heroes, and want to root for those heroes, and at the same time permit the death and suffering of others.”

Dr Chaudhuri, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, is a member of Essex’s world-leading, inter-disciplinary Human Rights Centre. Her Essex Book Festival lecture on 10 March is one event marking the research excellence of the Centre as part of the University’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

Central to her book is how perceptions of violence are managed by filmmakers. She explained why it is important to make a distinction between morality and ethics: “Morality is to do with codes of conduct and socially-enforced norms. Morality can differ from one set of circumstances to another.

“Ethics on the other hand is about reflecting on the moral framework. It is to do with reflecting on the way in which morality is constructed and reconstructed in the atrocity-producing situation. Certain films take a largely moral approach to the violations that they depict and other films take a largely ethical approach.”

Speaking about Polish film Ida, which won the Oscar for Best Film in a Foreign Language, and deals with the Holocaust, Dr Chaudhuri said: “Often perpetrators of genocide are portrayed as purely evil, completely unlike us, the audience. And films conspire in this and I feel that this very much gets in the way of ethical thinking about genocide which happens through the large scale collaboration and consent of the ordinary population. Ida, through its very subtle handling of the past draws attention to that wider complicity and shades of grey in its unearthing of a family secret.”

Dr Chaudhuri’s lecture Cinema of the Dark Side takes place on 10 March, at 7pm, in the Lecture Theatre Building at the University’s Colchester Campus. Book tickets online.


More information

For further information please contact the University of Essex Communications Office, telephone: 01206 873529 or email:

Cinema of the Dark Side: Atrocity and the Ethics of Spectatorship is published by Edinburgh University Press. To receive a complimentary copy to review the book, please contact: Emma Rees at Edinburgh University Press, telephone: 0131 6514856 or email:

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