Committing horrendous acts of abuse has severe psychological impacts on the perpetrators as well as the victims – yet we have often overlooked the former when trying to rebuild and reform society in times of peace. In a guest piece for Indy Film Library, film scholar Beschara Karam takes a thought-provoking look at the representation of survivor trauma in cinema, and how it can help us avoid the brutality of the past from reoccurring in our immediate future.
Perpetrator trauma is an under-researched and under-documented topic, especially when it comes to mainstream films. It is a difficult and complex subject to engage with, as it implies sympathy for the perpetrator. But before focusing on perpetrator trauma, let us first look at the theme of trauma and its associated concepts, which I will then link back, more directly to perpetrator trauma, later on in the essay. Some of these themes include pain; Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; and survivor guilt. All of which are found in plenty of films in the cinema-verse. And they traverse many, if not all genres: War; Crime; Thriller; and Horror, for instance. There are also many cross-over themes attached, such as war; race; gender-based violence; and class. In addition, there are collective (group) traumas and individual traumas. Sometimes both types of traumas are represented in the same film. Individual trauma is defined by the American Psychiatric Association (2000:467-468) as an assemblage of symptoms that includes emotional numbing; flashbacks; hallucinations; deeply submerged traumatic memories; nightmares; and even the inability to recall the actual traumatic incident/s. Individual traumas include, for example, rape; high-jackings; or being witness to a murder. While collective trauma is defined by Jeffrey C. Alexander (2012:1) as occurring;
“when members of a collective feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.”
Such collective traumas include 9/11; the Holocaust; genocide (Rwanda and Armenia) and the Atlantic Slave Trade, to name but a few. Ron Eyerman (2004:4) adds to the discussion on collective trauma by terming it as a “societal wound” or a “tear in the social fabric”. Such “societal wounds” include apartheid and colonial traumas.
There are in fact, many films that one can think of offhand that have trauma as their main theme: Dunkirk (Nolan, 2017); 1917 (Mendes, 2019); Schindler’s List (Spielberg, 1993); Amistad (Spielberg, 1997); Django Unchained (2012); and Inception (Nolan, 2010). Even Superhero films have trauma as a central theme, Bruce Wayne/Batman who witnesses the murder of his parents when he is just a child; Superman/Clarke Kent, in the film Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013) is abandoned, and then raised by a child-less couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent; he suffers from severe survivor guilt and the trauma of not saving his adoptive dad from death (they always wanted Clark to keep his superpowers hidden in-order-to protect him, and this ended up costing his adoptive father his life); and then Superman also discovers his entire race was decimated when his home planet imploded. Let us consider one of these films in more detail, Joker (Phillips, 2019), and the central character, Arthur Fleck/Joker, played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix. Arthur is mentally ill, poverty-stricken and a desperate, but unsuccessful stand-up comedian. He suffers from a condition that makes him laugh pathologically when he is stressed or confronted by threat (real or imagined). He lives in Gotham City with his mother, Penny. As his story unfolds, he discovers he was adopted, and his mother allowed her boyfriend to abuse both of them when he was just a child. She also fed him lies, stating that he was Thomas Wayne’s son. He experiences bullying, torture, ridicule, psychical and physical trauma. His character, and story, inhabits all of the symptoms of trauma, as defined by the American Psychiatric Association (2000:467-468). For instance, he hallucinates; he does not recall the original trauma, which he has buried deep in his psyche; he disassociates. For instance, he imagines that his neighbour is his girlfriend; there are flashbacks to his abusive childhood; and to other brutal attacks on him. He has buried some of the memories of the original traumas from when he was a small child, and he was tortured by his mother’s then-boyfriend. And when he finds out about his past, horrific, submerged memories come rushing back to traumatise him all over again. By the end of the film, Arthur becomes the Joker, and he descends into an insane, nihilistic, orgiastic murderer.
But let us also consider a film where the trauma is not so obvious, in-order-to better conceptualise these ideas in filmic terms. Get Out (Peele 2017), is a Horror genre film that links race; class; individual trauma; collective trauma; and the themes of horror, fantasy and even a little bit of sci-fi. The film is about a young American photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) who is visiting the home of his girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), for the first time, where he will meet her parents, at their very wealthy estate (lodge) in Upstate New York. At first, with his obvious jitters, at having to meet the in-laws, it seems like a sweet romantic film, reminiscent of Guess who is coming to Dinner (Kramer, 1967). They seem very much in love, with lots of PDAs. But it soon turns to horror when he discovers why he is really there: to host the brains of a wealthy White man in his body, selected for his athletic physique and youth. The process involves hypnosis, with the burying of the Black man (or Black woman’s personality); and a rather monstrous physical transplant of the brain into the body-host. He, and others before him, are auctioned off to wealthy White people in their constant search for immortality. Chris manages to save himself, setting the exclusive lodge, and its operating theatre on fire; he abandons Rose bleeding out on the side of the road. A police cruiser rescues Chris from this literal horror show. That is the basic story but let us deconstruct the film a little using trauma as its main theme (but certainly not its only theme).
Firstly, there is individual trauma. For instance, we learn about Chris’ childhood trauma, he suffers from survivor’s guilt, over his Mother’s death. A result of a hit-and-run, even though he was just a child when it happened, and he was in no way responsible for it, he blames himself. And as a result, he has buried the trauma deep in his psyche. We also have his own personal traumas, which unfolds as the film progresses: discovering that Rose is not who he thinks she is; uncovering this horrendous, desperate need for immortality, where he is nothing more than a healthy vessel for some rich White American. His body is basically colonised, to be used, flaunted, abused, until a younger, healthier Black man becomes available and he is replaced.
Secondly, the film links to a wider collective or societal (wound) and historical trauma: the trauma of slavery (enslaved labour). This is another kind of trauma alluded to. Slaves, brought from Africa after being abducted from their homes in Africa, and transported to lands (and languages) unknown. Stripped of every form of personal identity: culture, religious/spiritual, language; and, auctioned off, to the highest bidder. Just as Chris’ body is intended for use: the plantation owners also put a high price on corporeal aspects such as good teeth and physical dexterity and strength. These bodies were abused until his/her Black body gave out, after years of hard work and hideous physical and mental exploitation. The slave trade is an example of both individual trauma and collective trauma: experienced individually but also collectively, to both large, and small, communities. African children; women and men. Their bodies colonised for cheap labour and used as mere capitalist enterprises of rich, wealthy landowners, and businessmen. The film therefore represents both kinds of trauma and the film is layered with different kinds of psychical, physical, and societal wounds.
So, I think it is safe to argue that trauma is a very familiar theme in film. But of what perpetrator trauma? More importantly, what is perpetrator trauma and why should we care? Academic Raya Morag (2013), argues that traumatised perpetrators suffer from the same physical and psychological symptoms that trauma victims suffer from: their symptoms also include disorientation; memory gaps; unexplained physical ailments; hallucinations; nightmares; flashbacks; and recurring symptoms. The one difference is that perpetrators do not have a buried trauma in their lives, giving rise to these symptoms, because they are perpetrators, and not victims (Morag 2013). It is their enactment of violence against victims that causes the trauma. Perpetrators themselves are often represented onscreen, in more serious films, to better understand their inhumanity; or they feature in a film as a monster (serial killer, for instance) as the basis of the genre (Horror, for example).
Perpetrator trauma, however, has also been represented on the cinematic screen, and it is important to interrogate the representation of such trauma in cinema, as it can give context to this very particular type of trauma. It also highlights that often it is not a monstrous evil out there that needs to be feared, and understood, but our very own neighbours. That is, most especially when referring to countries such as Bosnia, Rwanda, Chile, and South Africa, where victims and perpetrators have to live side by side. In fact, any country that has endured civil unrest, or had soldiers go to war, some of these perpetrators have suffered from serious trauma. For example, let us look closely at the film, Da 5 Bloods (Lee, 2020). This film sees four African-American soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War (Black US Army soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division), who call themselves Bloods, as they return to Vietnam in the present day to find a locker of gold they buried in the 70s. And also, to provide a proper burial for their fifth Blood brother, Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who was killed in action, whose body was never found and therefore never returned to his family. One member of the group, Paul (Delroy Lindo), suffers from all the symptoms of perpetrator trauma: he disassociates; he has flashbacks; nightmares; he suffers from hallucinations; he is paranoid; and he talks of the hundreds of ghosts he sees; tormented by those he killed. He also talks constantly to Norman. There is no question about it, this man is suffering: his pain and psychological and corporeal trauma is palpable and visceral. It is clear he regrets all the deaths he has perpetrated. From the beginning of the film, he seems obsessed with his dead friend Norman, having long intellectual conversations with him. It is only mid-way during the film that the audience realises why. It was Paul who accidently shot Norman, when he took fright as they were trying to move the cache of gold bars they found. He has kept this secret from everyone else. His traumatic symptoms, his delusions, regret; disassociations etcetera, stem from both instances, the war he wanted no part of, and killing his best friend. One cannot but feel sympathy for the trauma this character suffers as a perpetrator.
Another film that represents perpetrator trauma is the film Forgiveness (Gabriel, 2004); a film that deals with the journey of an ex-policeman’s desperate yearning for forgiveness for the atrocities he committed during the apartheid-era in South Africa – even after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has granted him amnesty for brutally torturing and killing an African National Congress, anti-apartheid activist. He, Tertius Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo), is haunted by his actions, and not only does he suffer from the nightmares; the unexplained physical pains and ailments; but he even recreates the torture, on himself, for hours on end. Even though he acted on orders from the South African Nationalist Party, and was exonerated by the newly appointed (circa 1996) ANC government, he cannot forgive himself, nor forget what he did. He is severely traumatised, and he only finds relief at the moment of his death. Once again, we can sympathise with this perpetrator, while abhorring, and without condoning, his actions.
There are other films that touch on such perpetrators traumatised by their actions, such as Heaven & Earth (Stone, 1993); Waltz with Bashir (Folman, 2008); Savior (Antonijević, 1998); Lord of War (Niccol, 2005), and The Pardon/Imbabazi (Karekezi, 2013); to mention but a few. But why should we interrogate these films? And why should there be more mainstream films that deal with such a topic? Because they tell us more about forgiveness, acceptance, empathy, understanding and reconciliation than many other films that deal with trauma. They help us understand societies; different religions; different cultures; and they pose difficult questions for us to answer: just how complicit are we? And how do we reconcile, especially when perpetrators and victims have no choice but to live side by side, literally residing next door to one another, after civil unrest? Films such as these provide insight into the different contexts that give rise to such perpetrator trauma and this is significant, because in the words of Truth Commissioner Dr Faizel Randera, “if we cannot understand what made people think and do what they did, these conflicts will arise again within our society” (Latter, Gabriel and Brighton 2006:11). And it is because of this that this theme needs more attention, most especially when it comes to mainstream cinema.
APA (American Psychiatric Association). 2000. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fourth Edition: Text Revision (DSM–IV-TR). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishers, 467-468.
Alexander, J. C. 2012. Trauma: a social theory. Cambridge. Polity Press.
Eyerman, R. 2004. Cultural trauma: Slavery and the formation of African America identity. In Cultural trauma and collective identity, ed. J. C. Alexander, R. Eyerman, B. Giesen, N.J. Smelser and P. Sztompka, 4; 60-112. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.
Latter, G., Gabriel, I., & Brighton, S. 2006. Forgiveness. SA: Oxford University Press.
Morag, R. 2013. Waltzing with Bashir. Perpetrator trauma and cinema. London and New York: IB Tauris.
Beschara Karam is a lecturer in the Department of Communication Science, at the University of South Africa, where she teaches Film Studies and Political Communication. Her next co-edited book, Black Panther is due out in 2021. In her spare time she is an ardent lover of film, television, and all things Hello Kitty.