Atrocity Porn, the Resource Curse and Badvocacy in ‘Unwatchable’ (2011)

Lest it need saying, *trigger warning*.


Unwatchable lasts just over 6 minutes, but is intended to linger far longer. A project of Save The Congo, it was apparently turned down by larger charities on the grounds that it was too extreme. Deploying liberal doses of slo-mo and orchestral overture, it shows an armed assault on a whiter-than-white (and blonder-than-blonde) family somewhere in rural England. The teenage daughter is gang-raped on the kitchen table while her father is forced to watch, and her parents are eventually mutilated and killed on their front lawn while the soldiers laugh and film them on mobile phones. At one point we see a soldier cowering to avoid the scenes wrought by his comrades. The youngest daughter is killed trying to escape. In other words, a BBFC 18-rated piece of atrocity porn doubling as a viral advocacy campaign.

A small clickable box sits screen top-right throughout. It reads: ‘Make It Stop’. The tagline: ‘Warning: this film contains sexualised violence you and your mobile phone manufacturer may find disturbing’. The pay off being that this is really about the DRC, but that it will take this happening to white people for you to notice. Yes, this is another campaign about the resource curse and another entry in the catalogue of rape atrocity ratcheting, now with the obligatory twitter hashtag (#bloodminerals) and a petition demanding: a) that EU companies be forced into transparent supply chains for coltan and the like; and b) that ‘swift and severe’ action be taken against any party responsible for violence.

Kate at Wronging Rights picks up on the incoherence of Save the Congo’s accompanying claims:

W…T…F…? Rape is cheaper and much more effective than guns or bullets??? No.  Rape is not a “cheap” coercive strategy.  It’s time-consuming and it exposes the perpetrators to injury and potential STD infection. Armed groups absolutely use it anyway, but not because it’s cheaper than bullets.

And, [i]f armed groups were to raid a village and force the population to leave by shooting at them, NGOs could be alerted and the UN would have to react??  This is surely news to the scores of NGOs, both local and international, who have worked tirelessly to document and publicize the use of rape as a weapon of war throughout the last decade and a half of conflict in the region.

Look, I realize that grassroots activism often plays a fundamental role in political change, and has been particularly important to the history of the human rights movement, but seriously, this “the news made me sad / I can haz NGO?” nonsense has got to stop.  Time to invoke Amanda’s “Love Actually Test” on a wider scale, I think.

Bizarre and untenable as such ideas may be (say what?), the key points of Save the Congo’s analysis are ones now commonly repeated as part of the general ‘weapon of war’ narrative. The passage of the Dodd-Frank Act in the US has helped solidify the idea that war rape is in some fundamental sense caused by competition over resources, a view particularly taken by the likes of the Enough campaign, whose ‘Conflict Minerals 101’ video is used by Save the Congo to illustrate the problem. This image used by Amnesty expresses the same sentiment, as have statements by Eve Ensler. That part of Save the Congo’s account, at least, is widely repeated.


There are a number of really excellent analyses of why that doesn’t all add up (see here, here, here and here), principally because there’s a specious correlation in the DRC case (just because there’s lots of rape and lots of competition over minerals doesn’t mean the latter drives the former) and partly because of how these accounts ignore other contexts of war rape and peace rape. I concur with those assessments (which is to say that I learnt a lot about conflict minerals and rape in DRC from them). But I’m not convinced that tactics like those used by Unwatchable are quite as ineffectual and naive as more sophisticated analysts would have it.

For all the disgust it elicits, Unwatchable‘s representational strategy seems to have been quite carefully crafted to cover a number of points important for a general understanding of war rape: the soldier who doesn’t join in (not all military men are rapists and some are brutalised themselves); the collective assault (rape is not a private act); the use of the gun as penis substitute (rape is about violence and power, not sex); forcing the father to watch (rape is a way of shaming certain men within structures of patriarchy); the laughter, jeering and recording (gang rape is/can be a carnivalesque act); and the eventual genital mutilation and murder of the father (men are victims too). That’s quite a few myth-busters packed in alongside the racial angle (you’d care more if these victims were sufficiently Aryan). Surprisingly, the one element not explicitly present in this narrative is that of accumulation as the end goal. Nothing is stolen from the house, and the aerial shots reveal no nearby mines or quarries. The messaging and rationale may invoke the calculating soldier-strategist, but the aesthetic is distinctly that of the angry soldier-sadist.

Despite the paucity of background analysis, there are some benefits to the focus on mobile phones. Not because it’s a superior lens for understanding conflict rape in the Great Lakes, and not because it’s the best route to a successful consumer campaign (the appeal to the hegemonic consumer being one of the more politically degraded elements of such advocacy). Compared to existing ideas about war and rapacious Africans, speaking in terms of blood minerals introduces both the international and political economy to the discursive scene. The international because matters cease to be about the peculiarities of Congolese culture (who knows why they do what they do?), instead demanding attention to relations of power and the actors who benefit from them, whether they reside in Goma, Paris or New York. Political economy because that power isn’t just about culture, or evil men, or moral degeneracy and societal collapse, but is the product of systems of accumulation and distribution, systems which are essential to an understanding of why conflict persists. Civil War Is Not A Stupid Thing.

Prendergast et al. can and should be called on misleading statements, fatuous solutions and simplified narratives. But we should also read the current meme cluster as something of a response to the ideas that went before, and in this sense the focus on conflict minerals pushes an important angle. The DRC may not deserve to be the stand-in for more general views on global violence and capitalism, but causes-du-jour do tend to take on that character. Bosnia established the idea of rape as a form of ethnic cleansing, Rwanda and Darfur of rape as kind of genocide. Together, they helped make the case (not least within academic disciplines) for seeing rape as something political, and therefore public. That brought its own set of problems, not least in the tendency to see rape as something that emerged from particular cultures and nations (on which see the convincing analysis provided by Doris Buss and parallel critiques of current international justice).

All campaigns, and especially shock campaigns, are simplifications. They’re not for fine-grained accounts of war, conflict resource networks or gendered violence. They’re for inserting themselves into spaces where war rape doesn’t normally come up. That doesn’t mean that their content, style and genre are irrelevant. Far from it. The obvious tension here builds on the instinct that the simple, repetitive messaging required by contemporary advertising is simply incompatible with substantive analysis sufficiently faithful to context and complexity. Hence badvocacy. That conclusion isn’t inevitable, but it is plausible. And troubling, since it throws the proper relationship between the analysis of war rape and the politics of ending war rape somewhat into question.

Accepting that, whilst continuously pushing for better analytics on the parts of NGOs and activists, gives rise to different grounds for critiquing atrocity porn in the service of global reform. On the one hand, there’s the question of what the likely outcomes at the level of policy are. If the solutions are stupid and simplistic, then no amount of sophistication in campaign messaging will compensate for the damage done. In the case of DRC minerals, there are certainly some grounds for such a conclusion, and attempts at punishing mining-dependent communities may actually make things worse. On the other hand, there’s the question of whether shock campaigns actually extend public discussion and debate. After all, they’re not needed to convince people who already work on sexual violence in conflict that it matters. They’re meant to puncture the hermetically-sealed indifference of the over-developed. Who watches this stuff? Who shares it? What does it do to their behaviours as citizens and agents?

Not much, I suspect, but this, as they say, is an empirical question.

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One thought on “Atrocity Porn, the Resource Curse and Badvocacy in ‘Unwatchable’ (2011)

  1. Pingback: Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

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