When telling stories of violence for mass audiences, we cannot always rely on text or audio to make an impression. If our goal is to build empathy and understanding between the viewer and the victims, visuals can help us achieve that. But when the subject we want to draw attention to is so potentially disturbing, how can we engage with eyes without causing further harm?
Increasingly for human rights organisations and news media, the answer lies in animation. Moving images and audio based on survivor memory offers everyone a way to witness violence without resorting to voyeurism. Often, these videos will mix documentary footage with the animation, grounding it all firmly in reality.
One example we may see in this growing trend comes from an Amnesty International Report on the infamous Saydnaya prison in Syria, which media later uncovered was the site of mass cremations. The animated three-minute video, “Human Slaughterhouse”, is one part of a larger report featuring anonymised testimonies from survivors as well as digital renderings of the prison.
In “Human Slaughterhouse”, we are lead from light to dark as an unnamed narrator calls forth memories of his family to give him strength in prison. We see him experience hunger, trying to aid others who are suffering in his crowded cell, hearing the cries of others being tortured, and finally lead to noose. There is no blood, no gore, but instead a pervasive mood of terror. We are only ever given a short glimpse of the authorities in the prison. Most of the guards are black silhouettes while the bulk of detail and emotion during the traumatic scenes is communicated directly through the victim’s face.
In July of this year, Human Rights Watch commissioned the use of animation in their spotlight on torture in Ethiopia’s prisons. The introduction to the video features audio clips from an eleven-day assessment where former prison guards detailed the abuses to a tribunal. Interspersed with narration from HRW staff are black and white renderings of prisoners being tortured. We are shown how guards would bind the prisoners with rope in these drawings and then brought back to footage from an anonymous survivor lifting her sleeves to reveal the deep scars on her arms.
To illustrate some of the sexual abuse, where prisoners were forced to undress and then beaten while their genitals were tied together, the animator opts to show us only a shadow. The silhouettes of the prisoner’s heads are the centre-point of this frame, with only the boots of the guards visible on the ground.
Just this month, AJ+, the all-digital channel for Al Jazeera English, brought in their own animators to help visualise harrowing stories of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. In the Facebook video “Rohingya Refugees Surviving Rape”, we are introduced to nine months pregnant Shafika living in the refugee camp of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. As she tells her story to the camera, the scene shifts to animated reenactments.
The colours are vivid, but the patterns and detail remain simple. The faces remain blank except for the moment Shafika, still grieving the death of her children and physically weakened from sexual assault, spots an opportunity to escape. Her black eyes open wide with hope and determination and she leaps from a mountain and into the jungle.
As in the Amnesty and HRW reports, it is the faces and bodies of the victims, not the violence enacted on them, that transmits the terror and pain. We are not watching figures but actual people.
The most recent example of animations of torture being used in a longer documentary format can be seen in the film Naila And the Uprising. The film uses a mix of archival footage, contemporary interviews and voice-overs, and animation to tell the story of Palestinian women’s activist Naila Ayesh during the First Intifada.
Thanks to a previous group of documentarians, we can be witness to Naila’s struggle as it actually was. We see her leading political meetings with both men and women, marching in the streets alongside her community, and even clips of her wedding. But what about the traumatic memories she recounts in an Israeli prison, where she suffered a miscarriage, for which no camera was present?
Director Julia Bacha decided from her usual “cinema verité” style and included a team of Montreal-based animators to add a new element of drama to the film. Bacha, alongside Sharron Mirsky and Dominique Doktor, were keen not to simply depict Naila’s torture and time in prison, but have her experience those moments with her. Part of this vision was to remove the eyes and mouths from all the human figures.
The idea of the silhouette was born as a way to avoid caricaturising Naila while keeping the images simple and yet still expressive. The characters perform a lot of small, suggestive movements: shoulders slump, heads tilt upward in search of something, and their hands embrace others.
In order to achieve an “impressionistic” style, Mirsky and Doktor used watercolour crayons on vellum, under camera animation and ink on glass in some areas. This method involves putting the image on one sheet of paper and then underlighting it gives a richness of texture. The background textures were especially important to the story. When Naila is in the complete darkness because a bag has been placed over her head the textures, abstract visuals, and sound are played up.
The absence of a discernible face has a second, more symbolic function. Its serves to universalise Naila. Following the film’s premeire at the London Human Rights Film Festival, Naila told audiences that though the story is her own it is also the story of “every Palestinian woman and family”. It is a human story of loss, grief, anger, and resistance.
The recognition of two dimensional figures as fully human despite their lack of detail is perhaps the greatest strength animation can offer human rights reporting in the digital age. Through these depictions we can eschew the dangers of broadcasting all the graphic details modern cameras are able to capture. Animation offers a way for journalists to tell a visually engaging and emotional story without sensationalising violence.