Sunday, February 27, 2011

Butt Naked handout

The "Redemption" of General Butt Naked


Joshua Milton Blahyi used to be known as General Butt Naked. Since his conversion to evangelical christianity, Blahyi has been trying to redeem himself for the deeds committed under his former moniker. The film follows Blahyi as he confronts former subordinates and victims to ask for forgiveness, as well as a fact finding comission, who does in fact exonerate him, even after his admission of being responsible for 20,000 casualties. When Blahyi flees the country fearing reprisal for his commission testimony, his supposed redemption is called into question. Can he be redeemed? Or is he the same man he's always been?


The problem with this film for me is two-fold, and the first problem is compounded by the second. Firstly, the film rarely if ever questions the extreme or unbelievable circumstances that surround the forgiveness Blahyi receives. Worse even than the times that Blahyi forcibly extracts an apology from his target is when that apology comes without the need for extraction. Again and again, Blahyi is given forgiveness, seemingly without earning it. From Senegalese, the guardsman he permanently disabled when he shot out both his kneecaps and left him to die, to a young woman whom he pistol whipped as a child and who now has vision problems, to the truth commission itself. He receives forgiveness, and the question of "why" is rarely broached.

This leads to the larger problem of the film, which is the direct cinema mode in which it operates. From my paper:

"Direct cinema as a style is often associated with cinema verite. In fact, Bordwell and Thompson (2008), in their text Film Art: An Introduction (8th Ed.), use the terms interchangeably (340). But a more nuanced understanding of the differences between the two comes from Erik Barnouw (1993), in his seminal text Documentary. He writes of direct cinema and of cinema verite:
The direct cinema artist aspired to invisibility; the Rouch cinema verite artist was often an avowed participant. The direct cinema artist played the role of uninvolved bystander; the cinema verite artist espoused that of provocateur. Direct cinema found its truth in events available to the camera. (255)

For Barnouw, the direct cinema documentarian is a fly on the wall, trying to make himself unnoticed so as to allow his capturing of events to unfold as they naturally would. Barnouw would have recognized this technique in full force in Redemption."

Contrast this with the BBC story on Blahyi, a portion of which I showed in class. Here are the links to the full story:

From the 6:00 minute mark of the second video, and on through the third, they begin to ask the questions that were thrundering through my head throughout most of "Redemption". And in those videos, it doesn't even take much of the "voice of God" style narration to raise these questions. But what it does take is a breaking outside of the Blahyi experience, to ask outside of the general's circle of influence. And that's something that never happens in the film which is made the worse because of this stylistic purity.

Film List -- Related films:

Deliver us from Evil (2006) – An “Apology-flick” about a Catholic priest wanting to apologize and meet the all grown up kids he molested. [Description from Van's handout!... thanks Van]
The Redemption of General Butt Naked (2011)
"The Vice Guide to Everything" Liberia/Huayno Music/Call Centers (2010) - Part of the "Vice Guide to Travel" series, includes interviews with Blahyi. Touches on his cannibalism, something not brought up in the film.

Works Cited:

Barnouw, E. (1993). Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film - 2nd Revised Ed.
New York: Oxford University Press.
Bordwell, D., & Thompson, K. (2008). Film Art: An Introduction - 8th Ed. New York:

1 comment:

  1. Rob, this is interesting. Reading this makes me think about the differences between camera use in The Interrupters and what you report here in General Butt Naked. The Camera in the Interrupters literally seemed invisible to me; I felt that I was watching a story unfold from the ground level - as if I really were a "fly on the wall." But from what we talked about in class regarding General Butt Naked, it seemed that the camera in that film really influenced what we saw. For example, when General would ask for forgiveness (ON CAMERA) it's hard to imagine that the fact the scene was being recorded DID NOT have an effect on the way the people would respond.

    What are your thoughts about the camera styles used in these two films? I didn't see General Butt Naked... but I got the impression that the camera was rather invasive...


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