Film, more than any other media and more widely than ever before, connects us, and powerfully so, to the lives of others: it makes us see, hear and feel, however fantastically, their realities. In connecting us in this way, film becomes the principal site for our exposure to and engagement in the trials and tribulations of our fellow humans. It reveals to us their vulnerability and our own, although this is a far from equalizing endeavor. Invariably, “we” watch and feel: “they” live and die. Film connects us, but it is based on a gross, if often masked, disparity between the parties involved.

Film is an inherently ethical medium: it depends upon an ethical encounter between the various individuals engaged in its experience. In revealing others’ vulnerability, film requires us to feel in relation to them, to care about what happens, at least to some of them (there is a sharp distinction between who we are asked to care about and whose suffering we are asked to ignore, but this is another ethical matter).[1] This encounter, then, which is created by film—whether via filmmaking/production or spectatorship/reception—is ethical because it creates a dynamic between the various parties involved (and duty of care, however amorphous or hollow) that is rooted in their different positions of power and privilege. It is, in other words, fundamentally imbalanced.

The role of film criticism today is to understand film as ethically embroiled, and this fundamental imbalance as historical, enduring and evolving. This imbalance is inherent to the medium itself—to the imperialism that seasoned its birth, development and diversification[2]—but also to its ever-expanding technological and geopolitical implications within the digital realm.

Seismic changes in the capturing and circulation of visual content through digital technologies have altered not only how and where we watch film but also what we watch. “Filmmaking” is now readily described as democratized. Lighter, cheaper cameras and editing software are accessible and affordable to much larger numbers, and mobile phones are responsible for the explosion of citizen journalists’ and user-generated content (UGC), which is seized upon by news agencies, uploaded onto the web or up-cycled into feature films.

Within these changes in the capturing and circulation of human tales from around the globe, it is the proliferation of content recounting adversity that interests me most and presents the greatest challenge, as I see it, for the scholar concerned with the power of film and, especially, its potential to affect, rather than forestall, social or political change. Such content—whether news stringers’ or witnesses’ images of the immediate aftermath of a hurricane, activists’ uploads of a military attack, or award-winning documentaries about war crimes—shows human adversity, but usually human adversity that is occurring elsewhere to the main audiences it serves. While the digital age seems to open up the world to all our gazes in newly intimate, connected and affecting ways, its sharing of human vulnerability is rife with the same kind of inequities, objectifications, and inscriptions of power, along familiar lines of national, socio-cultural and racial difference, which are long established in “Western” visual culture. To return to my opening gambit: film connects us not to others but, as Chouliaraki suggests, “to fellow spectators...[in a] self-referential loop.”[3]

The appetite for making and watching footage, short or feature films about human adversity has never been stronger. It was underwritten by, and underwrote, the increasing popularity of documentary, alongside the seismic changes noted above. It was also fuelled by, and still fuels, what we might think of as a growing “global conscience” of the last decade or so. This conscience has been linked to, among other things, the shattering of complacency after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. and the increase in (and increasing visibility of) protest and uprisings throughout and since the noughties. It is, of course, intimately tied to the dream, or rather illusion, of connectedness that the World Wide Web encapsulated.

The challenge for the film scholar is to navigate this new digital terrain to reveal two things. First, how audio-visual narratives retrench the invulnerable and self-referential, or solipsistic, gaze that looks upon but remains unresponsive, or irresponsible, to the lives or suffering of others. Second, to reveal, revere or expound, when, where and how audio-visual narratives do it differently. As a consequence, film criticism might harness the potential that film has to connect “us” and move “us” without objectifying victims or confirming the barbarism of certain regimes or salving the conscience of the viewer. It might acknowledge film’s capacity to resist the legacies of history, almost invariably a colonial history, and build instead a productive and creative space for human connection. Sacrificing neither history to art, nor art to history, film criticism, for me at least, should wrestle with precisely these ethical issues in the digital age.

Author biography:

Michele Aaron teaches Film Studies at the University of Birmingham. She is author of Spectatorship: The Power of Looking On (2007) and editor of The Body’s Perilous Pleasures: Dangerous Desires and Contemporary Culture (1999), New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader (2004) and Envisaging Death: Dying and Visual Culture (2013). Her ongoing obsession with difficult images and ethical film criticism underlie her most recent book Death and the Moving Image: Ideology, Iconography and I (2013) which won the Kraszna- Krausz award for Best Moving Image Book 2015. She is currently redirecting this obsession into collaborative projects with community groups, charities and artists to explore further the potential for film to affect personal, social and political change.


    1. For a full discussion of this, see my Death and the Moving Image: Ideology, Iconography and I (Edinburgh University Press, 2014).return to text

    2. See Robert Stam and Louise Spence, “Colonialism, Racism and Representation,” Screen, 24, 2 (1983): 2-20; Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, “The Imperial Imaginary,” Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (London: Routledge, 1994), 100-136.return to text

    3. Lilie Chouliaraki, The Spectatorship of Suffering (London: Sage, 2006), 27.return to text