The Shock Factor: Using Heavy Content in Class

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Jenny Howell

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This semester I’m teaching The Rhetoric of Documentary Films, and I have a very engaged group of students who have various levels of familiarity with the course topic.  In fact, one of my challenges in this course is devising class activities that are enlightening for both the person who has seen only one documentary (usually one of Michael Moore’s films) and the person who has seen dozens.  One of the ways I have approached this challenge is by showing clips from a wide variety of films: I figure that I will be opening some minds to the diversity of the documentary genre and hopefully introducing others to films that they haven’t yet seen.  But there’s one kind of clip that I hesitate to use as a basis for class discussion: the heavy clip, by which I mean a section of a film with a particularly serious, shocking, or uncomfortable subject matter. 

I’ll provide some illustrative examples of heavy clips I have considered using:  I thought about showing two scenes from Shoah, a 10-hour 1985 film by Claude Lanzmann that consists of interviews that detail some of the Holocaust’s most horrifying incidents.  In one scene, Lanzmann speaks with an SS officer who repeatedly asks him not to record the interview or use his name, and Lanzmann agrees, all the while filming with a hidden camera.  In another scene, the director interviews Abraham Bomba, a barber who survived the Treblinka death camp by cutting women’s hair before they entered the gas chambers.  When the director hits a nerve during their interview, Bomba begs him to stop asking questions: “I can’t. It’s too horrible.”  But Lanzmann won’t let him end the interview: “You have to do it,” he tells the barber as the man wipes away tears.  These scenes, in my thinking, would provide useful fodder for a discussion of ethos: does it establish or undermine his credibility that Lanzmann lies to one of his subjects and grows hostile with a sympathetic interviewee?  Another clip that may prove valuable in class is from Deliver Us from Evil, a 2006 film by Amy Berg that tells the story of Father Oliver O’Grady, who raped and molested 25 children over a period of 15 years.  Near the beginning of the film, as O’Grady is being interviewed, the camera refuses to capture his face; instead, it focuses in close-up on his hands.  I would use this clip in my final unit of study, when my students turn to making their own film, to teach camera angles.  The decision to obscure O’Grady’s face initially and focus in on his hands is a rhetorical choice that my students could usefully analyze and discuss as they determine what kinds of shots and angles they will include in their own films and the effect of these determinations.   

Even describing these films in that last paragraph, though, felt a little . . . icky.  And that’s really the problem: my fear is that showing any of these clips will be distracting.  My students could be repulsed or (worse?) morbidly fascinated by the content, and their usual rigorous analysis will suffer.  So why use these clips? Why not show a scene from An Inconvenient Truth or Fahrenheit 9/11 that may communicate the concepts just as well?

I can see a few possible reasons.  First, at a very practical level, some of these clips simply represent the best, most thought-provoking examples—that I can think of, at least—of the concepts I want to teach.  The scene from Shoah, for instance, is so powerful for teaching ethos precisely because it is shocking and serious.  Discussing the decision to berate a Holocaust survivor (surely there has never been a more sympathetic subject) could lead to incredibly provocative questions about Lanzmann’s credibility, the purposes of the film, and the rhetorical effects and effectiveness of ethical appeals. 

Second, to shock students with heavy clips is also to engage students.  These scenes will certainly demand attention and provoke response.  The danger, I suppose, is that the discussion may never advance beyond that immediate reaction into analytical thinking.  However, if I can manage the conversation so that the foundation is set for critical engagement, then real moments of insight can be had.  And, if they are had, the shocking nature of the clips may make this insight all the more poignant and deeply rooted. 

Finally, using heavy content provides an occasion to help students move beyond seeing that content into analyzing rhetorical choices and argumentative structure.  After all, isn’t teaching rhetoric about developing in our students the skills of seeing through an argument in order to figure out how it’s working and what its intended effect is?  This task is all the more difficult when the content of an argument is distractingly uncomfortable, but the pursuit remains a worthy and important one: if they can learn to objectively analyze a scene featuring a Holocaust survivor, imagine what they could do with the heated political rhetoric with which they are bombarded daily. With the correct framing, I think, heavy clips have their place in the rhetoric classroom, and they may even provide a uniquely productive opportunity for analysis and discussion.


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