Michael F. O’Riley


On his book Cinema in an Age of Terror: North Africa, Victimization, and Colonial History

Cover Interview of May 16, 2011

The wide angle

I became interested in this topic because of previous research I had done on postcolonial theory.  The book engages deeply with postcolonial theory and the interest in that discipline in bringing to light past injustices.

Much of postcolonial theory seeks to side with the position of the victim.  Revealing the victim’s position is predicated upon the idea that the victim was rendered silent throughout much of colonial history and was unable to speak.

The era of decolonization enabled the colonized to speak, to represent their victimization at the hands of the colonizer.  A good deal of that victimization took the form of terrorism and torture.  A very empowering moment for the formerly colonized and their advocates was the advent of postcolonial theory; it enabled the representation of this once voiceless past to come into existence and, in a sense, to revise how history was viewed.

A good part of my career so far has been focused on the ways that postcolonial theory has been focused on images of the victim and the victimizer.  An attempt to return those images to the present, to inscribe them and their moments of terror visually within the contemporary context seemed to me to be a central objective of postcolonial theory.

Although I undoubtedly deem this to be an important gesture, it also seems highly problematic. It raises the question of whether past oppositions and antagonisms are really ever transgressed, or whether they continue to be replayed.

If the dynamics of victimization from the past are replayed, what new types of relationships between the formerly colonized nation and the formerly imperialist nation can truly be forged?  Would it be possible to break out of this cycle or would it simply engender a new generational opposition?  Would this focus on victimization really enable a new type of history to emerge, in particular between the “West” and formerly colonized nations?

Much of the interest of postcolonial theory in determining what constitutes the West and its Other and, in particular, what divides them, seemed central to many of these questions for me. The putative “clash of civilizations,” opposing the “West” and its “Other,” that has been referred to widely in the wake of September 11 seemed to align with this geopolitical slant of postcolonial theory.

My interest in films focusing on the colonial era, where the “West” and the formerly colonized nation were underscored, seemed based on just such an opposition, a struggle that opposed the West and its Other, victim and victimizer, torturer and tortured.  Such oppositions led me to consider how these images from colonial history might inform our understanding of terrorism and its structure of victimization.