Rethinking ‘Stop Genocide’

by Parsa Sanjana Sajid

Early on in Stop Genocide dispatches about the American bombing of Vietnam intercedes and frames the film’s narrative arc. Not exactly an interruption as much as reinforcement, this brief fragment follows readings from the United Nations Charter. Shortly after, references to My Lai massacre appear interlaced with footages of refugees from then East Pakistan. Images of aerial bombings lead into faces forlorn and starved, refugee camps into landscapes gutted, charred remains into witness accounts. Stories of the Pakistan military’s plunder, rape, and destruction comingle with these other references. Their stories and ours fuse together to give the film its moral force.


This art is by an asylum seeker from Burma named Mohammad who spent over 5 years in detention. He is a member of the Rohingya Muslim community from Burma. —

There is an obvious reason why Zahir Raihan used these crossovers in his call to action that is Stop Genocide. They create parallels, present a familiarity. Viewers aware of My Lai and American atrocities, and complicity, could relate to this particular story of carnage, Saigon to Bongaon. It is an appeal to care, to act based on associative understanding. But beyond that, the film resists uniqueness to situate 1971 atrocities adjacent to other struggles against repression and injustice. The transition from Saigon to Bongaon is seamless because these struggles, their stories and ours, are chained in an urgent loop of resistance. Scenes of destruction herald scenes of guerilla drills — freedom fighters ready to take on armies more powerful than their own. And as the film nears its end, more historical references — Algeria, Palestine, Congo, South Africa, Haiti — bookend the closing. The demand to stop genocide might be a singular call but the struggle is not isolated, nor unique: ‘History has seen it all, again and again.’

Of course, all struggles for freedom are unique in that they are specific outcomes of particular socio-political and cultural and economic contexts. They unfold and resolve or implode under specific circumstances and weight of politics and power. To understand these moments then is to understand the confluence of these specificities and their contexts but also to realise their historical analogues, to situate these within a larger trajectory. With Stop Genocide, Raihan articulates that understanding and in that sense, the film insists on solidarity by extending solidarity for similar struggles elsewhere. It is an acknowledgement of that larger trajectory, a nod that we are in this together.

The we and together as articulated in the film, however, are not stripped down, depoliticised subjects nor are their aspirations for liberation apolitical. Individual subjects fleeing in the wake of Pakistan military violence may have simply wanted to be alive or may not have had any other choice. Still that does not dissolve the larger political scenario. And individual decisions as removed as they sometimes seem cannot be isolated from the outward and political because they are co-constituted. Seen in that light the call to stop genocide is not made from a mostly humanitarian ground, though that is certainly part of the message. But also part of the message is to cast the liberation war of 1971 within a legacy of ‘working men and women [fighting] for their democratic right to choose their own destiny,’ a ‘heroic resistance’ that is not separate but an ‘integral part of [that] relentless struggle.’

It is no wonder that the film is a reflection of its time, a time of transnational radical left politics and organizing. Through much of the 1960s and the 1970s, with anti-imperial struggles coursing through the decades, leftist movements transcended national boundaries and as a result this was also a time of intense border defying left activism. Raihan himself a communist and no stranger to underground political activism embedded Stop Genocide in that tradition (He begins the film with a quote from Lenin. There is much to argue about Leninism. Rosa Luxemburg would be a place to start).

As the historian Martin Klimke notes:

The transnational interaction among activists in the 1960s […] drew its strength from a collective protest identity that consisted of shared cultural and political reference points and was strengthened by a global medial discourse. The significance of these networks increased as their participants addressed problems encompassing an international dimension that people could also relate to on a local level (imperialism, bloc divisions of the cold war, and so forth). […] the late 1960s saw the emergence of an international language of dissent (Klimke, Martin. The Other Alliance: Student Protest in West Germany & the United States in the Global Sixties. Princeton University Press, 2010).

That language and politics of dissent and solidarity pervaded movements such as the anti-apartheid movement, anti-colonial struggle in Algeria, indigenous rights movements, and many others. Which is why it is important to view Stop Genocide not only through a parochial nationalist lens, but also within a legacy of that internationalist dissent, struggle, and solidarity that the film addresses directly.

On the other hand, also conjoined with this history of the 70s is proxy and covert wars, CIA-backed coups, violent suppression of left movements, state-backed socialist experiments gone wrong, and incipient stages of neoliberalism as we know it today. And with the rise and expansion of neoliberal ethos, transnational left movements that were forcibly suppressed ceded ground to its more palatable progeny, donor-funded NGO organizing. From collective liberation to individual rights. From indigenous land rights to debt-fuelled microfinance as a vehicle of empowerment. And finally a vacuous, toothless reengineering of empowerment as a ‘branded corporate experience.’ (Tolentino, Jia. How ‘Empowerment’ Became Something for Women to Buy. New York Times, April 12, 2016)

How then do we read Stop Genocide now? Its place as an iconic visual document of 1971 stands on solid ground, but icons by their very nature gain lustre over time but that lustre only gives off an inert glow. Well-oiled and burnished, they nevertheless, operate as marionettes. Even, as objects of devotion they can beguile, which I must acknowledge has its proper place for faith can amend our condition in multiple ways, but their contribution can become inversely limited by that magnification. Their social purpose circumscribed by the constant pressure of boundary maintenance, of surveillance, of protection. In contrast, a more plebeian reading would invigorate its relation and relevance to our present.

Such a reading would resist an iconic interpretation of the film for another reason. As much as Stop Genocide can provoke many of these questions, the task here is not to restore or to revert back. Because many of the same left-leaning movements of the 60s and the 70s ignored and even encouraged misogyny, racism, homophobia, to offer a narrow, one-dimensional understanding of oppression to the detriment of the more marginalised, the ones these movements purported to help. There is no reason for a glorified reading that cannot critically assess this underbelly. But there is a reason we want to learn from the past and that is why historical documents like Stop Genocide are helpful, and that is not to accept it wholeheartedly but to improve on it.

And that reading would still force us to confront, as we simultaneously memorialise our refugees of 1971, the conditions today to which we have relegated the refugees in our midst. Whether the parochial positioning of ours versus their that Raihan in fact transgressed can allow us to avoid our moral responsibilities towards those who need our support. Whether an understanding and practice of solidarity as anodyne as empowerment is the best we could do. Whether we uncritically accept the only available, acceptable spaces for transnational solidarity — on one side, spaces opened through liberal humanitarian interventions and their slightly less insidious cousin, development projects; on another, resurgent extremism. But then that begs the obvious question, that is, why is capitalism that constantly renders a large portion of humanity as excess discards and lays waste to the world any less extremist?

Parsa Sanjana Sajid teaches at Independent University, Bangladesh and edits Fragments Magazine. She also writes for Depart Magazine.

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