Odile Bodde – Studies on torture: the politics and aesthetics of brutality in war-on-terror films

Odile Bodde | Leiden University | Supervisors: prof. A. Visser and dr. P. Verstraten


In my PhD project I analyse the politics and aesthetics of depictions of torture in recent American and European war-on-terror cinema. Taking films that range from Hollywood productions like Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012) to the independent film Essential Killing (Jerzy Skolimowski, 2010), I explore the various forms in which political torture occurs on screen; how torture is depicted in tandem with agency, vulnerability and precarity on the side of the torturer as well as the tortured; how depictions of torture are intertwined with the politics of race and gender; the various motivations and conditions for and consequences of torture that are presented, and the extent to which torturers and victims invite the spectator to identify with their position.

Fascinated by the wave of criticism directed towards Zero Dark Thirty in 2012, I scrutinize why some films and series inspire debate and criticism while other seemingly similar depictions do not. Other questions addressed in my project are: what is so particular and peculiar about post 9/11 torture when compared to earlier manifestations of torture in war films? What is problematic about the position of female intelligence agents and guards associated with torture practices? Could we see torture as a form of performative role-play? What is the relation between (suggestive or explicit) torture and the political context sketched in the narrative? If we argue that some films are presented as critical of the use of torture, what does this ‘criticism’ entail? How and when do gruelling and unsettling depictions of political torture position the spectator as a detached critical, or as an engaged moral agent?

My research is part of the NWO-funded interdisciplinary programme What can the humanities contribute to our practical self-understanding? that takes place at Utrecht University, Erasmus University Rotterdam and Leiden University.