A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Passions—But Is It Truth?

Sister Rose Thering, subject of Oren Jacoby's <em>Sister Rose's Passion</em>

The power of pictures can no longer be denied.

Maybe in the past, if you had a television station, movie theater, cable network or a newspaper... You could manage the message.

But all that changed at Abu Ghraib prison.

Now the power is in the hands of independent voices, and free thinkers. I'll call them "documentarians" for simplicity's sake, but they're not documentary makers in any classic way. Those images were certainly not recorded for publication—more as some sort of horrible trophy. Yet they document acts that will have reverberations around the world.

Before those pictures were released-without "authorization," as US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pointed out with some annoyance—the allegations and charges of abuse had fallen on deaf ears.

But those of us that "document" the world around us know that the powerful light of truth has dramatic impact.

For filmmakers around the world, the events of Abu Ghraib are a reminder that what we do can and does impact the world.

At the recent Tribeca Film Festival, I sat in a screening room at the Tribeca Grand Hotel with just 90 other audience members. It was a screening of Oren Jacoby's Sister Rose's Passion, a short about a nun who has made it her life's work to force the Catholic Church to face the fact that there is a troubling undercurrent of hate and anti-Semitism in its teachings.

The film, with Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ still very much in the public eye, is both timely and troubling. Sister Rose Thering, a Dominican nun, has made it her life's work to break down stereotypes and foster relations between Catholics and Jews. The explosive 1965 Vatican document "Nostra Aetate" ("Our Time") declared that the Jews were not responsible for Jesus' death. And Sister Rose was influential in the drafting of that document.

Gibson's film, with its blunt and brutal depiction of Christ's final 12 hours, turns back the clock on Sister Rose's life's work, and little can be done to change that. Film isn't simply "entertainment"; it has impact, and we need to be aware of that as both filmmakers and audience members.

The irony that a dramatic piece of fiction, The Passion of the Christ, will be facing off against a modest but heartfelt documentary, Sister Rose's Passion, isn't lost on me. One film, with its seeming refutation of "Nostra Aetate," has stirred anger and hatred among many viewers, while the other is about understanding and compassion.

Strangely and squarely in the middle is The Hunting of the President, another film that screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. This film, co-directed and co-written by Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry, and based on the book by Joe Conason, chronicles the "vast right wing conspiracy" that attempted to bring down the administration of then-President Bill Clinton. Here, the compelling nature of the facts is obscured by the filmmakers' attempt to create a piece of entertainment. Borrowing from the HBO series Dream On, the film makes liberal use of old black-and-white clips to jazz up what is already a deeply disturbing story.

If you haven't seen the film, the end-to-end telling of the story of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr story is worth the price of a ticket. But Thomason, perhaps because of his relationship with the Clintons, can't work in the mode of pure documentary. The result is a film that is neither fact nor fiction, and the potential impact the film could make is somewhat diminished as a result.

Politics...War...Torture...Religion... It's all about passion, that's for sure. But the battle of these passions plays out on a world stage that is dominated by the ugly images of Abu Ghraib.

 The fact remains that pictures, in and of themselves, are not "truth." And the images of Abu Ghraib may be either a symptom of an enormous problem or a series of isolated incidents. It hardly matters; the truth of those images are self-evident. The American forces, as "liberators," should not tolerate even a single act of torture or abuse.  The documentary evidence will have to be faced and addressed.

The fact that images have engaged the world is a mixed blessing. The "images" of The Passion of the Christ now confront the work of Sister Rose. Truth is truth. Fiction is fiction. But it may be another generation before viewers are sophisticated enough to engage truth and fiction with enough media literacy so as to not replace one with the other.


Steve Rosenbaum can be reached at steve.rosenbaum@CameraPlanet.com.