Repeating Terror: Contemplating Death in Amat Escalante’s Heli (2013)
Niamh Thornton (University of Liverpool)
In the context of the on-going violence in Mexico related to the trade in drugs, there has been much discussion about the ethics of death on screen. Howard Campbell’s (2014) mapping out of the power of the visual makes clear how the display of dead bodies has been used as a weapon and a communicating tool between warring factions. Against this backdrop, Jean Franco (2013), Sayak Valencia (2018), and Oswaldo Zavala (2018) make strong cases for not showing aestheticized violence. With Franco (2013) particularly disturbed by those who position themselves in the place of the perpetrator at risk of building an empathetic connection with them. Marianne Hirsch’s (2003 and 2014) work on re-appropriated material from the Holocaust prompts us to reflect on how realist representations of dead bodies on screen are at risk of becoming perpetrator images demanding ethical reflection that through reproduction can implicate us in the violence. Discussing lynching in the US context, Courtney R. Baker (2015) demands an ethical approach to the hanged person. Taking all of this into account, the central questions in this audiovisual essay are: whether censorship has a place when the spectacle of death is used as a weapon and, what can be achieved in an aestheticized repetition of this terror?
Cultural outputs centred on the drug-related violence are extensive and are often labelled “narco-cultura”. This is a term that has been rejected because it often flattens out the structural violences that led to the scaling up of the trade in Mexico, sets up a false Manichean dyad between those embroiled in the trade and the government, and, most importantly, lumps together a range of works that have little in common beyond their setting (see, for example, Rincón 2009 and Zavala 2018). Given that such films date back to the 1970s, to consider these as if they share a single aesthetic approach ignores the scale and range of works that have been produced. Instead, by focusing on a single case study that invokes others, this audiovisual essay takes into account the specific eco-system in which this film was produced and distributed.
Amat Escalante is a festival auteur (Ostrowska 2016) of hyperrealist violent films (Solórzano 2017). Heli (Amat Escalante, 2013) is a film about how innocent bystanders can become caught up in extreme violence associated with the drugs trade. Notorious for a graphic torture scene at its centre, Heli is shot using techniques reminiscent of slow cinema whose duration and focalization on the mundane labour of violence tested audiences. At its screening at the Cannes Film Festival there were walk outs. Despite this Escalante won best director. Discussions of the central torture scene that provoked the walk outs detracted from a close exploration of the way Escalante uses duration elsewhere to de-dramatize violence allowing time for the audio-viewer to reflect on their implication in the action as witness (Torchin 2012). Using side-by-side analysis of the opening sequence and the subsequent repetition of the same sequence later in the film, this audiovisual essay explores how Escalante uses repetition and variation to convey the mundanity of the labour involved in organised violent crime. It is clear from the sequence that this is routine work for those in the truck. The long shot, the point of view, and camera movements in their duration also encourage us to consider our position and implication in this violence. Unlike films that focus on the drama and thrill of violence, Heli invites reflection and a slow contemplation of our implication in this terror.
In turn contemplative and confrontational, Heli in its aesthetic approach, as evidenced by the audience walkouts, invites the audio-viewer to reflect upon what should be shown and heard and to consider our attitudes to censoring images of realistic terror.
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