Written By Andrea Gibson
From art house flicks to Saturday afternoon popcorn movies, films can act as a mirror to our collective desires and fears. But cinema scholars such as Ofer Eliaz also are fascinated by what they leave out.
Eliaz, an assistant professor of film at Ohio University, has been studying independent and mainstream films made after World War II to find examples of how filmmakers omit or allude to issues that may be too uncomfortable or controversial to address directly. Viewing the issue through the lens of psychoanalysis, Eliaz seeks to offer an alternative to film histories that focus more on the technology, business or national trends in cinema.
In two published papers and his book in progress Cinematic Cryptonymies: Figurations of the Unseen Image, Eliaz discusses the issue of the absent image in conjunction with the psychoanalytic theories of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, who examined how individuals process trauma by absorbing traits of lost loved ones.
Several chapters of the scholar’s work examine French and Italian filmmakers whose movies addressed the public’s unease and unwillingness to fully confront the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust. The filmmakers used various techniques to emphasize absent bodies—such as people who perished in the war or marginalized people who are omitted from the “cultural frame,” Eliaz says—to essentially give a presence to the invisible.
French filmmaker Georges Franju, for example, made several documentaries and fictional movies such as Eyes Without a Face (1960) that depicted grotesque images intended to jolt the viewer and avert eyes from the screen. The genre horror films of Italian director Mario Bava featured murderers that never appeared on camera and shots that came from a mysterious point-of-view. Although none directly concerned the war or Holocaust, the films either evoked the violence of those situations or reflected the lingering but unacknowledged horrors of them, Eliaz says.
The issue of the absent image does not pertain only to war, however. Eliaz points to contemporary filmmakers such as Naomi Uman who use film to discuss how women and migrant Mexican farm workers are marginalized and made to be invisible in society. Uman’s documentary series on the North American dairy industry addresses the problem directly, but her experimental film Removed (1999) created a buzz in the art film world for her creative take on the issue. The filmmaker used nail polish remover to blot out the images of women in pornographic movies, Eliaz says, making a direct commentary on how females often appear in films only as the subject of male desire.
“There are different strategies that filmmakers have used that leave a hole or gap in an image that points to the invisibility of bodies in culture at large,” Eliaz says.
This story originally appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2014 issue of Ohio University’s Perspectives magazine.