Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Forensic History

There's a recent Sunday TV documentary called Sharidyn's Homecoming, which tells the story of the NZ family of 14-year-old Kiwi-born schoolgirl Sharidyn Svebakk-Bohn. Along with 76 other people, mostly young teenagers, Sharidan was murdered by the far right terrorist Anders Breivik in 2011. I don't usually watch these sorts of documentaries, as they tend to indulge in a form of sentimentalism I do not like. This documentary however was quite well done, and the interviews with Sharidyn's mother made fascinating viewing. Inevitably there were scenes showing photos of Sharidyn with emotive piano music in the background, but this sort of thing was done in a sensitive and relatively restrained fashion, considering the enormity of the horror her family must have endured.

The most interesting feature of the documentary was the interviews with Sharidyn's mother dealing with her own investigation into the details of Sharidyn's death. She was unsatisfied with the police reports which detailed where and how Sharidyn had died, and did her own research – interviewing survivors, hunting down other reports and so on. It turned out that the original police report was misleading. She was shot in the back as she ran towards the shore of the lake, but was not killed outright by this shot, as she was heard by a survivor nearby. Hours later she was found in the spot by the shore dead, but this must have been a slow rather than a quick death.

Although these horrific forensic details did not cure her pain, the process of finding out exactly what did happen to Sharidyn in her final hours was a vital psychological process for Sharidyn's mother to go through. The trauma of losing her daughter must be like a massive psychological obstacle. Finding out the forensic factual details would be like finding some of the first few handholds at the bottom of a gigantic cliff of grief.

Interestingly, Sharidyn's mother did not spend a lot of time talking about Breivik. From what I remember she did not express hatred or anger towards him, and insisted that she would not leave Norway because to do so would mean that Breivik would have won. She was determined to preserve her own memories of Sharidyn, untainted by the hateful and poisonous legacy of Breivik's murderous rampage. Also, she did not speak much, or at all, about Breivik's motivations or the political aspects of the murders. [It was a while ago when I watched it, so I can't be sure]

I wonder how the future descendants of Sharidyn's family will remember her in 2111? Probably by that time, no one in her family will have real living memories of her. They will have TV news clips, magazine articles and documentaries. I'm sure that the place on Utoya island where Sahridyn was shot would be a place her future family members might visit to honour her memory. On the other hand, I doubt that they would share Sharidyn's mother focus on the “forensic” aspect of Sharidyn's death. Would it not make more sense, given the passage of so many years, for them to reflect more calmly and less emotionally about the context of Sharidyn's death? I think that they would be interested in why Breivik did what he did, and the reasons why the society he lived in could produce such vicious ideologues. They would probably reflect critically on the early twentieth century debates around immigration and multiculturalism. They would analyse the phenomenon of islamophobia, and how the mainstream media allowed the propagation of this sort of fear based reactionary ideology. I also think it likely that they might channel these historical reflections into a critique of their present day: do we still stigmatise foreigners? Is the media providing a critical perspective? Are we allowing fascist ideologies to develop?

Now backtrack and sidestep to the present day world of 2014 New Zealand. The Great Day of April 25th 2015 approaches, and we will surely be hearing a lot about Gallipoli we get closer. If you are a schoolchild, you will learn a list of names such as Chunuk Bair, Quinn's Post, The Daisy Patch, etc. Soldier's diaries and letters will be studied. There was a TV news item not long ago, where some volunteer group had actually built a WW1 trench simulation. School kids could go through this and watch all these actors dressed up in WW1 uniforms with fake wounds, explosions would blare through the stereo speakers, lights would shine, the ground would shake ….In all of these approaches towards our history, it is very clearly the forensic aspect which predominates. The “other stuff” - the political situation of 1914, the economics, the reasons why war broke out etc etc – this does get covered, but from what I can tell not in all that much depth, and with very little critical insight. What gets emphasised over everything else is the Details: we must always view history through personal details: names, dates, photographs, details of battles, where the soldiers died etc etc. I think the idea is that we must above all else imagine what it was like to be there with them, side by side, in the trenches. This forensic – imaginative approach towards history was revealed in an extreme form by some Australian school children who were actually taken to Passchendaele as a part of their school history programme, and made to wear WW1 uniforms and visit the exact sites of the famous battle. This was described in a TV clip I watched a while ago, and which now I cannot find, where Marilyn Lake was being interviewed. They played an audio clip of a girl who was literally in tears crying “You just don't know what it's like!”, describing her intense emotional connection to the thousands of Australian soldiers who died in the trenches of Passchendaele.

This fact raises some very difficult and interesting questions. It seems as if at some level in both New Zealand and Australia, we have actually not dealt with our trauma of 100 years ago. Are we doomed to forever repeat, in ever more exact detail, with ever more sentimentality, this ritual of forensic history? Or does this forensic history itself, with its emotive and personalised content, function as a sort of psychological prompt: the trauma is re introduced, at an emotive level created by the actual form of the historical presentation?

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