Two Films at the Hirshhorn Make Questions of Ethics an Art Form

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Cameras don’t lie. As for the people behind them, that’s another issue entirely. This blending of fact and fiction inherent in moving-image media -- everything from what you see on the nightly news to Hollywood -- is explored in the Hirshhorn’s video art exhibition, "The Cinema Effect: Realisms." While you can tour most of the exhibition any day of the week, two noteworthy works only receive bi-weekly screenings: "The Battle of Orgreave" and "Repetition."

"The Battle of Orgreave" tells the story of a 1984 miners’ strike and a violent confrontation that took place between picketing laborers and police. More than 50 miners and as many as 72 police officers were injured (many of the miners are believed to have not reported their injuries for fear of arrest). The film is unusual in that it reenacts events that are still in living memory, which made me immediately wonder, "Video crews already filmed this. What’s the point?" The point: in 1984, the BBC's misrepresentation of events helped sway public opinion against the miners. (The BBC issued an apology in 1991). The film "Battle of Orgreave" tries to set the record straight. Through reenactment and interviews, the miners finally have an opportunity to tell their side of the story. The men who went head to head years ago are brought back to participate in the film. There is, however, creative casting afoot: some miners play policemen. If nothing else, the film -- from the art of creating to the act of viewing -- is all about gaining new perspectives.

"Repetition" recreates the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, in which a number of college students -- some designated as guards, others as prisoners -- were pitted against each other in a prison simulation. The passage of time has done nothing to improve the ethics or scientific methodology of this insane exercise. In the film, volunteers are paid $40 a day to play guards and prisoners, and they can quit the experiment at any time. Guards have a list of rules they are expected to enforce and prisoners are expected to obey. The people running the experiment sit back and wait to see how long it takes before the guards start abusing their power and the prisoners start rebelling. Isn’t that sadistic? The volunteers readily fall into their roles, and we’re never sure if they act from preconceived notions of guard/prisoner behavior or if what we see really reflects some dark element of human nature. Maybe that’s why this venture is best passed off as art than science fair fodder. Still, it’s shocking to see what people are willing to do for money.

When do you begin to question the truth or ethics of what you see? Are there works of art that raise those questions for you? Tell us in the comments area below. Personally, I’m a huge fan of "Grey Gardens." Some see it as a piece of exploitative tabloid-style filmmaking. I find it to be a poignant piece of portraiture. Does the truth lie somewhere in between?

These films are free to the public and seating is first come, first served. Screenings are held on Tuesday and Thursday and begin at noon. A note to parents: unless you are OK with f-bombs bombarding your children’s ears and are willing to explain why that nice man is urinating in the soup, AVOID THESE FILMS!

(Still from Jeremy Deller's, "The Battle of Orgreave," 2001. Image courtesy of the artist and Artange, London. Photo by Martin Jenkinson.)