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Cartoons Terrorize Parisian Family: Teaching Colonialism

02/18/2015 10:56 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

We'd begin with contemporary Paris, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and bloodshed. We'd then quickly turn to Caché.

If I were teaching again, this is how I'd start my literature and film class about colonialism.

Caché (2005), by Michael Heneke, opens on a quiet Parisian street. Surveillance-camera footage of quotidian comings and goings. Then voices. A couple is watching with us this footage of the street outside their home.

In the form of VHS tapes, these images have begun arriving into the life of this family. The tapes come wrapped in cartoonish drawings -- childlike depictions of a child face and blood. The family's confusion soon turns into fear of violence. And the film slowly reveals that the violence they fear is the violence inherent in post-colonial societies born themselves of violence.

I've never been a Frenchman in a former French colony, but I've lived two years in Muslim regions of Francophone West Africa, and as a white American in those places I learned something about the relationships between a colonizing and once-colonized people. What Caché offers, in my experience, is immersion in a particular kind of post-colonial malaise, a deeply unsettling mix of certainties and uncertainties.

Many of the uncertainties are about identity. In a post-colonial society -- after generations of living together and divided at once -- language, body, economy, and belief are intertwined. The earlier, more rigid identity lines between ruler and ruled can feel blurred, uncertain. And yet there are certainties, one of which is violence: the violence of the past and the violence that is coming. In bad faith, innocence, and fear, the dominant culture will often work to keep that violence hidden from view, history, and conscience. This is what the film is about.

I'd tell the students that if they have not yet seen it, they shouldn't watch any of the excerpts on YouTube. Watch the whole thing from start to finish. As a class we'll pause and ask questions along the way:

• Books, wine, a child, swim lessons: What can we know or guess about this man, Georges, his family, and their civilization?

• A young black man on a bicycle, his look of fatigue, his anger and integrity: What can we know or guess about him?

• Who is that brown-skinned child? Is this a flashback? Whose?

• Is Georges afraid of his mother's mortality? And what else?

• The cartoons and videos keep coming: Why will Georges not tell his wife what he has come to understand?

• This man, Majid, lives in a low-income highrise. Are there any signs of Islam in this home? What can we know or guess about Majid?

• Georges tells his boss that he is suffering a campaign of terror. This is not the first time he has used the word. What is terrorism? Who threatens violence to whom in this film?

• Georges and his wife can't find their son. Across the living room we see television images of dead young men. Are these Palestinian youth? And is that a story about torture at Abu Ghraib? What does our class know of Palestine? Of Abu Ghraib?

• What do you think of how the French police treat Majid and his son?

• Georges, a successful TV personality, is editing video footage of his show. Are the tools of our success also the tools of our undoing?

• Georges wants to spare his wife a recounting of the past -- his own and their nation's past. We learn of the Paris Massacre of 1961: a pro-Algerian protest -- that had been outlawed -- where people were beaten by police, killed, drowned in the river. Why did this happen? (And just last year, shortly before world leaders came to Paris to march in support of free speech, France outlawed a pro-Palestinian demonstration. Why did that happen?)

• There has been bloodshed. Georges goes to see a film. Georges refuses a bad conscience. Georges takes pills and goes to sleep. Is Caché an allegory?

• The final scene, outside a school, a steady frame for many minutes, like the surveillance camera footage of the beginning. In the crowd, Majid's son seeks out Georges' son. What could they be saying to each other? What will become of them and their inheritance, the sins and sorrows of their fathers?

By the end of this film, we still don't know for certain who created the videos and drawings. The plot puts them to work as implements of terror, vengeance, or despair, and this moves the story along. But we might also see them as a poetic device, the symbolic workings of a conscience in contortion, a self watching and haunting itself. At the end of this film, the malaise and suspense persist. This is a society suspended on the verge of more violence.

And now, will the class turn back to the Charlie Hebdo massacre? Maybe we watch The Battle of Algiers next. Or maybe we read Camus' The Stranger: a divided French-Algerian society, a violent death, confusion about conscience and motive, a distant relationship with Mother, going to a movie, and sleep. Maybe we watch La Haine next, to learn more about that young man on his bicycle. Or maybe we'll pause to explore the psychological similarities between acts of suicide, homicide, and murder-suicide. We'll definitely read Things Fall Apart at some point in the course.

Before deciding, I'll need to see who the students are, their needs and questions. And I'll have to be vigilant throughout in creating a classroom community where the discussions feel safe and the risks feel worth it. But no matter who is in the room, Caché is a film that opens the door to crucial questions about our post-colonial world and the violence we will continue to know if we continue to behave with so little integrity and so much fear.