Sundance movies explore the terrifying impact of authority on human behaviour
Participating movies in the Sundance film festival are usually made on shoestring budgets and often by first-time directors, but they are rich in their substance, bold in their themes and unique in their subjects. This year, movies have touched on controversial issues such as nature vs nurture (Stockholm, Pennsylvania), homosexuality (I am Michael, D Train), teens in pornography (Hot Girls Wanted), religious cults (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief) and more. One topic that grabbed my attention was the perplexing transformative impact of authority on human mind and behaviour.
My interest in the topic sparked when I saw the Israeli documentary “Censored Voices”, which exposes atrocities committed by Israeli soldiers during the 6-day war in 1967, which ended with the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Sinai peninsula, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. The disturbing revelations were made by soldiers from the left-leaning Kibbutzim in interviews conducted with them by renown author Amos Oz and editor Avraham Shapira, 10-12 days after the conclusion of the war. This is the first time that the Israeli army consented to release them.
While the western world was praising their heroism for defeating the “monstrous” Arab armies with an astonishing speed, the Israeli soldiers were busy murdering Arab civilians and war prisoners and uprooting villagers from their homes and creating a refugee crisis in the Middle East. One of the interviewees says: “We were told not to show mercy, and to kill as many Arabs as we can.” So they did, shooting at soldiers and civilians alike. “We saw people walking in Sinai; they were not running, so we shot them. We could see them falling, but they didn’t run. So we killed them all,” another soldier confesses.
The first moral shock hit these soldiers when they met the Egyptian captives. “They were just kids. They kneeled down kissing our feet and begging for water. They were not the monsters we had imagined. Suddenly, we started to feel bad for them, but at the same time I thought that they would’ve done the same to us, had they been in our position,” the soldier says. He also reveals that Egyptian prisoners were forced to dig their own graves before they were executed and buried in the desert.
Another interviewee says that he witnessed a paratroopers’ battalion apprehending the men in one convoy of Syrian villagers, who were forced out of the Golan Heights to Syria, and executed them, leaving the women and children with their heavy chattel and domestic animals. The Palestinians in the West Bank were not spared either. The soldiers killed anyone who dared pop his head from a window or a roof top. “I said to myself ‘they are civilians, should we kill them or not? I didn’t think much about it. Just kill! Kill anyone your eyes could see,” the soldier says.
The interviewees sounded so traumatised by their own actions, that they compared their behaviour to the Nazis, who drove the Jews out of their homes to death camps. “We are not killers, but the war turned us all into killers,” laments one soldier. Interestingly though, the film’s director, Mor Loushai, firmly rejects this comparison when I speak to her, insisting that, unlike the Nazis, Israeli soldiers feel the pain of the other side. And when I suggested to her that the Israeli soldiers were acting then in the way that Islamic State (IS) fighters do now, she was loath to compare the two. Admittedly, unlike the Israeli soldiers, IS members gloat about their crimes. But that makes no difference to the victims; who are either dead or refugees. “War corrupts the human soul,” Loushai concedes. “But you must know that our soldiers had no choice and were fighting to defend their homeland from the attacking Arab armies.”
The truth is that each side in every conflict believes that they are just in their deeds. Do the Israeli soldiers possess higher innate moral codes than the rest of humanity or are they just as flawed as everybody else?
This question was tackled in two other Sundance’s movies: Michael Almereyda’s “The Experimenter,” and Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” Both movies are based on real scientific experiments conducted in the early 1960’s and early 1970’s respectively.
“The Experimenter,” tells the story of a Jewish psychologist, Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), who devises an experiment in
Yale university in order to answer the question of whether we could call the Nazi soldiers, who were following orders, accomplices in the Holocaust?
There are three participants in Milgram’s experiment: the Experimenter (the authority figure), the Teacher (the volunteering subject) and the Learner (a confederate, who informs the subject that he has a heart condition). The Teacher punishes the Learner, who sits in an adjacent room, with an electric shock every time he fails to answer a question correctly. The intensity of the electric shocks increases gradually to 450 volts (the death blow) until the Learner provides the right answer. The Experimenter instructs the Teacher to proceed in fulfilling his role in the experiment in spite of the Learner’s screams of agony and pleading for mercy. Astonishingly, 65% of the subjects continued to electrocute the Learner until the death shock, albeit they did express their dismay at the experiment. The rest didn’t stop before the 300 volts shock, which inflicts excruciating pain. Furthermore, not a single one of them deigned to check on the Learner’s well-being before they had left.
Similar results of the same experiment were observed in different countries. All subjects, regardless of race, creed or gender, acted the same way, prompting Milgram to conclude that human nature can’t be relied on to prevent cruelty and immoral behaviour, when it’s instructed by a corrupt authority. The majority of people are willing to carry out actions, incompatible with their principles or morality, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear.
“The Stanford Prison Experiment,” which features a psychological experiment headed by Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), goes a step further in exploring the impact of Authority on human behaviour in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building.
Twenty-four male students are selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in the prison. The guards are provided with actual prison guards uniforms, wooden batons and mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye contact with the prisoners, who wear uncomfortable ill-fitting smocks and stocking caps, as well as a chain around one ankle, and their names are substituted by numbers, which are sewn on their uniforms.
From the first day of the experiment, the guards, who are granted absolute power, act callously towards the prisoners. And when the prisoners rebel, the guards respond sadistically with varied forms of psychological torture and humiliating practices, such as spraying prisoners with a fire extinguisher, depriving them of their meals, forcing them to urinate and defecate in a bucket in their cell, and then placing the bucket next to their dinner table, taking away their mattresses from their cells, leaving them to sleep on concrete, arbitrarily locking them in a solitary confinement and stripping off their clothes in order to degrade them. The prisoners react in three ways: resistance, total collapse or complete obedience, but all express their willingness to forfeit their pay in order to leave. Matters deteriorate to such an extent, the experiment has to be halted after 6 days. Disturbingly, the guards are disappointed.
At the end of the movie, a prisoner asks one of the guards: “Why did you act like an asshole?”. The guard replies: “I was doing my job, and I wanted to experiment with it, and see how far can I go. I am sure you would’ve done the same. Authority changes you.” And that was what the scientists confirmed: it seems that the situation, rather than their individual personalities, caused the participants’ behaviour.
Interestingly, one of the Israeli soldiers in “Censored Voices” reveals that the authority that the war has bestowed upon him over his Arab victims filled him with a sense of invincibility, and he derived joy from harassing and humiliating them. He was surprised by their total obedience even when they were ordered to leave their own homes and do the most degrading acts, adding that the Jews also submitted to the Nazis when they led them to the death camps.
This soldier was as young as the volunteering students in the Stanford Prison experiment. Is he a war criminal, or a victim of the situation or is he just obeying the commands of his superiors? And is he different from a Nazi soldier or an ISIS terrorist or the infamous American Sniper or a Syrian soldier who murders his own people in order to save the throne of his president?