States of Denial

Fighting for Truth from Nanking to DENIAL

Written by Peter Bowen

Mick Jackson’s DENIAL recreates the ordeal experienced by historian Deborah E. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) after being charged with libel by David Irving (Timothy Spall) for labeling him a Holocaust denier. In the British courts, which strongly favor the claimant, Lipstadt and her team were essentially tasked with proving that the Holocaust actually occurred. Force to prove the veracity of something that history seemed to have already acknowledged, Lipstadt’s barrister, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), along with her solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), crafted a complex defence that insisted on the primacy of truth. For the filmmakers, Lipstadt’s heroic fight to defend historical truth echoes our own turbulent political reality. “We live in an age of unreason and lies, an age of violent outrages and all kinds of assaults on the truth,” declares Jackson. “This trial has importance over and above and beyond itself,” Lipstadt points out. “In an age of relativism, kids grow up thinking, ‘it must be true, I saw it on the Internet.’ But not everything can be true. There are not two sides to every issue.” Indeed, the denial of the Holocaust so poignantly dramatized in DENIAL is part of larger cultural phenomena in which people, companies, or governments reject established science or history in order to fabricate their own versions of reality

Sigmund Freud was one of the first to acknowledge the power of denial, albeit it as a psychological defense. His daughter, Anna Freud, more fully delineated its function in her 1962 essay, “The Ego and The Mechanisms of Defense.” As one of several defense mechanisms employed by the ego (like distortion and projection), denial permits a subject to ignore an obvious external reality if that experience is too painful or incomprehensible. This insight soon reappeared in the works of a number of psychologists. In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross highlighted the role of denial in the process of coping. In her now famous five stages of grief, Kübler-Ross made denial the first step in one’s journey to accepting the death of a loved one. Other psychologists have deployed the concept to illuminate the incomprehensible demoralization experienced by addicts and alcoholics in their inability to recognize, let alone change, their destructive behavior.

In the last 25 years, historians and social scientists have used the psychological construct of denial to explore the phenomenon of groups rejecting accepted historical or scientific truth, whether that be neo-Nazis refuting the Holocaust or concerned parents ignoring the efficacy of vaccines. But there is a dramatic difference between psychological and historical versions of denial. While people may reject reality to help them protect their fragile ego, historical and scientific denial has proven more mercenary and nefarious. In his 2009 study, Denial: History Betrayed, Tony Taylor analyzes how previous cases of historical denial “were not white lies told to smooth away anxiety; they were significant misrepresentations, distortions and falsehoods constructed to meet internalized psychological and external political needs. Not only are these self-deceiving deniers stubbornly resistant to external reality; they also occupy positions of authority, meaning that their denial is a powerful political tool.” The distortion of truth that Deborah Lipstadt confronts in DENIAL has reappeared in a variety of ways in the last quarter of century. We consider here just a few striking examples of historical and scientific denial, as well as films that have sought to capture those stories, movies that have often found themselves enveloped in the very maelstroms of denial they were attempting to uncover.


Nanking | The Forgotten Holocaust

A scene from Nanking

At the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, documentary filmmakers Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman premiered their documentary Nanking. Inspired by Iris Chang’s 1997 bestselling book, The Rape of Nanking, one of the first English-language histories to bring the events of 1937 to a wider Western audience, Nanking both documented the massacre and remembered a heroic band of Westerners who tried to save Chinese lives. Starting in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese army, which had just invaded the Chinese city of Nanking, initiated an unprecedented wave of terror against the civilian population. While lack of records have made it difficult to determine the full extent of the massacre, most historians calculate that up to 200,000 people were killed and somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped. Before beginning the project, Guttentag and Sturman knew very little about the events in Nanking. “I learned that it was referred to as the “Forgotten Holocaust”. I felt that the words “holocaust” and “forgotten” should never be in the same sentence,” Guttentag tells Indiewire about what drew him to the project. During the war, the Japanese media, who were forbidden by law to report anything unfavorable about the Imperial Army, whitewashed reports of the massacre. After the war, history books either glossed over the event or grossly underestimated its carnage. The publication of Chang’s book in 1997, however, brought a new international spotlight to the atrocities. This sudden negative light on Japan’s war record also brought on a wave of ultra-nationalist historians ready to attack Chang’s book by either denying the event or by seriously distorting the facts. One of the most prominent deniers, Shūdō Higashinakano, wrote a 1998 counter history, The Nanking Massacre: Fact versus Fiction, which, not only claims the massacre never took place, but that historical accounts were the result of Chinese propaganda. Throughout production, Nanking’s filmmakers encountered shades of denialism. Guttentag and Sturman tell Documentary magazine that, “Some of the people we hired in Japan actually quit the project, citing pressure from family members who disapproved of the subject matter. One of our Japanese associate producers quit because she said she feared for her safety.” While Nanking went on to receive a Peabody Award for “reminding viewers of an event too often forgotten and for doing so in an innovative manner,” several prominent deniers were up in arms. Funded by various right-wing organizations and politicians, filmmaker Satoru Mizushima, who claimed Nanking was “based on fabrications and gives a false impression,” rushed to create his own two-million-dollar documentary series The Truth about Nanjing. Mizushima, who distributed his three-part documentary both in theaters and on his YouTube-like site, Channel Sakura, told Japan Times, “The evidence for a massacre is faked…It is Chinese communist propaganda.”


Ararat | The Meaning of Genocide

Atom Egoyan’s Ararat

For many deniers of the Armenian genocide, the question is less what happened but whether the events rise to the definition of “genocide.” What did happen? In 1915, the Ottoman government, fueled by growing nationalism and fear of Russian expansionism, began a systemic annihilation of Armenian people throughout the area now known as Turkey. Historians estimate that up to 600,000 civilians were killed outright in a series of shootings, drownings, poisonings, and other forms of execution. Another half million died in forced marches of exile. In the next few years, whole villages were erased from the face of the earth, reducing the Armenian population to a mere fraction of what it had been in 1914. At the time, Henry Morgenthau, the US ambassador to Turkey, told the US government: “When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race.” Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who first coined the term “genocide,” developed the idea to describe the events in Armenia. Yet over the years, groups, mostly promoted by Turkish nationalists, have rejected calling the events of 1915 genocide. In 1985, 69 American historians signed an open letter published in The New York Times and Washington Post––and paid for by the Committee of the Turkish Associations––requesting the US government not recognize the events as genocide. Fifteen years later, another letter, signed by 126 scholars, appeared in The New York Times, "affirming that the World War I Armenian genocide is an incontestable historical fact.” Yet any public discussion of the Armenian genocide can still be greeted with hostility and denial. In his 2002 film Ararat, Atom Egoyan raised the specter of the Armenian genocide as part of a post-modern meditation on the politics of representation. In the film, an Armenian filmmaker, Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour), discovers himself in a political minefield when he embarks on a Hollywood-style film of the period as seen from the eyes of the painter Arshile Gorky. Far from a straight-on drama, Ararat’s many subplots include stories about Canadian nationalism, gay identity, and border control. “Ararat is not a film about the genocide but about what happens when an event like that is denied and how that begins to affect people's actions in the current day,” Egoyan tells The New York Times. Such aesthetic concerns, however, did not appease the denialist factions in Turkey. A few days after Ararat premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, The New York Times reported that the Turkish state minister, Yilmaz Karakoyunlu, told The Ankara Daily News: ''Turkey will do everything possible against this film. It is a shameful production.'' Even last year, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, proclaimed, “The Armenian diaspora is trying to instill hatred against Turkey through a worldwide campaign on genocide claims ahead of the centennial anniversary of 1915.”


Al Gore in David Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth


An Inconvenient Truth
| A Climate of Denial

In 2006, Davis Guggenheim released An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary that brought Vice President Al Gore’s popular presentation about the dangers of climate change to the screen. After losing the 2000 election, Gore distilled much of his research and concern about global warming into a slide-show lecture with which he toured the country. Producer Laurie David recalls to The Hollywood Reporter the effect of that address on her in 2004. “Al Gore came onstage and presented five minutes' worth of slides about global warming, and I was floored. My eyes welled up with tears. It was really clear: We had to make a movie.” For many Americans, who’d never before heard of climate change, the facts presented in the Oscar-winning documentary were equally revelatory. NASA climatologist James Hansen summed up the film’s power by saying, "Gore has put together a coherent account of a complex topic that Americans desperately need to understand. The story is scientifically accurate and yet should be understandable to the public, a public that is less and less drawn to science." In the decade since this documentary brought the term “global warming” to the lips of many Americans, the science behind climate change has become even more refined. In 2013, several studies confirmed that at least 97% of scientists agree that man-made climate change is a real and present danger to the world. Despite such scholarly agreement, an organized effort by a network of climate deniers has been able to perpetuate the illusion that climate change is still a controversy in the scientific community. In 2015, Justin Farrell, an assistant professor of sociology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, explored the effects of climate change denial, finding, according to Bloomberg News, that “a loose network of 4,556 individuals with overlapping ties to 164 organizations do the most to dispute climate change in the U.S.” Farrell’s detailed study demonstrates what many in the field have suspected for years. As professor Robert Brulle told Think Progress, Farrell’s study shows exactly how various corporations funneled money into a “concerted effort to promulgate climate misinformation, which they knew from their internal research was false.”


The Insider | The Smoke and Mirrors of Denial

Russell Crowe in Michael Mann’s The Insider

In 1994, Thomas Sandefur, the CEO of Brown & Williamson, told the Health and Environment Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives, “I do not believe that nicotine is addictive…Nicotine is a very important constituent in the cigarette smoke for taste.” His comments capped off several decades of denial by the American tobacco industries about the relationship of cigarette smoking to cancer. In their 1971 position paper, Project Truth: The Smoking Health Controversy: A View From the Other Side, Brown & Williamson claimed that the statement that there is “sound evidence to conclude that ‘cigarettes cause cancer’ is not a statement of fact, but merely a hypothesis.” Brown & Williamson’s refusal to acknowledge the growing scientific evidence about the harmful effects of smoking was no different from the stance taken by any of the other major tobacco companies. But Sandefur’s 1994 testimony stands out for the effect it had in finally jamming up the machinery of denial deployed by the tobacco industry. In his 2008 Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, David Michaels explains how “for Jeffrey Wigand, a former B&W scientist, this testimony was the final straw. He later approached 60 Minutes with his inside knowledge of the industry deceit.” Wigand’s TV interview revealed what a Tobacco executive spelled out in a private 1969 memo: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.” (This strategy became the subject of Robert Kenner’s compelling 2014 documentary Merchants of Doubt.) In 1999, Michael Mann brought this remarkable story of Big Tobacco to the screen with his corporate thriller The Insider, with Russell Crowe playing Wigand and Al Pacino as 60 Minutes’ Lowell Bergman. Based on Marie Brenner's 1996 Vanity Fair piece "The Man Who Knew Too Much," the film chronicles not only tobacco industry’s denial but also the complicit corporate culture that pushed CBS to try initially to kill the story. “It's a good thing Wigand isn't a conventional, come-to-the-rescue hero in The Insider, because, although Michael Mann tries for a victory dance, there's ultimately little cause for cheer,” notes New York Magazine’s Peter Rainer. “It's a world in which there are many whistleblowers and yet the tune remains pretty much the same.“


AIDS | The Spread of Denial

ACT UP protestors in David France’s How to Survive a Plague

From the first reported incidents in 1981, AIDS has spawned various forms of denial, be it in homophobic or racist assumptions about its victims or misguided medical theories about its transmission. For many dealing with the epidemic during its first years, the government’s seeming indifference, if not outright silence, felt like a form of denial. While President Reagan responded briefly when asked a question in 1985, he did not actively speak out about the epidemic until 1987, when over 36,000 people had already been diagnosed with the disease. Nearly every film on the history of AIDS has in one way or another dramatized the government’s refusal to acknowledge the epidemic. From Norman René’s 1989 Longtime Companion to Roger Spottiswoode’s 1993 And the Band Played On to David France’s 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary, How To Survive a Plague, the early years of the epidemic reveal a government either ignoring or denying the heartbreaking effects of AIDS. At the start of the 21st century, a more direct form of AIDS denialism occurred in South Africa when president Thabo Mbeki rejected the scientifically established fact that AIDS was caused by HIV. Influenced by controversial molecular biologist Peter Duesberg, who proposed unproven factors, like gay men’s use of recreational drugs, as the cause of AIDS, Mbeki refused distribution of HIV medication. Instead, claiming AIDS was a product of poverty and poor nutrition, Mbeki blamed outside forces for the rise of AIDS in South Africa. In response to these policies, Elaine Epstein’s film State of Denial, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before appearing on PBS’s POV series, documents the horrific price tag for this strain of AIDS denialism. For Epstein, “ignoring 5 million infected in one country alone and ignoring the fact that 600 of these people die a day is unpardonable.” While Mbeki, bending to international pressure, began to change his polices by 2005, his reforms came much too late. A number of studies have all come to the same tragic calculation, that more than 330,000 South Africans died unnecessarily because of Mbeki's AIDS denialism.


Creation | The Evolution of Denialism

Paul Bettany in Jon Amiel’s Creation

If the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species radically changed our understanding of the life sciences, its proposed theory of evolutionary biology also threatened many who saw the book as denying the existence of God. In the century and half since, Darwin’s theory of natural selection has become a cornerstone of biology, as well as flash point for those who deny it. In 1960, Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind seemed destined for great things. The film was adapted from a successful 1955 play that fictionalized the 1925 Scopes’ Monkey Trial in which a high school science teacher in Tennessee was charged for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. After it premiered, it received rave reviews, especially for the performances of Spencer Tracey and Frederic March, who played the opposing lawyers Henry Drummond and Matthew Harrison Brady (based on the real attorneys Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan). But as soon as the film hit rural America, trouble started. Organized protests decrying the film as anti-God forced United Artists to drastically cut back its rollout. Nearly a half-century later, the release of Jon Amiel’s 2009 Creation seemed to encounter a similar wave of denialism. Loosely adapted from Randal Keynes’s biography Annie’s Box, Creation explores a personal side to Darwin (played by Paul Bettany) and his desire to publish his most significant work. After opening the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, Creation went on to play in theaters across the world, except for in the US. Producer Jeremy Thomas tells The Telegraph, “It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but in the US, and it's because of what the film is about. People have been saying this is the best film they've seen all year, yet nobody in the US has picked it up.” While Creation finally got a limited release by Newmarket Films, it was greeted with animosity by evolution deniers. Despite well-documented scientific evidence to the contrary, the Christian site Movieguide.org ‘s reviews states “this is a one-sided bit of propaganda, however, because there is much that is not said. For instance, evolutionists have yet to produce any tangible evidence of intermediary species, that is, evidence that an ape turned into a human.”

discover more in the bleecker street blog

bleecker blog