Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Defiance - The Film

Yesterday evening, I had the opportunity to watch the film Defiance, based on the book, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans written by noted scholar and Holocaust survivor Nechama Tec (who had high praise for the film). The film depicts the resistance and survival of Jewish partisans who lived in the forests of Belorussia, through hunger, treacherous winters, and attacks by Nazi soldiers and local Nazi collaborators. Far from just fending off such attacks, the Bielski Otriad also waged dangerous offensives of their own.

To be sure, the film is in large part about the resistance of a targeted population (Jews in Belorussia) against their Nazi predators. However, what the film also demonstrates is a far more complex and dynamic series of confrontations between resistive power and dominant power (See Sharp et al. 1999). Put another way, the film avoids depicting a simplistic binary dialectic between a singular unit of resistance against a more powerful dominant entity (e.g. the Bielskis v. the Nazis). There are multiple sources of dominant power that are confronted by various sources of resistant power, in addition to plural forms of resistance that are engaged in. For instance, while the Bielski Otriad shared a common enemy (the Nazis) with the other partisan groups, the Bielski Otriad also had to confront anti-Semitism that emanated from these other partisan groups – for example the beating of a Jewish partisan for using the same latrine as a Russian officer – not all resisters are treated equally. Ultimately, Zus, one of the four Bielski brothers (the second oldest), deserts the Russian partisan group that he and others Jewish partisans had joined (which could have earned them an execution) in order to help his brothers who are about to be under siege by the Nazis. He does this in part because the Russian Otriad refuses to assist and help the Bielski Otriad. Thus Zus’s desertion (along with his assaults on the Nazis) is an act of resistance waged against a Russian partisan group that could care less about the safety of the Bielski Otriad based in part because they are Jewish.

The Bielski Otriad’s collective efforts against the Nazis, and Zus’s desertion from the Russian Otriad depicts them as protagonists. Yet, interestingly, the film depicts the Bielski brothers, particularly Tuvia Bielski (the eldest brother) not only as exemplars of resistant power, but also as dominant power within the context of power relationships within the Bielski Otriad’s camp. At one stage while Tuvia is suffering from typhus and Zus is serving with the Russian Otriad, certain fighters within the Bielski Otriad assert power and challenge Tuvia’s authority as commander, law maker and enforcer. Facing this challenge, Tuvia summarily executes the leader of this declared takeover and reasserts control. Tuvia then orders that the body of the slain mutineer is to be placed out into the woods for the wolves to devour – a deterrent for others who are thinking about defying Tuvia. This executed mutineer is depicted as harassing the wife of Tuvia’s younger brother Asael and thus a demeaning and oppressive source within the camp. Also he beats on Asael who is smaller and continually attempts to defy the notion of equality that each person receives the same amount of food rations, regardless of whether they are “fighters” or not. Here Tuvia’s dominating power is used to assert a normativity that respects women’s right to be free from harassment and a sense of equality. Therefore not all dominant power is constructed as evil and not all resistant power as benevolent.

Tuvia is also challenged when his order that no pregnancies will be allowed is defied, albeit unintentionally. His order is issued in the context of prohibiting pregnancies originating between members in the camp – the forest and their conditions being an unfit milieu to raise and sustain a child. However, one of the women amongst the Bielski Otriad, prior to escaping to the forest from the ghetto was raped by a Nazi guard. Once Tuvia discovers that the child has been delivered in the camp, he orders that she and her baby leave the camp. He is persuaded against this action by his lover and future wife, Lilka. The resistance here works, not through force or violence but through persuasion and interlocution. Of course what we see, in actuality is an implied exception to a rule, the woman did not get pregnant intentionally through sexual relations in the camp which would have blatantly defied Tuvia’s orders. Nevertheless, Tuvia was reluctant to let her stay and so what the scene exhibited was that Tuvia’s rules were also subject to resistance and negotiation.

The film of course not only charts multiple relationships of resistance and domination, it is also an exhibitor of legal normativity and more specifically competing normativities. Within the context of Belorussia, the Nazis who have invaded that geographic space control a sizable area, but they do not hold monolithic control. The Bielski Otriad, amongst others, carves out its own geography of resistant power and legal normativity. This geographic space however is not static but mobile, for remaining in one place is perilous, as they are hunted within their resistive space and must move to other places in the forest for safety. Within that resistive space, rules/laws were established within the camp – e.g. everyone would work, everyone would contribute. In the survival context of the Bielski Otriad, rules were necessary for the continued existence and security of the whole group. Resistant power cannot escape the creation of legal norms in order to preserve and sustain itself.

Defiance is an interesting and compelling representation of the complexity and diversity of power relationships between dominant and resistant power, and how identities within this context are fluid – Tuvia is both resister and dominant authority; Zus is both a resister of the Nazis but also the Russian Otriad that he eventually deserts. The film also fascinatingly captures the manner in which legal norms are formed, modified and how they are in competition with other generators of normativity, both between groups and within.

Source cited:

Joanne P. Sharp et al., "Entanglements of Power: Geographies of Domination/Resistance" in Joanne P. Sharpe et al. eds., Entanglements of Power: Geographies of Domination/Resistance (New York: Routledge, 1999), 1-42.

Further readings:

Nechama Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Steve Pile and Michael Keith, eds. Geographies of Resistance (New York: Routledge, 1997).

Paul Routledge, "Critical Geopolitics and Terrains of Resistance" (1996) 15 Political Geography 509.

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