“Genocide, Famine and Refugees on Film: Humanitarianism and the Great War”

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Past and Present





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This article analyzes the uses of silent film by humanitarian organizations to shape understandings of the purpose of emergency aid during the Great War. After peace was declared in 1918, the war in the East persisted for another 4 years. The continuation of the conflict until the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 led to unprecedented suffering for those populations affected by world war, famine and in the case of Ottoman Christian minorities, genocidal government policy. The around two dozen films made by Near East Relief, Save the Children, the British Quakers and Hollywood between 1919 and 1923 depicted the tragedy of the war through the eyes of civilian victims and represented the war as a humanitarian disaster for populations living along the war’s Eastern Front. Government documents, newspapers and advocacy organization archives offer context for these films which were shown in theaters all over the world and often used as a vehicle by aid organizations based in Britain and the United States to raise funds mainly for suffering women and children. The widespread screening of these films to raise funds and awareness led to narrative representations of the war that in the absence of meaningful political solutions to the plight of the East’s civilian victims cast humanitarianism as a necessary response to Total War.



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