Thursday, 20 March, 2014

‘We must shorten the distance between the heart and the deed. To live an idea, not only to talk about it or feel it,’ – Raphael Lemkin

Edet Belzberg’s Watchers of the Sky is not a film of limitations. Using its two-hour span, it tracks the movement to recognise and prosecute genocide from its beginnings, in the 1920s in the aftermath of the atrocities in Armenia, to the modern day as the International Criminal Court (ICC) seeks the arrest of Omar al-Bashir, the first sitting head of state to be indicted for such crimes.

At the heart of the documentary is the tragic tale of Raphael Lemkin, the man who first coined the word ‘genocide’ and campaigned for it to be recognised internationally as a crime. Having had his family murdered in the Holocaust, he spent his remaining life independently attempting to convince the worldwide community that it is only law that can prevent these heinous events from happening again in the future. His dedication to this ambitious cause left him destitute, with few companions and to an early death where only seven people attended his funeral. Yet, he succeeded, and it is this commitment that frames the narrative of Watchers of the Sky.

Intertwined within Lemkin’s story is the contemporary tales of four other individuals devoted to related causes. Samantha Power, whose book A Problem From Hell inspired the film, witnessed genocide first hand as a journalist in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, pushing her onto a path that later saw her become the US Ambassador to the UN. Benjamin Ferencz, a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, campaigns independently for UN delegates to recognise war-making as a crime. Emmanuel Uwurukundo, a survivor of the Genocide in Rwanda, oversees three camps on the Chad-Sudan border that provide sanctuary to those displaced by the Genocide in Darfur. Lastly, Luis Moreno-Ocampo works as Chief Prosecutor at the ICC and is a key individual behind the indictment of al-Bashir.

Bringing together these five narratives in an engaging and clear manner is no mean feat, especially when Watchers of the Sky frequently jumps between the past and the modern day. Yet the editing team behind the film manage to pull it off with aplomb. The thread that binds it is always evident, and in spite of the complex and geographically distinct nature of each individual strand, there is sufficient detail to inform without overwhelming the viewer.

Interspersed between the present footage filmed by the documentary’s crew, stock recordings and talking heads, are beautiful watercolour animations. These concise snippets are effective in their bleak imagery, often depicting the scale and anonymity of genocide victims through the fading silhouettes of numerous human forms.  Meanwhile, the biographical clips telling the story of Lemkin’s early life, namely his experiences in the Holocaust, provide an important and striking visual context to the words from his memoir.

The film is particularly poignant in showcasing how 100 years ago Lemkin laid the groundwork for modern international law regarding genocide and the way that his legacy remains relevant today with these four parallel lives. 

While Moreno-Ocampo and his position at the ICC may be what Lemkin envisioned through his campaigning, the reality of the organisation's inability to bring al-Bashir to justice five years after the indictment is a constant reminder that there is still some way to go. This gives the historical narrative a hugely contemporary importance, and is likely to inspire viewers to not just take it in, but to take action.

Watchers of the Sky is undoubtedly moving, and some of the news footage from the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia will shock audiences, but it is the notion that the world has not learned and that perpetrators such as al-Bashir still act with impunity that is likely to leave people feeling unnerved and anxious about our future.

If you want to catch Watchers of the Sky, it is being screened twice at next week’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival in collaboration with the Aegis Trust. The first is on Tuesday 25 March at the Curzon in Soho and the second at the Barbican on Thursday 27 March.