Thursday, October 16, 2014

Edet Belzberg's WATCHERS OF THE SKY is all about the coinage and history of genocide

Raphael Lemkin's name and life are not that well-known to many of us Americans. Prior to watching this documentary about the man and his work, I happened to read an article about all this that appeared in an issue of last year's New Republic. It whetted my appetite for more, some of which this new film by Edet Belzberg provides. WATCHERS OF THE SKY (the film's title does not come clear until almost the conclusion) is one of the most dense documentaries in terms of information, ideas, timelines, people and places that I've have seen of late. The amount of notes I scribbled as the film was unfolding are more than I have taken while watching anything else in the past year.

Beginning with some beautiful and compelling animation (which returns from time to time throughout the film), Ms Belzberg, pictured at right, weaves together the life and work of Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959, pictured below), together with the stories of several present-day people whose lives are dedicated to the work that Lemkin -- who coined the word genocide and spent much of his adult life trying to stamp it out -- began. As someone notes early on in the film, "Everyone condemns genocide but they still commit it. You can only stamp it out by moving one stone at a time." Consider this documen-tary one of those stones.

The film focuses on various genocides -- from that of the Turks against the Armenians to Sudan/Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia and of course the Jewish Holocaust -- and we hear from folk such as Benjamin Ferencz, below, right, who prosecuted the war crimes at Nuremberg, and now works toward making war and crimes of nation-state aggression prosecutable by international law.

We also meet Samantha Power, below, whose reporting on the genocide by the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia brings back all the anger, force, grief and horror of that ghastly period. Ms Power is now the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, a place where she can use her skills toward further curbing genocide. (The movie was inspired by Power's prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.)

Luis Moreno-Ocampo (below), Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), whom we've seen in other documentaries, here explains his work and the importance of it in helping prevent more genocide, while Emmanuel Uwurukundo, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who lost his entire family talks about the need for hands-on work with survivors in order to change attitudes.

Among the shocking things we learn from the film is that genocide can occur within a country's own borders and still by seen as lawful (the ethnic cleansing in Darfur by the Sudanese is the ongoing and current example) and why only 22 Nazis were tried at Nuremberg (the reason is simply too simple and shocking to countenance). And we see, once again, how little force the United Nations really has.

I wish the documentary had better identification of its speakers (pace Jacqueline Susann: Once is NOT enough). And while the movie skips and jumps around like crazy, via fine use of its lovely animation (above) and some very smart editing (Jenny Golden and Karen Sim), it manages to unite all this into a cogent and compelling whole. Watchers of the Sky, via Music Box Films and running two full hours, opens tomorrow -- Friday, October 17 -- in New York City (Lincoln Plaza Cinema), Los Angeles (Laemmle's Royal and Town Center 5) and Orange Country (Edward's Westpark 8). In the weeks to come it will hit another half-dozen cities and theaters. Click here and then click on THEATERS to see all currently scheduled playdates.

No comments: