By Zahava Moerdler
In a scene reminiscent of high school films, Ben Ferencz, former Nuremberg prosecutor and peace and rule of law advocate, prepares a bag of Hershey’s kisses for ambassadors at the United Nations (U.N.) to encourage them to sign his petition calling for crimes of aggression to be included as a human rights violation. “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar…or something like that,” Ferencz says. Ferencz doesn’t just astound you with his vast knowledge of law, but also with his incredible optimism. After witnessing the horrors of the Holocaust concentration camps as a liberator and Nuremberg prosecutor of the Einsatzgruppen (the group of SS who traveled into Easter Europe to systematically shoot and murder villages of Jews), he still has a passion for making the world a better place and hopes that his efforts will be successful—either through his own work or by building a foundation for those who come after him. This passion and hope permeate the powerful documentary “Watchers of the Sky,” as it traces the past and present history of genocide.
The film weaves together numerous narratives throughout the documentary as it describes both past and present genocides. The dominant narrative in the film follows the story of Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term “genocide” and worked tirelessly for the adoption of the Genocide Convention at the U.N. As a young man he studied instances of mass violence and murder, and after the Armenian genocide, Lemkin switched his field of study in university from linguistics to law because he wanted to find a way to stop future acts of violence. During the Second World War, Lemkin becomes a refugee and lost most of his family in the Holocaust. Lemkin spent the rest of his life searching for a word to describe the complete destruction of a people, believing whole-hardheartedly that the creation of a word to describe the event would lead the world to take notice and prevent future atrocities.
The Sundance award-winning film, inspired by Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Problem From Hell, traces Lemkin’s story and legacy as it weaves in the struggles and narratives of four individuals currently fighting to prevent genocide including: Ben Ferencz; Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the UN; Moreno Ocampo, the first Prosecutor of the ICC; and Rwandan Emmanuel Uwurukundo, a UN Refugee Agency Field Director in Chad. Each of these individuals narrate Lemkin’s story while also describing their own experiences with genocide and genocide prevention. One of the most successful aspects of the film is its ability to incorporate so many disparate narrators and narratives while creating a cohesive story.
The film seemingly jumps between Lemkin’s story and the genocides in Armenia, Darfur and Bosnia. In doing so, the filmmakers use Lemkin’s story as the lens to both frame and educate the viewer about past genocides and current efforts concerning the genocide in Darfur. For example, former ICC prosecutor Ocampo acts as both a narrator for Lemkin’s story and as a focal point for efforts to prosecute President Al-Bashir of Sudan. As the film poignantly quotes from Raphael Lemkin’s notebooks, “The function of memory is not only to register past events, but also to stimulate human conscious.”
Another incredible device in the film is its use of Raphael Lemkin’s private papers and journals. I attended a conference last summer about Holocaust education, where two of the film’s producers showed a few clips from the film. During this, they also talked about the hours of work spent combing through Lemkin’s personal journals and correspondences. Instead of merely narrating sections of his writing, the film sometimes switches to an animation sequence in which images and words are displayed as someone narrates in the background. In one section of the film, the screen fills with words to recreate Lemkin’s manic obsession as he searched for the word genocide. In doing so, the viewer not only hears about Lemkin’s experience, but also witnesses it as the words from his personal papers dance to life on the screen, as if being written before the viewer’s eyes.
Despite these incredible strengths, the film has two flaws. First, the film uses a lot of photographs from Bosnia, Darfur, the Holocaust and Rwanda. Many of those pictures are iconic: barbed wire, men grasping a fence, piles of machetes and mass graves. These iconic images focus viewers on the most publicized aspects of the mass violence. In fact, most of the iconic images are based on photographs taken in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. Their constant reproduction makes them “popular” and difficult to see. But in focusing on these expected images, many of the narratives at the fringe or outside the mainstream memory of that genocide are left out. I have made this point before, and so I will keep this short: we must do all we can to encourage the inclusion of all narratives so that no survivor feels marginalized.
Second, you do not learn the meaning behind the title, “Watchers of the Sky,” until the very last sequence in the film. Although I am sure this was done for dramatic effect, there is a disconnect for almost two hours as you watch the film and don’t fully grasp the meaning of the title. I won’t give anything away in this paragraph because the meaning behind the title is incredibly powerful and uplifting, and I highly recommend watching the film in its entirety. In fact, concluding by explaining the title allows the film to end on a hopeful note—which is much needed after an hour and 45 minutes.
Alright, I have one major spoiler and it pertains to the title: A “Watcher of the Sky” is an individual who recognizes the moral imperative of ending cycles of violence and works to improve the quality of life for forgotten populations. What I loved most about the film was its ability to teach me about the past, educate me about the present and inspire me to act in the future. The film draws the viewer and before you know it (almost two hours later…) you can’t help but wonder, what can I do?
Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.
Photo credit: culturaldiplomacy/Creative Commons