Hot Docs: Watchers of the Sky
On Tuesday night, I saw an amazing documentary called Watchers of the Sky. It was about the history of genocide and pays particular attention to Raphael Lemkin, the “unsung hero” who coined the term “genocide” and pushed for it to be recognized as a global crime by the United Nations.
The director, Edet Belzbeg, approached the film from the perspective of four main characters – Samantha Power, US ambassador to the United Nations; Luis Moreno Ocampo, former Chief Prosecutor with the International Criminal Court; Benjamin Ferencz, a prosecutor at Nuremberg; and Emmanuel Uwurukundo, a Rwandan UN refugee officer working in Chad. The fifth character, who has inspired them all and knits the narrative together, is Raphael Lemkin.
It was a movie that had a lot of resonance for me. I’d been to Butare in Rwanda, where some of the scenes with Emmanuel Uwurukundo were filmed. While working for Aegis Trust in London, UK, one of the alleged war criminals we “tracked” was Ratko Mladić, who was largely responsible for the massacre at Srebrenica and who features in this film in archival footage. And of course, I’ve loved Samantha Power’s book, A Problem from Hell, which was the inspiration for this film.
Technically, there was one thing that distracted me in the film – the use of subtitles for people speaking English (who had accents), but not consistently. Sometimes the subtitles would only be used for parts of the sentence, for example. It was a bit weird.
But another technical element that did impress me was the use of original archival footage, including a lot of footage that I’d never seen before, especially from the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
This film raised a lot of questions for me in a mind that hasn’t had a lot of opportunity lately to delve into this kind of content and intellectual activity. One thing that struck me while watching the film is when Ocampo speaks about the disappearances in Argentina and how “the numbers weren’t there for genocide.”
But do the numbers really matter?
This reminded me of the time I met Stephen Lewis after an event honouring his wife, the incredible journalist Michele Landsberg. We got to talking about Rwanda, and I told him about the research I did for my Masters dissertation, on the rights of children conceived through rape during the Rwandan genocide. At one point we started talking numbers – number of children, etc – and I said something like, “Well, some NGOs estimate that if about 250,000 women were raped during the genocide…”
He interrupted me to ask, “Do you really believe that number?”
I was taken aback by this question. I hadn’t really thought about it before; I’d just taken it for granted. Yes, of course we should question numbers and try to get truthful statistics. But at the same time, does it matter what the numbers were? Is 25,000 women raped not enough? What about 5,000? What about 1? In terms of defining something as a genocide, the numbers don’t matter. It is about the intent to destroy, “in whole or in part,” a particular group of people.
Numbers don’t mean anything to the individual human beings on the ground, living through these situations.
In the same vein, it doesn’t necessarily matter to the victims if what they are experiencing is termed a genocide, or ethnic cleansing, or war crimes, or crimes against humanity. Or all of the above. Or none of the above.
Still, Raphael Lemkin worked so hard to have the concept of the crime of genocide codified in international law. And that is not insignificant. Sadly, he died alone, waiting for a bus, from a heart attack. Less than a dozen people attended his funeral. Nowadays, everyone knows the term “genocide,” yet we are often bogged down in semantics, arguing what is or is not a genocide. Often so that we – or our country – doesn’t have any obligation to intervene.
There were shortcomings in this film. I would’ve liked to see a more nuanced perspective regarding the International Criminal Court. Following the Lubanga trial, for example, a few years ago, I saw what I interpreted to be blatant incompetence on the part of Ocampo and his colleagues on two separate occasions (perhaps that’s a story for another post). But a film can’t show everything – it needs to have a narrative, and it’s purpose is to make an argument.
This film was about connecting the dots. About making connections and seeing patterns, so that we can perhaps stop similar atrocities from taking place in the future. Lemkin knew how to recognize these patterns – the film speaks about his obsession with learning about historical acts of genocide, starting with the Armenian genocide. When things started getting bad in Europe, Lemkin went to warn his parents, begging them to leave with him for the United States (he arrived in 1941). But they refused to leave – not seeing that a government or army would want anything to do with them, this elderly couple in the Polish countryside. In the end, Lemkin lost 49 relatives in the Holocaust.
There was a beautiful narrative arch in this film – from Raphael Lemkin and his persistent attempts to have the UN recognize the crime of genocide to that of a modern day Lemkin, Benjamin Ferencz (the former prosecutor at Nuremberg) who is now similarly lobbying countries at the UN to recognize the crime of aggression in terms of war.
The film ends with Ferencz tearing up as he tells the story of an astronomer years ago who “watched the sky.” He spent 25 years observing the stars, trying to find the secret of the universe, and he didn’t. Someone asks him why he keeps doing it – when he will stop. After all, he already has 90 logbooks full of his observations. “I’ll stop when I hit 100,” he replies. “Why? What for? What are you achieving?” the inquirer asks. “We build on top of each others’ work. Maybe,” he explains, “I’m saving someone down the line 25 years of work.”
That, my friends, is the stuff of legends.