Young women often ask me what my greatest challenge
is when making a film. It is hard to choose just one.
I’m very instinctual in my work. I follow
stories and characters that hit me on a gut level. Reading Samantha Powers’
book, A Problem from Hell, I was
drawn to one character in particular: Raphael Lemkin. Lemkin invented the word “genocide” and helped create the UN’s Genocide Convention, yet he died believing that he was a failure. He lost his entire family in the Holocaust, and he never
gave up his struggle. He just kept working towards a goal some people
thought (and still think) was crazy: to end genocide.
Taking on a directing project about Lemkin and his crusade, I found myself faced with
challenge after challenge. But in many ways, this is what documentary
filmmaking is: finding a story and problem-solving as roadblocks continuously present
themselves, one after the other. This is a hard thing to explain to a film
student. It’s never just one specific challenge, and certainly not one you can
anticipate in advance. Rather, filmmaking is about always being prepared and open
to the possibility that you may just stumble upon something really interesting.
I started Watchers of the Sky thinking I would simply tell
Raphael Lemkin’s personal story, but I soon found that there was not enough
material to make it a visually compelling film. So I went in search of other
stories to help flesh Lemkin’s out, and, 800 hours of footage and over a
thousand photographs later, I had to find the film in the cutting room. That’s
The challenge then shifted from not having a strong-enough story to having too many
strong stories. Each of the characters I found had lives so rich that they
deserved their own film. Yet the film I was interested in making was one that
could weave these seemingly disparate people together in an overarching
structure that would highlight their similarities.
If you find a good enough story, it makes it
impossible for you to quit. How could I give up when Raphael Lemkin never did?
He worked tirelessly, and his spirit is mirrored in the film’s other subjects who continue on his path: Samantha Power, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Benjamin
Ferencz, and Emmanuel Uwurukundo.
Watching various rough cuts, I began to realize I
was making the film Lemkin would have wanted made: not a straight
biography or tribute, but rather, something complicated and nuanced, but still a
powerful call to action.
As I continued working on the film, Samantha Power
went from being an academic to our current US Ambassador to the UN. Luis
Moreno-Ocampo charged a sitting head of state with genocide at the newly formed
International Criminal Court. Emmanuel Uwurukundo led me on an incredible
journey from Chad and Darfur to Rwanda and beyond, and Benjamin Ferencz told me
a story from which the film gets its title that will stay with me forever.
won’t spoil that story for you here, but it is just as relevant to young
filmmakers today as it was to me as I worked for years making this film. It is
never about the challenges — it’s about the tenacity you muster to face them.
Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Edet Belzberg is known for elegant, in-depth, and powerful storytelling. Her debut feature,
Children Underground, was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Sundance
Film Festival’s Jury Prize, the International Documentary Association’s
Documentary Award, and the Gotham Awards’ Documentary Achievement Prize, among
many others. Her film The Recruiter had its world premiere at the Sundance Film
Festival and aired on HBO. It was awarded a DuPont-Columbia University Award
for journalism. Her most recent film, Watchers of the Sky, had its world
premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Prize
for the Use of Animation and the US Documentary Editing Award. The MacArthur
Foundation, in selecting Belzberg as a Fellow, praised her for her “graceful
and insightful” films.
Watchers of the Sky is in theaters now. You can find an updated listing
of screenings here.