EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling directors who have films screening at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival.
Director Michael Christoffersen's doc competition film "Milosevic on Trial" is based on 2000 hours of tape from court proceedings pf tje four year-long trial of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic before the international tribunal in the Hague. The former leader is the first sitting head of state to be indicted by an international court and the case itself proved dramatic when Milosevic himself refused to be represented by counsel, and then later died in prison shortly before the conclusion of the trial. Incorporating interviews with people involved in the case, including prosecutor Geoffrey Nice and Milosevic lawyer Dragoslav Ognjanovic, the film presents the case and its controversy in full detail.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking?
Working as a journalist, I felt an urge to dig deeper and more thoroughly into the subjects I portrayed. I wanted to stay with my characters and events long enough to be able to reach a result that satisfied the participants, an audience - and myself.
What was the inspiration for "Milosevic on Trial?"
About ten years ago, I found myself watching trials in Tanzania about the genocide in Rwanda. It was dramatic, fascinating and a new approach to confront violent conflicts. At the time, I was the only film maker who stayed to see the trial process to its conclusion. My observations of the trial resulted in the film ‘Genocide: The Judgement’ – which followed the trial of the first person to be convicted for the crime of genocide since World War 2.
Afterwards, I realised that the biggest trial of all would soon begin, the trial of Slobodan Milosevic. For the first time, a former head of state would have to answer for his personal actions during a conflict. Here was a chance to portray a dramatic event of historical proportion. As a filmmaker, it was an irresistible opportunity. Soon after, I began to use the network I had created during my time in Tanzania with those individuals who had worked within the UN Tribunal system.
Elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film...
The plan was to make a historical document and at the same time present a dramatic story describing the struggle of the key characters involved in this massive and unprecedented exercise.
I knew we couldn´t film the obvious central character, Milosevic, so we approached his closest adviser, Dragoslav Ognjanovic. He turned out ßto be not only loyal to Milosevic but almost his alter ego, who with passion expressed Milosevic´s point of view. As the main antagonist we contacted the leading prosecutor, Geoffrey Nice. To begin with he wasn´t too keen on having a camera present, but as time passed he began to trust me and the project. Eventually I became a sort of diary or logbook in which he could elaborate and react to the developments in the trial.
I didn´t know how the trial would develop in the courtroom, but it turned out to be much more dramatic than expected because Milosevic chose to defend himself, to present himself as the lone rider against the big western conspiracy. Good stuff, though the technical and artistic quality of the UN produced courtroom footage was hard to work with.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in develping the project?
Getting access to film behind-the-scenes in The Hague Tribunal. The UN is a bureaucratic institution and we had to convince a lot of people about the seriousness of this project. It took a year of negotiations and I´m fairly convinced that only a small production company had the stubbornness to continue.
Another difficulty was gaining the trust of the people working on the case. It takes time which they didn’t have. Often, it was hit-and-run filming and a lot of waiting around. All this improved as I got closer to the charaters.
The other difficulty was that the trial went on for far too long. It exhausted the planning, the budget and me. It has to be said however, that the many broadcasters involved in this film were extremely supportive and understanding of the diffilculties we encountered and today it is of course very fulfilling to have been able to picture and complete a historic project like this.