Sundance Review: ‘Watchers of the Sky’ Explores the Challenge of Chronicling Genocide

Sundance Review: 'Watchers of the Sky' Explores the Challenge of Chronicling Genocide
Sundance Review: 'Watchers of the Sky' Explores the Challenge of Chronicling Genocide

“We can’t try everybody who’s guilty of wrongdoing,” admits Ben Ferencz at one point during Edet Belzberg’s “Watchers of the Sky,” a sobering statement from one of the Chief Prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trials following World War II. A reminder of the scope of humanity’s flaws, it also concisely encapsulates the enormous task faced by anyone trying to come up with a comprehensive look at genocide. By bringing in perspectives from the media, activists, historians and the refugees themselves, Belzberg presents a view of modern challenges in combating genocide that, while not entirely thorough, is a sobering reminder of the difficulty of those efforts. 

“Watchers of the Sky” follows the origins, stories and lessons of five periods of genocide in recent global history: Armenia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Sudan and the rise of the Third Reich. With representative voices for each period, from those who covered it to those who survived it, Belzberg illustrates how the early efforts of linguist-turned-activist Raphael Lemkin resonate through the modern attempts to curtail ethnic violence and establish a global framework for prosecuting its most egregious offenders. 

Lemkin, a Holocaust survivor himself, fought both before and after World War II to make the ethnically motivated extermination of an entire people a punishable offense under international law. Without much footage of Lemkin during this period of unrest, Belzberg instead uses an animated forest sequence (created in part by the animation team of Molly Schwartz, Dana Schechter, Garry Waller and Eyal Ohana) to illustrate the displaced feeling of those like him escaping danger. There’s an ominous nature to the trees silhouetted against a dark sky, as human figures move through the prison-like landscape, where they eventually disappear one by one. Belzberg repeatedly returns to this image, helping to reinforce the idea that the same horrific circumstances that helped to inspire Lemkin have the potential to bring about that same spirit of activism, even in that terror’s current incarnations. 

Lemkin’s semantic-based search for the right word to galvanize an effort — the actual creation of the word “genocide” — is an ideal example of the film’s realization that this fight for justice is more of a battle of words than actions. Its best moments show how the most effective course is not to merely a moral imperative but an appeal to the practical benefits of prosecuting genocide. When Ferencz is shown passing out candy as a means of bridging goodwill amongst UN delegates, it’s a reminder that this is an arena where best intentions alone aren’t necessarily good enough. Global governing organizations are inextricably linked to pre-existing political obligations, even when dealing with a presumably universal evil. 

When gathering testimony about the effects of this approach to policy-making, the film’s four major threads don’t venture far from their central subjects. While this does give a specificity to each story, the narrow focus does result in a lean discussion of each situation. A heavy reliance on one interview subject for each period means that while Lemkin is the film’s overarching focus, there are extended sequences where the only one providing information is Pulitzer-Prize-winning author and reporter Samantha Power. Even though Power proves to be an articulate expert in the field, for a film looking to tackle such a large and emotionally complex subject, this approach to input has its limitations.

Ultimately, the strength of “Watchers of the Sky” lies in its details: a description of the International Crime Court’s Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo’s approach to the case against Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, for exaple, or the plans of Rwandan survivor and UN officer Emmanuel Uwurukundo to assist Darfuri refugees displaced by al-Bashir’s relentless policies. Like the attempts of its subjects, the film stalls in places where such details are less prevalent. But the excerpts from Lemkin’s writings, shown frequently on-screen, carry insight and elegance whenever there’s a sense of forward momentum from his spiritual descendants. 

Ferencz’s closing story, which gives the film its title, shows that the primary effort is in progressing towards a common conception of international law and action, rather than reaching a final goal of eradicating those who would perpetuate genocidal attitudes. The emphasis here is not on coming up with a solution, but putting the pieces in place so that one day, a workable, effective system can function. As a documentary, “Watchers of the Sky” shows how even capturing that progress is a monumental task in itself. 

Criticwire Grade:

HOW WILL IT PLAY? As a documentary profile of activists, it will surely have an extended life on the circuit at specialized venues like the Human Rights Watch Festival and its ilk. Its primary outlet will likely be a broadcast deal, though a very limited theatrical run is a possibility.

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