Hot Docs: Watchers Of The Sky [Edet Belzberg, 2014]


On the Origin of the Species was published in 1859. Of course, humans have been killing each other en masse long before Darwin could see finches. But since humanity realized that primitive connection, we still remain stubbornly genocidal. Just how can we move beyond and effectively deter warmongers, zealots, and mass murderers without entangling ourselves in the vicious cycle of revenge?

Watchers of the Sky is a study in genocide. From the Armenians during the Great War to Serbian Muslims in Bosnia, from The Holocaust to Rwandan genocide and the ongoing atrocities in Darfur, Edet Belzberg weaves a delicate and soul rending story around the neglected bones of Raphael Lemkin. Likely the best forgotten (seven times) Nobel Peace Prize nominee, he also happened to coin the term “genocide”. A Polish refugee in America, Lemkin worked to solidify genocide as a recognized crime world-wide in a convention within the then newly established UN. Yet the reason he is quickly forgotten is inextricably linked to human denial. The dilemma, as (I believe) Belzberg highlights, is that we recognize justice should be upheld by an outside or impartial, third party. But by definition, there is no third party for crimes against humanity (unless we can invite aliens into our courts). Furthermore, our concept of sovereign nation states guarantees that national interests and politics will always be intertwined with not just the resolution, but also the intervention of such crimes. “Watchers”, therefore, could only painfully detail past catastrophes and lay bare the current lack of legal and organizational resources to deter genocide.

As macabre a subject as it is, the film leaves a surprisingly serene footprint. Lest it be considered so, I guarantee that it doesn’t lack in graphic impact. Instead of frame after frame of mutilated bodies that can drive the audience to defensively shut down, however, “Watchers” uses stylish calligraphy overlays and artistic renders to soften the direct assault on ones psyche. I find that this allows the mind to process. Lemkin’s personal notes, the interview/narration of Ben Ferencz (chief prosecutor at Nuremberg Trials), Luis Moreno Ocampo (Prosecutor at trials of the Juntas in Argentina and now International Criminal Court) and Samantha Power (current UN ambassador of the United States), and first-hand account of Rwandan and Darfuri survivors are all tastefully assembled into an intelligible message that can sometimes be difficult to reach in these documentaries. At 120 minutes, it’s not for the fainthearted – but I wish more people would choose this over an asinine night with Frozen. If you do, make sure to stay until the very end for a bittersweet revelation.

Hart House Theatre, Tue, Apr 29, 7:00 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox, Wed, Apr 30, 12:30 PM
Isabel Bader Theatre, Sat, May 3, 6:30 PM

Posted on by Gary in Hot Docs

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