Boasting one of the more repugnant title subjects in movie history, “Milosevic on Trial” is, on the one hand, Balkans 101. On the other, it’s a stirring recap of the World Court’s attempt to come to terms with a man whose single act of decency, it seems, was to die mid-trial, ending his attempt to twist civilization to his own legal ends. Global TV exposure is already assured, and limited arthouse and institutional play seems likely.
As Michael Christofferson’s clinical but affecting docu shows, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was charged with genocide and other war crimes and tried in the Hague for four years — the longest trial of its kind in modern history, and the largest, we are told, since Nuremberg. Milosevic’s Serbian nationalist war and ethnic cleansing had led to 125,000 deaths and forced 3 million to flee. Yet, throughout the film, the civilized world seems to have been motivated by process rather than retribution. The world wanted to show that the world could work.
The prosecutor, Geoffrey Nice, gives Christofferson not only access but analysis. And although Milosevic defended himself, his lawyer, Dragoslav Ognjanovic, is on hand to present the hardline Serbian response to the “illegal” trial.
Nice’s task was huge: There was no paper trail (dictators seldom leave any) to prove Milosevic’s culpability in the atrocities perpetrated against Bosnian Muslims or Kosovo’s Albanians. And Milosevic could stall (which he did), call irrelevant witnesses (which he did), contradict his own case (uh-huh) and otherwise thwart the court.
That Milosevic acted as his own counsel appears to have been a calculated strategy to frustrate the war-crimes tribunal’s efforts to give him an unimpeachably fair trial. His own ineptitude made the trial unworkable; the perversity of it is astounding, as is Milosevic’s defiance in the face of filmed evidence of Serb-led massacres.
Production values are excellent, notably the editing by Henrik Fleischer, Niels Ostenfeld, Anders Refn and Scott Stevenson.