Sundance Film Review: ‘Watchers of the Sky’

Edet Belzberg's sweeping survey of global genocide is an impressive and artful cinematic thesis of palpable substance.

Watchers of the Sky Sundance

Given a well-deserved editing award at Sundance for juggling a daunting number of principal threads and themes in cogent fashion, Edet Belzberg’s “Watchers of the Sky” casts a wide net over mass ethnic and political exterminations of the last century and beyond. Its framing device is the career of lawyer-turned-human-rights advocate Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide” and spent most of his life trying to convince the international community to specially prosecute such crimes against humanity; his work is paralleled by that of four modern-day champions of justice in an era when such murderous “cleansings” seem increasingly frequent. Docu should travel widely on the fest circuit and appeal to home-format programmers open to hefty, demanding but highly rewarding work in the political/social-justice realm.

Lemkin was born in what is now Belarus, his Jewish family having survived several pogroms; later he would be unable to convince his parents to flee Nazi-occupied Poland, where they eventually died in the camps. That only fortified his obsession with making what he initially termed “barbarity” (before coming up with the more distinctive Greek/Latin amalgam for which he is remembered) an international crime. Despite such then-recent events as the wholesale slaughter of Armenians (in 1915 Turkey) and Assyrians (in 1933 Iraq), systematic large-scale executions of specific minorities had been considered too much of an aberration to warrant sweeping legal classification.

The Holocaust suggested otherwise, however. Lemkin was a constant presence at the Nuremberg trials, then at the newly formed United Nations, eventually achieving some success in his endless petitioning of diplomats and others, despite their sometimes regarding him as a crank. Often disheveled, broke and in poor health, he was only fully appreciated for his efforts in retrospect. (He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times, yet only seven persons attended his 1959 funeral.)

Carrying on his work of bringing attention to and prosecuting war crimes around the world are a quartet of interviewees. Emmanuel Uwurukundo survived ethnic genocide in Rwanda and now oversees massive border camps of refugees fleeing violence in Darfur; Luis Moreno-Ocampo is chief prosecutor of the Intl. Criminal Court, which in theory (if not necessarily in authority) realizes many of Lemkin’s hopes for a global justice system. Ben Ferencz served the same role for the U.S. Army at Nuremberg, where he knew Lemkin; now in his 90s, he remains active as a political watchdog and critic. Samantha Power began her career as a journalist covering civil war and ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia; today she weighs action on similar conflicts as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Her book “A Problem From Hell,” about American foreign policies toward global genocides, was a partial inspiration for the docu, and she narrates Lemkin’s life story in voiceover.

All these figures are and were involved in monitoring numerous complex, volatile situations around the globe. It is to “Watchers of the Sky’s” great credit that it manages to encompass and variably detail many such tragedies, historical and ongoing, without overwhelming the viewer. (Pic was purportedly a decade in the making, assembled from 800 hours of original footage, plus archival materials.) The urgency of the modern-day segments is complemented by the melancholy, lyrical tenor of striking monochrome ink/watercolor-styled animation (singled out for a special jury prize at Sundance) illustrating Lemkin’s life and causes. The result is no breezy sit, but an impressive and artful cinematic thesis of palpable substance. All tech/design elements are first-rate.

Sundance Film Review: ‘Watchers of the Sky’

<p>Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 22, 2014. Running time: <strong>121 MIN.</strong></p>

  • Production: <p>(Documentary) A Propeller Films production in association with the Antelope Foundation, Chicken & Egg Pictures, Dakota Group, LBC Films. (International sales: Propeller Films, New York.) Produced by Edet Belzberg, Amelia Green-Dove, Kerry Propper. Executive producers, Elizabeth Bohart, Stanley Buchthal, Samantha Power. Co-producers, Jenny Golden, Karen K.H. Sim.</p>
  • Crew: <p>Directed by Edet Belzberg. Camera (color, HD), Belzberg, Sam Cullman, Mai Iskander, Martina Radwan, Bob Richman, Jerry Risius, Nelson Walker III; editors, Jenny Golden, Karen K.H. Sim; music, Claudio Ragazzi; music supervisor, Golden; animators, Molly Schwartz, Dana Schechter, Garry Waller, Eyal Ohana; sound, Ryan Barrett, Francis X. Coakley, Suzanne Hillner, Michael Jones; re-recording mixer, Tom Paul.</p>
  • With: <p>Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Samantha Power, Emmanuel Uwurukundo, Ben Ferencz. (English, Zaghawan, Spanish, French dialogue)</p>