Home Video Hovel: Watchers of the Sky, by Sarah Brinks
You might think from its title that Watchers of the Sky is about astronomers or alien conspiracies but you would be far from the truth. Watchers of the Sky is a documentary detailing the lives of four people who have fought to end crimes against humanity and genocide. The four subjects’ lives are linked through the work of a man named Raphael Lemkin, who was a refugee and lawyer who coined the term ‘genocide’. Lemkin who was a Polish citizen who lived through both World Wars and was deeply changed and motivated by his experiences and losses to help the world stop such crimes ever being perpetuated against humanity again. He believed that the law needed to find guilt with the leaders of such atrocities and take the responsibility out of the hand of the victims.
The documentary is beautifully made and remarkably well rounded. The four major subjects of the film are Samantha Power, Benjamin Ferencz, Emmanuel Uwurukundo, and Luis Moreno-Ocampo. Power is a former journalist and now the US Ambassador to the United Nations and sits on the security council. She has spent her adult life writing about crimes against humanity and as an activist trying to stop such crimes. Ferencz is a Hungarian immigrant who fought in World War II and was the lead prosecutor on the Nuremberg Trials. He is also a life-long advocate against genocide. Uwurukundo is a survivor of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda and is now the director of relief efforts in Eastern Chad for the Darfur refugees. Moreno-Ocampo is an Argentinian lawyer who is the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court leading the cases against the Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir. Throughout the film you hear each subject’s story and how they came to the decision to fight crimes against humanity. You also learn how Lemkin’s actions led the way and in some cases directly inspired their actions.
Lemkin was a great man, thinker, and writer. He wrote journals and letters and notes all his life and his words and ideas are shared throughout the film. Throughout the film there are stunning animation sequences often combined with Lemkin’s actual notes and quotes that share his experiences and drivers behind his actions to stop genocide. The lead designer and animator on the film was Molly Schwartz. Schwartz and the rest of the animation team created a bridge between Lemkin’s words and the stories in the film in a creative and often heart breaking way. Lemkin had seen and learned enough about these types of crimes that when World War II broke out he knew what was going to happen and could almost predict Hitler’s plans for the Jews. He found his parents in Poland and begged them to flee to America with him before they were exterminated. They would not leave and he was forced to emigrate alone. He wrote of trying to live an entire year in one day and that being with them was like experiencing their funerals while they were still alive. His entire family was rounded up, sent to concentration camps, and killed. He went to Nuremberg for the trials and met Ferencz and tried to convince him of the the crime he called ‘genocide”. Genocide was not one of the crimes listed at the Nuremberg Trials but Ferencz mentioned it in his defense for Lemkin.
The word that comes up in the film again and again is “complicated”. Each of the subjects uses it at least once to describe their feelings, the international situation, and act of genocide. None of them skirt around the idea that peace and changing global policies, and convincing the world that the power to stop these crimes are in all of our hands takes a long time. There is money, power, resources, and so much more at play in the global sphere and it all comes into to play when creating laws. None of them accept “complicated” as an excuse though. They all take the stand in their own way so that we have to see past all the issues that complicate the issue of crimes against humanity and we have to make real and permanent changes. Their conviction is a powerful part of the film and seeing how it motivated them is deeply emotional.
Watchers of the Sky is a film about an important and difficult subject. There is a lot of historical and recent footage that show the horrible and ugly truth behind genocide. It is often difficult to watch and hear. Some of the most difficult moments in the film are hearing the real life experiences of the refugees. You hear how their families are murdered, how they survived, and the atrocities they witnessed. The film is never overtly graphic nor does it ever wallow in the horror of its subject matter. It takes it very seriously but doesn’t try to manipulate or overload its audience. This carefully calculated balance in the film makes it educational, authentic, and powerful.
I have to commend the film’s director, Edet Belzberg, for making a documentary that has a strong narrative, compelling subjects, beautiful animation sequences, and a deeply compelling message that is never overwhelming. Watchers of the Sky is a film that makes you think and has the power to change the way you think.