LUCY FEIBUSCH previews DocHouse’s screening of Edet Belzberg’s Watchers of the Sky.
Part way through Edet Belzberg’s Watchers of the Sky, a crudely animated barbed wire fence is built, as though drawn, across the screen. I had sat down to watch Watchers of the Sky in my parents’ home, a rug over my feet and my dog settling herself beside me, a position so comfortable that the intrusion of worldwide genocide camps’ barbed wire was abrupt and shocking. Be it a digital representation or not, the implication that I was utterly detached from the realities of mass slaughter was correct. As young people of the 21st century, born as a 3rd generation to those remembering the holocaust, toddlers in the early 2000s at the time of the Bosnian massacres, it is easy to view Belzbeg’s documentary as a historical work – but please don’t. Such sentiments are echoed throughout Watchers of the Sky by Samantha Power, a war correspondent journalist in the Bosnia-Serbia crisis, who wrote an iconic article entitled ‘Can we recognise a Holocaust in progress?’.
I listened as Rwanda, Syria, Dafur were, casually it seemed, listed along side Khmer Rouge, Nigeria, Armenia. Watched as images – both in black and white and colour – depicted the limp victims’ bodies of genocide after genocide after genocide. Belzberg’s nonchalant discussion forces reality upon the viewer; a reality that so many different groups of humans have had the capacity to destroy so many other groups of humans so many times that we can now make lists of the occasions. Is genocide now expected, every so often?
However, Belzberg’s documentary is not about the legacy of human evil or of human ignorance. Instead, he tells the story of Raphael Lemkin, the ‘rural wunderkind’, and a single word that changed the face of international law and the stakes of global morality.
GENOCIDE, the word we know and recoil from today, is taken from the Greek ‘genos’ (people) and Latin ‘cidere’ (to kill). Belzberg takes us to Lemkin’s notebook; scrawling thoughts, notes, crossings-out. At the beginning, the word is everything; he is building a definition, a crime, a label.
The word was officially coined in 1944. Pre-1944, pre-Lemkin, millions of people were murdered without even the acknowledgement of the language, let alone the acknowledgement of a crime. Governmental establishments had to cross international borders, to disrupt the peace with their killing in order to be recognised and then, perhaps, convicted. Was this what sovereign meant? Could one kill without justice in the name of sovereignty?
When the notion of genocide was first put to the international court, the response was that ‘This is not something Europeans do’. Not long after, Hitler rose to power.
Raw, beautifully coarse illustrations accompany the opening credits, calm, sketch-like, passing through the wilderness. Continuing through the film they add a strange artistry to the discussions of Nuremberg. Disorientating, yet effective in a world where the ‘They’re at it again’ narrative has taken hold with reference to mass violence and killing. Why does the destruction of an entire village not jump of the page? Samantha Power, was frustratingly repeatedly asked ‘why is this suffering different to any other suffering?’, why should the media, or the mass populous, care about this suffering when there was similar reported last week?
Belzberg tackles this subject matter brilliantly. By telling the story of a life motivated by homicidal disaster, and, through association, telling the story of a changed world and a reformed court, he does Lemkin the cinematic justice he deserves.
Watchers of the Sky is being screened on Thursday at the ICA as part of DocHouse’s June programme. To book tickets please click HERE