Film Reviews

Watchers of the Sky Celebrates the Fight Against Humanity's Worst

The greatest lie of the past 80 years: "Never again."

At this moment, Omar al-Bashir, the world's wickedest despot, is free not just to rule the Sudan but to make diplomatic visits to international allies — China, Saudi Arabia — despite the calls of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his arrest. Since seizing power in 1989, Bashir's militias have murdered almost half a million Darfurians, enemies he still proudly calls "vermin."

This bastard's crimes against humanity are precisely what the United States vowed to stop when, in 1988, it at long last joined the rest of the world in ratifying the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. (The U.N. had approved the convention almost 40 years earlier.) Fat lot of good Ronald Reagan's signing-on did: As Edet Belz­berg's bracing, vital doc Watchers of the Sky reminds us, the Clinton administration shirked our obligation to aid the Tutsis in Rwanda, arguing the difference between genocide and genocide-like events. (It's not the definition of "is" that should haunt the former president — it's the definition of moral cowardice.) Equally troubling, but not in the movie: Bush Jr., whose presidency was pretty much swaggering Reagan fan-fiction, looked Bashir in the eye at the United Nations and declared the killings straight-up genocide — but then never actually bothered to do anything about them.

Never again: You hear that promise anytime goodhearted people discuss the Holocaust. And yet it always happens again, and the goodhearted always find excuses to let it. Watchers of the Sky, working from Samantha Power's essential book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, accomplishes the nearly impossible trick of updating viewers on the prevalence of genocide in the 20th and 21st centuries without rubbing our noses in our failure to stop it. The film drapes its despairing history onto Hollywood's most reliable narrative frame: the tireless efforts of unlikely heroes on impossible quests. By the end, even as you mourn for the millions piled into mass graves around the world, you at least feel the flickering of a universal human decency — yes, there are people who have dedicated their lives to fighting this.

The first is Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who lost his family to the Nazis and devoted his short, lonely adult life to uniting the world against mass exterminations. Lemkin coined the word "genocide," and one of the film's most stirring passages charts its development: In smartly animated sequences, Lemkin's raw cursive, often scribbled or stricken through, dances before us as Power recounts his efforts and explains his thinking. His new term in tow, Lemkin crafted the U.N. convention that Reagan signed a half-century later and set about lobbying international dignitaries to approve it. The U.N. adopted the convention in '51, but that meant little without U.S. support; in '59, Lemkin died at a bus stop, en route to more meetings with more powerful people who would most likely have made sympathetic noises but found reasons not to help.

Luis Moreno Ocampo, prosecutor with the ICC, is another quixotic soul fighting for the basic human right not to be murdered just because you're a member of a group some monster doesn't like. Ocampo assembled the evidence against Bashir for the ICC and the U.N. Security Council, and the film shows him at work, both toiling behind the scenes and addressing the representatives of the member nations who will (mostly) agree that Bashir must be stopped — and also that they're not the ones to do it. In affecting interviews, Ocampo reveals the personal sacrifices his crusades have cost him: In the '80s, in what became known as the Trial of the Juntas, he helped prosecute the architects of Argentina's Dirty War, earning him the enmity of some family members supportive of the regime of the deposed Jorge Rafael Videla. Today Ocampo says that Videla's crimes didn't constitute genocide, but — unlike with Clinton's crew — that didn't mean ignoring them. The Trial of the Juntas intentionally resembled the trials at Nuremberg, right down to lead prosecutor Julio César Strassera's impassioned promise: Nunca más!

As Ocampo can tell you, there's been plenty más. Still, the fact that he presses his case so strongly, that there are movies and books documenting it, that Bashir is (for the most part) an international pariah — all this is, at the least, encouraging. Inspiring figures like Ocampo, Lemkin, and Power herself may not live to see the eradication of genocide from this planet, but they are bringing about the change that must occur before that one ever could: Today, no one can pretend not to know when it is happening. Ben Ferencz, who actually led the trial at Nuremberg, also appears, speaking of his struggles to get nations to commit to using the force necessary to enforce international law. Toward the end, his eyes brimming over, he shares the tale about Tycho Brahe that gives the film its upbeat title.

Watchers of the Sky shrewdly mixes archival footage, animated history, field reports of atrocities, and anguished and heartening talking-head interviews with hope-stirring scenes of actual people standing up to the greatest evil of our age. It's a significant step on our journey toward being able to say "Never again" without having to cross our fingers.

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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group and its film partner, the Village Voice. VMG publications include LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press and Dallas Observer.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl