Film Review: Watchers of the Sky

large_unnamedSix decades after he first coined the term genocide, Raphael Lemkin’s life has made it to the silver screen. In Watchers of the Sky director Edet Belzberg takes viewers through the efforts of Lemkin to get the crime of genocide recognized by the international community and the United Nations.

Throughout the movie, activists, scholars and experts share their reflections on the legacy of Lemkin’s tireless dedication to pursuing justice for victims of atrocities around the world. Among those interviewed is Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the UN and author of A Problem from Hell, which served as an inspiration for the documentary.

Watchers of the Sky is a beautiful film. Its use of animation brings to life the the largely untold story of the man who defined humanity’s most heinous crime. However, more important than the film’s visuals is its message. By juxtaposing the events that shaped Lemkin’s early life and views against modern crimes, including the former Yugoslavia and Darfur, Belzberg’s paints a clear picture: despite genocide being defined for more than 60 years, we’re no closer to preventing it now than Lemkin was during his own lifetime. With such a heavy message, it’s easy to write the movie off as a depressing look at history and humanity. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

In addition to introducing viewers to a more in depth exploration of Lemkin, it profiles four individuals who have dedicated their lives to continuing Lemkin’s work. In addition to ambassador Power, the film includes interviews with Benjamin Ferencz, a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials and Luis Moreno Ocampo, the first prosecutor at the International Criminal Court. However, it’s the interviews with Emmanuel Uwurukundo, the UNHCR director of refugee camps in Chad, which really stand out. Mr. Uwurukundo, himself a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide, oversees three camps housing thousands of refugees escaping the violence in Darfur. Despite his own experience and his work in the camps, two things are clear: his eternal optimism and his faith in humanity. Through these interviews with Mr. Uwurukundo and the others, Watchers of the Sky reinforces the need for hope and reason for optimism, even in the face of unspeakable atrocities.

If you missed Watchers in the Sky when it was released last year, you weren’t alone. Its limited release meant it was shown mostly at festivals and single event showings, including an event organized by World Without Genocide last December. However, the film has since been released on DVD and is available to rent or purchase online through Netflix, Amazon or Google Play.

Joe Eggers is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, focusing his research on cultural genocide and indigenous communities. His thesis project explores discrepancies between the legal definition and Lemkin’s concept of genocide through analysis of American government assimilation policies towards Native Nations.

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