Watchers of the Sky is an unusual, jumbled, occasionally quite beautiful sort of anthology documentary. Director Edit Belzberg recounts the past and present stories of five humanitarians as they fought (and fight) to instill a notion of global accountability for war crimes. Firstly, and most radically, there’s Raphael Limkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer and linguist who first coined the term “genocide,” and whose crusades quietly set the tone of the Nuremberg Trials, as well as the formation of the International Criminal Court. Haunting the halls of Nuremberg, the half-starved, sleep-deprived, nattily-dressed Limkin pushed for Hitler’s mass-murder spree to be defined broadly as crimes against humanity that would render all systemic killing punishable regardless of whether or not an invasion, or “act of war,” occurred, simplifying yet specifying definitions of violation that should be taken as a given.
Limkin died sick and penniless at the age of 59, after ushering genocide into the sphere of cultural awareness only to see it used as little more than a buzz word, which eventually did little to prevent or punish similar subsequent acts of mass murder, torture, and rape in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, and Argentina, to name just the places mentioned in the film. But his ghost haunts the film’s other subjects, particularly Ambassador Samantha Power, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, whose book A Problem from Hell: American in the Age of Genocide won the Pulitzer Prize while serving as the inspiration for Watchers of the Sky. Limkin’s work also informs the legacies of Benjamin Ferencz, one of the charismatic prosecutors of the Nuremberg Trials, and Luis Ocampo, the first prosecutor for the ICC, who also, earlier, served as prosecuting attorney for the “Junta Trials.” Providing us a portrait of the refugees themselves is Emmanuel Uwurukundo, who lost his entire family in the Rwandan genocide and now runs three of the largest refugee camps in Chad.
Watchers of the Sky is often wrenching; there’s no way it couldn’t be with this subject matter. But this is, to put it mildly, a lot of information for one documentary, which inevitably devolves to resemble not so much an anthology as a slideshow of genocide’s greatest hits. (Also included is the history of the Turkish annihilation of the Armenians, which partially inspired Lemkin’s actions.) These people each deserve their own film, and while Belzberg’s rapt, completest earnestness is moving, it tends to clog or block out themes that could emerge if given space. The United States, for instance, doesn’t participate in the ICC, which is a stumbling block in the court’s aim to achieve real global legitimacy, as well as a major irony for a country that hypocritically sees itself as the great worldwide avenger of the people. But this persuasive and damning information, key to the acknowledgment of a difficult truth of genocide as an ultimate manifestation of capitalist amorality, is inexplicably treated as almost an afterthought.
Details also get lost in the structural busy-ness. The moment dramatizing Lemkin’s fashioning of the word “genocide” (depicted through haunting illustrations of his journals) is the best scene in the film, as it captures the weirdly ominous awe and power of yielding a word that perfectly fits the crime. But too often you hear summaries of stories of crusaders working through the bureaucratic red tape and camping out in hallways and badgering indifferent politicians, only to have those stories segue into other, similar stories before the initial anecdotes have been sufficiently fleshed out. Eventually, a kind of numbness is triggered, and Watchers of the Sky begins to disastrously court the very reaction its combating: that of a bored resignation that regards all the genocidal atrocities as the same rote, abstract procession of evildoing that’s happening Somewhere Else to People Who Don’t Look Like You. Shoah daringly courted a similar tedium, only to transcend it with a ferocious vastness of quotidian detail that rendered the Holocaust unspeakably real to even the distanced contemporary viewer. Belzberg doesn’t manage the same nitty-gritty feat. Watchers of the Sky is the textbook definition of a film with good intentions, and it’s probably a fine way to start a difficult conversation in a history or economics class, but it hasn’t been molded into a work of direct, scalding, transcendent art.