“Without justice, people have no respect for each another,” one victim of the atrocities in the Congo offers in Pamela Yates’s The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court. “If this is left unpunished, it will happen again,” he adds. Opening the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival with a whimper rather than a bang (as did last year’s underwhelming cinematic salvo), Yates’s film follows ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo and his dedicated deputies as they seek to bring to trial the worst of the worst war criminals of our time. Unfortunately, the doc is no fascinatingly addictive character study a la Sin City Law writ large, but rather a clinical procedural better suited to classroom use than for theatrical release.
The problem with a dry, straightforward examination of the ICC, established in 2002, is that its daily workings, like that of any bureaucratic body, move at a snail’s pace. Sure, traveling to Uganda to investigate the Lord’s Resistance Army (one of the ICC’s first cases), then to the Congo, Colombia, and finally Darfur, gives the film a global context, but simply talking to victims in those countries to gather evidence is not as visceral an experience as actually witnessing those crimes through a photojournalist’s lens. A picture is worth a thousand words and Reckoning has more substantive words than compelling images. And this lack of artistry in the filmmaking is actually hurting Yates’s cause. It’s hard to see how many would be driven to log onto her “IJCentral social network for global justice,” a link for which is given at the end of the film, merely by watching overworked prosecutors watch atrocity footage on computers at their sleek, modern desks. The effect is less disturbing than distancing.
As is the numerous scenes of those justice seekers sitting around tables pouring over the cases. Shots of monolithic government buildings seen while a description is given of the involvement of Colombia’s top officials in the paramilitaries are uninventive. A scene of soldiers standing around (as the word “Paramilitary” superfluously appears onscreen) is as ho-hum as the oft-repeated historical footage of the Nuremberg Tribunal and of Argentina’s trial of its Junta. Rather than grab us by the throats and hearts, Yates’s unemotional doc has the effect of lulling us into complacency. Even the sad string score and soothing sound of the smooth narration—seemingly taken from a textbook, with lines like “This court would be shaped by the office of the prosecutor” spoken as if the narrator were addressing a middle school class—do nothing to make us want to learn more about this critical institution that faces as much apathy and antagonism from the global community as it does from the international baddies. If the best the director can do to represent the ICC is to cut from press conference speeches to boardroom meetings (between the ICC and NGOs, between the ICC and the communities seeking justice, between the ICC and the UN), it’s doubtful the film will tilt the snubbing superpowers of Russia, China, and the United States into joining. Reckoning renders this crucial judiciary of last resort about as inspiring as a conference call.
The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court premieres June 12 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2009. Click here for screening information.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.