Few people have heard of Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, but everyone knows the term he coined: genocide. He invented the word both to describe the crime and, he hoped, to awaken the human conscience. In “Watchers of the Sky, ” Academy Award-nominated documentarian Edet Belzberg looks back at Lemkin’s crusade while revisiting acts of genocide, from Bosnia to Darfur.
Lemkin, born in 1900, became interested in the subject of systematic mass killing after reading about the Turkish massacre of Armenians during and after World War I, and he was struck by a couple of things. The first was how the Turks were able to execute able-bodied men and expel women and children with impunity. But he was also shocked by the unending nature of these events and how, without fear of prosecution, governments would just keep wiping out populations. He decided to become a lawyer in hopes that he might one day deter large-scale massacres.
Having studied such crimes, he recognized the red flags when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, and he fled to the United States. His Jewish family members, however, insisted they would be safe if they stayed. They weren’t. After that, Lemkin tried to find a word that accurately described what had happened, but “barbarity” and “vandalism” didn’t convey the sense of humanity — the “oneness” — he was looking for. So he combined the Greek word for “race” (genos) with the Latin word for “kill.” Then he traveled to Germany during the Nuremberg Trials, where he tried to convince prosecutors that genocide should be a crime. Although that didn’t happen right away, American prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz at least used the term during the trials.
The energetic Ferencz, 94, is interviewed extensively for the film, both about his involvement in the Nuremberg Trials and about his memories of Lemkin, who died in 1959. (Lemkin appears in archival interviews.) Ferencz describes the man as a perpetually disheveled crusader who looked pathetic but turned out to be incredibly persuasive.
After laying the groundwork of Lemkin’s history, Belzberg weaves in other stories. Samantha Power, now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, talks about witnessing atrocities during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Meanwhile, Emmanuel Uwurukundo, the only member of his family to survive the Rwandan genocide of 1994, talks about his past and about his present, helping Sudanese refugees in Chad. And Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, discusses his fruitless pursuit of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan.
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