One of the animated images from Watchers of the Sky
  • One of the animated images from Watchers of the Sky

One must tread carefully when critiquing a documentary like Watchers of the Sky, which concludes its weeklong run at the Music Box tonight. The film nobly raises awareness of genocidal campaigns and the humanitarian efforts to stop them, but offers little in the way of visual interest or rhetorical finesse. Too often critics respond to the challenge of writing about films like these—call them content-driven docs—by focusing almost exclusively on the subject matter and issuing judgment based on whether the information is interesting or newsworthy. I’m skeptical of this practice. Movies are my beat, and as Roger Ebert liked to say, a movie is not what it is about, but how it is about. If one disregards the how of a film, then it’s debatable as to whether his or her writing still functions as film criticism. And if formal matters are deemed irrelevant in the discussion of a film, then why have film critics write about it at all?

I don’t want to imply that Watchers is without merit as filmmaking. The movie centers on the remarkable life story of Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959), a Polish lawyer who spent decades appealing to the international community to make genocide a punishable offense. Director Edet Belzberg (working with editors Jenny Golden and Karen Sim) gracefully intercuts this biographical lesson with profiles of four people who were directly inspired by Lemkin: Benjamin Ferencz, Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials and still a human rights activist in his 90s; Samantha Power, who reported on ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and now serves as the U.S. representative to the United Nations; Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court who has made it his goal to try Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for crimes against humanity; and Emmanuel Uwurukundo, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who now runs refugee camps in Chad. All five subjects are heroes, though Belzberg doesn’t overstate their heroism—she makes it clear that they’ve suffered numerous setbacks in their humanitarian efforts and that each one has questioned whether his or her work will make a long-term impact.

Through crosscutting, Belzberg emphasizes what her subjects have in common, noting that people face the same challenges today as they did 100 years ago in drawing international attention to genocidal campaigns. Watchers makes genocide seem like a constant of human history; Belzberg might shift focus from one person to another, but the story feels tragically continuous. Around the movie’s halfway point, Belzberg recounts Lemkin’s chief political victory (the U.N.’s adoption, in 1948, of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide), only to follow this passage with accounts of Moreno-Ocampo’s struggle to arraign al-Bashir, the Dirty Wars in Argentina (which Moreno-Ocampo observed firsthand), and the failure of the international community to respond effectively to the Rwandan genocide.

The nonchronological, geographically decentralized structure of Watchers recalls Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), arguably the greatest documentary ever made. One of Lanzmann’s achievements in that film is that he constantly acknowledges the inability of cinema to convey the utter horror of genocide. Lanzmann takes no aspect of filmmaking for granted—every shot and edit communicates the necessity of a new kind of cinema to confront the extraordinary facts of the Holocaust. (Dave Kehr, writing in the Reader, described the film as “a series of approaches.”) Shaking us out of our typical viewing habits, the film makes us acutely aware of the obscenity of genocide. Shoah resists passive spectatorship—it is indigestible by design.

  • Shoah

By contrast Watchers of the Sky goes down all too smoothly. The profiles are fairly straightforward, summarizing the subjects’ careers and keeping personal information to a minimum. The imagery Belzberg uses to illustrate these stories is generally mundane—talking heads in front of bookshelves, old newsreel footage of refugees, exterior shots of the UN and the Hague—which has the adverse effect of creating a sense of familiarity with the material. As with so many content-driven documentaries, one gets the impression that the filmmakers discovered little in shooting that they hadn’t already intended to present in the finished film. (One might say that these films don’t actually document anything, but merely illustrate a report that could have been transmitted in prose and still images.)

Belzberg does make attempts at visual stylization, but they often prove superfluous. In several sequences, Belzberg employs computer animation to make it seem as though lines from Lemkin’s diary are being written before our eyes. These images look tacky, and they add nothing to our understanding of Lemkin. Similarly distracting are the hand-drawn images that Belzberg superimposes over some of the shots and the mosaics of typewritten text that stand in for reports written by the subjects. The latter device (as well as the arpeggio-heavy score) recalls the films of Errol Morris, though not for the better. As Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in his review of The Fog of War, Morris possesses a “power to convince us that we’re actually thinking (as opposed to brooding),” shuffling around so much information that viewers can’t help but feel that they’ve absorbed some of it.

Morris is undeniably a great stylist—even when his movies do nothing more than brood, they brood beautifully—but few of the filmmakers he’s inspired display his imagination or knack for storytelling. Whereas Morris makes his visual ideas integral to the overall design of his movies, too many documentarians employ flashy devices indiscriminately, suggesting they distrust their audience to stay interested in the material. This practice feels more in keeping with TV commercials than with feature filmmaking. It suggests an underlying presumption that audiences needs to be entertained in order to listen to any serious information for more than a few minutes, and I have difficulty taking a movie seriously that regards its audience in such a way.

None of this matters, I suppose, if one regards Watchers of the Sky as a vehicle for information and nothing more. And based on the sheer number of content-driven documentaries I review each month (to say nothing of the dozens that seem to pop up on Netflix every week), I suspect that spectators have no problem regarding documentaries as such. A few documentarians I’ve interviewed have opined that the growing popularity of these movies reflects a demand for better investigative journalism than what people typically get from network TV news. That makes sense: in an ideal cultural landscape, the stories depicted in Watchers of the Sky (and in most other documentaries about human rights issues, for that matter) would be all over network news and people wouldn’t need to pay full price at the Music Box in order to learn about them.

Correction: This post has been amended to accurately reflect the content of the film.