Film Review: Watchers of the Sky (★★★)

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At the end of Edet Belzberg’s documentary “Watchers of the Sky,” Benjamin Ferencz tells the story of Tycho Brahe, an astronomer who convinced a king to allow him to build a planetarium in hopes of understanding the universe. 25 years went by and a new king came to power, and when they went to see the work Brahe did, he told them he had not solved the mysteries of the universe, but he has watched the sky so that the person who does will have 25 year of work done for them.

Ferencz has used Brahe as an inspiration for his life work, the prevention of genocide and the act of inciting wars. Ferencz is just one of the watchers detailed in Belzberg’s documentary that focuses not only on the horrid acts of genocide, but the disheartening struggle that people like Ferencz, and especially Raphael Lemkin faced in their crusade to prevent it.

“Watchers on the Sky” is a brutally honest depiction of society’s failings to complete the work of Lemkin, but it is also a reaffirming testimony of the courage and determination of human right activists who followed in his footsteps.

Lemkin, a Polish refugee of WWII himself, was actually the man who coined the term genocide. His story of determination, but ultimately struggle, to create an international law preventing genocide is an incredible story on its own and makes up a large part of the film.

It would not have been overly difficult for Belzberg to make a film simply about the act of genocide; in fact he has all that he needs to do so with the testimony of the refugees from Darfur. But unfortunately, that simply would not have been enough, and it is not the biggest takeaway from the film.

Rather it is Lemkin’s story that sticks with you. How he alone fought, literally to his final breath, to end the extermination of populations simply based on race, religion or creed. His story is told through archival footage, through animated text of his writings, but also, and perhaps most interestingly through animation of a forest that also transforms into the thin outlines of victims. These drawings emerge and move through the film, the faceless ghosts of the millions lost.

Lemkin attempted to pick up the torch for them, but his dream would not go any further in his lifetime. Instead, it is Ferencz, Samantha Powers, and Luis Moreno-Ocampo who followed in his footsteps, the new watchers.

That is the surprisingly hopeful message of the film, that there are those who are taking up Lemkin’s work, who are fighting for the millions who suffer and have suffered from these crimes, and for those who may become victim to it. It is disheartening to think that they may not see the end of it in there lifetimes, but we can hope that their work, with the help of this documentary, will assist the next watchers in their goal.