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'Watchers of the Sky' a powerful warning about genocide

'Watchers of the Sky' a powerful warning about genocide
Raphael Lemkin in "Watchers of the Sky." (Arthur Leipzig / Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York)

The documentary "Watchers of the Sky" centers on Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word "genocide" and devoted his life to ensuring that the systematic extermination of people would be an international crime.

Henryk Sienkiewicz's depiction of the Roman Empire's slaughter of early Christian converts in the novel "Quo Vadis," as well as the 1915 Armenian massacre, provoked in the young Lemkin — a Polish Jew born in 1900 — a profound revulsion. He studied law at Lviv University in Ukraine, became a prosecutor and presented at the 1933 League of Nations conference in Madrid. But his caution about history repeating itself fell on deaf ears.

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In 1941, Lemkin fled the Nazis for the United States. Here, he tirelessly courted ambassadors to the United Nations and entreated them to ratify the Genocide Convention he had drafted. Though adopted in 1951, its actual implementation came half a century later in a case against Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir. Filmmaker Edet Belzberg juxtaposes Lemkin's biography with the Sudanese refugees camped in eastern Chad and former International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo mounting the case against Bashir.

Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Pulitzer-winning author of "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," narrates Lemkin's story beautifully. The film's message is so powerful, some of the poetic flourishes are unnecessary. Animation sequences that earned recognition at Sundance have a once-upon-a-time quality that seems allegorical, a disservice to a film that reminds us that genocide is recurrent, not an isolated incident.

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"Watchers of the Sky"

MPAA rating: None.

Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.

Playing: Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino.

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