With all eyes on The Hague for SA’s genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, here are two films and one miniseries that deal with the tricky issue of transitional justice.It’s a branch of the law that doesn’t enjoy the same kind of on-screen coverage as criminal justice, perhaps because it’s often more complicated, drawn out and difficult to reduce to the kind of easy moral black and white arguments that make it simple to root for the good and bad guys. Whatever the reasons for its lack of proper representation on screen, these offerings prove that there’s plenty of morally complex, far-reaching relevance and meaty drama to be made for those who venture into the increasingly urgent arena of transitional justice and its challenges and place in a world that’s wracked by war, murder and outrageous injustice.
THE ARTHOUSE ESSENTIAL
Argentina, 1985 — Prime Video
Director Santiago Mitre’s urgent but dramatically satisfying courtroom drama is inspired by the true story of Argentinian prosecutors Julio Strassera and Luis Moreno Ocampo. In 1985, Strassera and Ocampo, aided by a group of courageous and dedicated young legal volunteers, pulled off the seemingly unthinkable task of prosecuting the members of the country’s military junta responsible for countless atrocities during the brutal dictatorship of the 1970s.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Mitre manages to inject a welcome shot of black and absurd humour into the long and treacherous struggle for justice pursued by his protagonists who must fight not only the perpetrators but the country, their own families and a government unwilling to open the lid to a pandora’s box that they fear will threaten the carefully built post-dictatorship stability.
Like SA’s own Truth and Reconciliation Commission 11 years later, Argentina’s junta trials were a significant moment in the history of transitional justice and one in which the object was not so much forgiveness as it was calling to public account the murderous perpetrators of one of the most shameful periods in post-world War II history.
Solidly populist and crowd-pleasing, the film manages, thanks to strong performances and a righteous belief in the significance of its events, to make its case for the importance of its people’s justice crusade and gives much needed voice to the testimonies of the many victims of the junta’s merciless tenure.
THE STONE COLD CLASSIC:
Judgment at Nuremberg — YouTube
The granddaddy of transitional justice dramas was directed by Hollywood’s most politically motivated director, Jewish liberal Stanley Kramer in 1961.
Dramatising the 1947 Nuremberg trial of four German judges for the crime of genocide during World War 2, it’s a star packed, epic affair that features earnestly memorable performances from Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Maximillian Schell, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland and a young William Shatner. It unpacks over three hours the many difficult questions around culpability, morality and justice not just for its Nazi perpetrators but for their accusers and those tasked with the unenviable duty of pronouncing their guilt.
It may now seem a bit heavy handed and overly educational, but the film still stands as an epic and dedicated effort to address one of post-war society’s most thorny questions with intelligence and sensitivity. It offers plenty to ponder in its examination of both victims and perpetrators and the uncomfortable grey areas that join them together in the horrific circumstances of war.
In a bitter twist of fate, Kramer’s film’s television premier in 1965 was interrupted by coverage of the violence during the Civil Rights protest marches from Selma to Montgomery, bringing home to many the message of never again and its relevance beyond the holocaust.
It remains an avowedly and consciously “important film,” but it also proves to be one that fulfils its entertainment obligations to audiences and its message remains as relevant now as it was over six decades ago. It also serves as an example of a film that was possible to be made within the studio system at the time, because of the undeniable changes in society that were taking place beyond the borders of the Dream Factory.
THE DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH:
Black Earth Rising — Netflix
Creator Hugo Blick’s complex eight-part Netflix drama deals with the tough questions facing the work of the International Criminal Court (ICC), responsible for trying perpetrators of war crimes. It also explores the increasing focus in recent years of criticisms from African countries for what is seen as bias and western hypocrisy in its prosecutorial decisions.
Michaela Coel stars as Kate Ashby, a young black woman born in Rwanda but raised in England by her adopted mother Eve (Harriet Walter), a renowned and respected international criminal law prosecutor. When Eve is recruited to prosecute a former Rwandan warlord in a high-profile ICC case, Kate discovers there may be more to the case than she should know. Her hunger to find out the truth of her own past sees her entering a morally murky world of deals, murder, genocide and terrible choices from the past that will leave her forever changed.
Blick, whose other dramas have dealt with the violent history of Israel-Palestine and the gruesome history of America’s crimes against Native Americans, delivers another masterfully twisty, morally complicated political thriller. It takes on some of the most difficult questions around transitional justice and the post-independence relations between Europe and Africa that while they never find easy answers here, linger in the mind long after the show’s conclusion.