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Saturday, June 30, 2012


Below are some great films related to the concept of 'witnessing.' In particular, these films raise the question about documentation and our response (or lack thereof) to such tragedies and atrocities. This list was made possible by Professor Steven Yale-Loehr who teaches at Cornell Law School and Professor Carolyn Patty Blum who teaches at UC Berkeley School of Law.


  • Witness
    • Inspired by the film evidence generated in the Rodney King incident, Witness was established in 1992 by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. Witness provides local human rights organizations throughout the world with video equipment, training and strategic guidance in documenting human rights conditions in their communities. Footage captured by organizations involved in Witness has been used as evidence in war crimes and regional human rights tribunals and has been broadcast on CNN, the BBC, and various television networks. 
  • Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, Germany, 1935)
    • A record of the 1934 National Socialist Party rally at Nuremberg, this highly controversial documentary was fully financed and politically advocated by Hitler and Goebbels. This film simultaneously glorifies Nazi ideals and yet is considered one of the best produced documentaries ever made.
  • Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (Mark Jonathon Harris, USA, 2000)
    • This documentary explores the remarkable rescue operation by the British of over 10,000 endangered children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, most of whom never saw their families again. The film examines the impact of these events on the lives of the saved children, through interviews with them as older adults.
  • Crazy (Heddy Honigmann, The Netherlands, 1999)
    • “Crazy” is the word used most frequently by Dutch United Nations peacekeepers as they describe their emotional responses to missions in security zones in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Lebanon, and Korea in this acclaimed documentary. Crazy is being shown in conjunction with the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. 
  • Paragraph 175 (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, USA, 2000)
    • This film is an attempt to fill the crucial gap in historical memory of the experience of homosexual men persecuted by the Nazis. The film makes use of personal accounts as well as evocative images of the period. It won the coveted best documentary feature award at Sundance Film Festival last year.
  • Four Days in September (Bruno Barreto, Brazil, 1997; 118 minutes)
    • This film, which takes place during the years of the Brazilian military dictatorship, is based on an actual event in which the American Ambassador in Brazil was kidnapped and held hostage in exchange for the release of fifteen political prisoners of the anti-government group MR8.
  • Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, Italy and Algeria, 1966; 123 minutes)
    • The film graphically depicts the development of the independence movement from French colonialism in Algeria. Focusing on the 1957 Algiers popular uprising and on the violent military French response to it, the film is shot entirely in black and white, and while it has the distinctive feel of a documentary, not a single moment of documentary footage was used in making the film.
  • Forsaken Cries: The Story of Rwanda (Kathi Austin/Amnesty International, USA, 1997, 45 minutes)
    • In 1994, close to one million people were killed in a planned and systematic genocide in Rwanda. How did this carnage occur when the world declared after WWII that such atrocities would never happen again? This documentary incorporates historical footage from the Belgian colonial period as well as rare footage from the recent genocide to enrich our understanding of this tragedy. It also chronicles the failure of the international community to prevent the genocide of Rwandan Tutsis, with interviews with survivors, historian Alison Des Forges, and Richard Goldstone, former prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, as well as other human rights experts.


  • Au Revoir Les Enfants (Louis Malle, France, 1987, 104 minutes)
    • During WW II, in a Catholic boarding school in the French countryside, two boys build a friendship. One of the boys is Jewish and is being hidden from the Nazis by the Jesuit priests who run the school. Louis Malle directed this film based on his own experiences when he was at boarding school during the war. This film should be watched in its entirety, at one sitting. 


  • Facing the Truth (Gail Pellett, USA, 1999, approx. 45 minutes of excerpts)
    • This documentary, produced for Public Television=s “Bill Moyers Presents” Series, focuses on the activities and impacts of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Through the stories of those who testified before the Commission—including survivors, family members of victims and perpetrators—the film makes provokes some of the most fundamental questions about how societies deal with the past, while creating a collective future.
  • Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, Italy, 1988; 123 minutes)
  • Long Night’s Journey Into Day (Deborah Hoffman and Francis Reid, United States, 1999)


  • The Court Martial of Lieutenant William Calley, (Landmark War Crimes Trials series, United States; 50 minutes) and Remembering My Lai (Kevin Sim, United Kingdom, 1989, 58
  • Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, United States, 1961; 178 minutes)
    • Set in 1948, this classic begins with a trial held three years after the most notorious Nazi leaders were tried at Nuremberg. Judgment at Nuremberg addresses the joint trial of four judges who used their offices to enable Nazi sterilization and cleansing policies. Retired American Judge Dan Haywood oversees the tribunal proceedings, which occur as Cold War tensions are increasing, and Allied support for prosecuting war criminals is diminishing.
    • Please note that this film is three hours long. 
  • Obstinate Memory (Patricio Guzmán, Chile, 1997; 52 minutes)
    • After more than two decades of fascist military rule in Chile, Patricio Guzmán returns to his country to screen his extraordinary three part documentary, Battle of Chile, which Guzmán produced in Cuba and Venezuela. Until 1997, the screening of Battle of Chile was banned by Chilean authorities. His audience, a new generation of Chileans who remember little of the democratic socialist victory of Salvador Allende and the U.S.-sponsored coup which assassinated him and installed Pinochet, reflect on their experiences of watching the film after so many years of suppression. The lead camera man for Battle of Chile was himself disappeared.
  • The Official Story (Luís Puenzo, Argentina, 1985; 112 minutes)
    • Alicia Marnet de Ibañez is a high school history professor and a well-to-do housewife in Buenos Aires in 1983, after the fall of the military junta that had been in place in Argentina since 1976. Her husband, Roberto, is a successful lawyer. The couple have a five-year-old adopted daughter; the film addresses the impact on Alicia when she discovers that her daughter was in fact born in captivity, the child of a politically active university student who was kidnapped, tortured, and “disappeared” by the military authorities who subsequently sold the baby to Alicia’s husband.
  • Maya Lin: A Clear Strong Vision (Freida Lee Mock, United States, 1996)
    • This powerful documentary focuses on the designing and creation of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC, addressing in part the controversy that arose among Vietnam veterans when it was announced that the winning design was submitted by a young Chinese-American woman. Since its completion, the Vietnam War Memorial has become one of the most famous memorials in the country because of its intense impact on visitors to the site. The documentary also describes other creations by Maya Lin, including the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.

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