Institute News

"Watchers of the Sky" Reveals Story of Raphael Lemkin, Man Who Coined “Genocide”

“Genocide” is such a widely recognized term today that it’s hard to believe that as recently as 1943, it didn’t even exist. The fact that it not only exists but is taken for granted as the definition of mass atrocities such as the Holocaust is because of the tireless work of a man named Raphael Lemkin.

Lemkin is the subject of a new documentary called Watchers of the Sky, which is playing in select theaters in Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, New York City, Florida and Ohio. It is directed by Edet Belzberg and inspired by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book A Problem from Hell.

The film tells the little-known story of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer and linguist who fought to define the standard of international legal retribution for mass atrocities targeted at minorities, which he coined “genocide.” He drafted the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and his work resulted in the creation of the International Criminal Court, which tries war criminals. Despite the integral role he played in allowing for today’s awareness of genocide as a crime, he is still a relatively unknown figure – something Watchers of the Sky hopes to change.

Watchers of the Sky producer Amelia Green-Dove said Belzberg has been working on the film for 10 years, ever since she read Power’s book and was “blown away” by Lemkin’s story. After she read the book for herself, Green-Dove said she realized how wrong it was that almost no one knows about Lemkin or his achievements.

“It’s an incredible thing that I didn’t know who Raphael Lemkin was, that most people don’t know who Raphael Lemkin was. He invented a word that defined the entire concept of genocide,” Green-Dove said. “You’d think there would at least be a plaque somewhere.”

The film is an opportunity for people to get to know Lemkin as a man, because “to understand genocide we need to understand Raphael Lemkin,” Green-Dove said. In fact, in addition to archival footage and interviews, Watchers of the Sky includes animated sequences inspired by Lemkin’s own doodles and handwriting.

The film also details efforts of four individuals today who are continuing Lemkin’s legacy of fighting genocide: Power; Luis Moreno Ocampo, Chief Prosecutor of the ICC; Ben Ferencz, a former Nuremberg prosecutor, and Rwandan Emmanuel Uwurukundo, UN Refugee Agency Field Director in Chad.  

Holocaust survivor Kaja Finkler talks about Lemkin in her testimony in the Visual History Archive, and several testimonies mention Ben Ferencz. Green-Dove pointed out that Watchers of the Sky and the USC Shoah Foundation have similar missions: to show the parallels that exist between genocides of different times and places and to illustrate how it continues to happen again and again.

The filmmakers also hope Watchers of the Sky will be used as an educational tool and have partnered with Facing History and Ourselves to create classroom modules about the film.

Dove-Green said a major takeaway from the film is that despite serious current conflicts, there are efforts underway by so many people who want to create a more just world. These tenacious people will not let the world forget about atrocities of the past.

“If not optimism, [the film inspires] at least a flicker of hope that there are amazing, hardworking individuals out there who can push us as a world into the direction of an end to impunity,” she said.