Growing up in the Los Altos Hills just south of San Francisco, Lisa Kleiner Chanoff ‘85 was poignantly aware that the beautiful life her parents were able to provide her was partly a matter of luck.
Her mother, Rose Wassertheil, escaped the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Her father, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Eugene Kleiner, had fled Nazi-occupied Vienna in1938, enduring a three-year long journey to the United States. Their harrowing stories as refugees marked her in many ways, but one element that especially troubled her was their experience of having been citizens of a country whose laws subjugated them when the Nazis took power.
“As a human being I don’t think you can not find genocide horrifying, but when it’s your own country that’s turning against you and there’s no recourse and nowhere to go - that is particularly horrifying to me,” she said.
Her parent’s history triggered Chanoff’s early interest in social issues and the law, which she pursued through a J.D. from UC Hastings.
After working in corporate and government law settings, Chanoff realized that there were other ways to fight for a cause. She co-founded Catapult Film Fund along with filmmaker Bonni Cohen, in order to fund and support compelling documentary films. And the former attorney is currently enjoying the success of an award-winning new documentary film for which she served as an executive producer.
“Watchers of the Sky,” which premiered and won “Best Editing” at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, was also featured as the Centerpiece Documentary at this summer’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The film won Best Documentary “in the Spirit of Freedom Award” at the Jerusalem Film Festival and it will premiere in New York at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan on October 1, 2014.
The subject of the film is genocide and the long struggle to name, legislate and enforce it as a crime under international law. The film weaves together the stories of five individuals who defined the concept of genocide and worked to control, if not eliminate, the universal human capacity to commit group murder under certain conditions.
The film starts with the story of the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who got out of Poland before the war but lost 49 members of his family to the Holocaust. It was he who coined the word “genocide” and as a young man asked the potent question, "Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual?"
American lawyer Benjamin Ferencz picked up the cause as Chief Prosecutor for the United States Army at the Einsatzgruppen Trial, one of the twelve military trials held by the U.S. authorities at Nuremberg, Germany in 1946. He became a vocal advocate of the establishment of an international rule of law and of an International Criminal Court. Ninety years old at the time of filming, he still lobbies the international community to designate war itself as a crime against humanity.
Argentine lawyer Luis Moreno Ocampo, another key figure, served as Assistant Prosecutor on the civil trial of the Argentine military junta after the military regime was ousted in 1983. He recently completed his term as the first director of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. Moreno Ocampo discusses the hurdles he confronted in prosecuting later war criminals under international law using the authority of this new international body.
Emmanuel Uwurukundo, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who now runs refugee camps in Chad, demonstrates the power of service to respond to genocidal violence and injustice by committing his life to saving refugees.
Throughout the film, American journalist and Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power describes American and international responses to genocide in the 20th century. She makes the case for the moral necessity of intervention when genocide occurs, as she did in her Pulitzer-prize-winning book A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide.
It’s a heavy topic. But the film, directed by Edet Belzberg and based on Powers’ book, is finding its audience. And audiences are finding it inspiring, because it shows what can be achieved by individuals devoted to the cause and undeterred by the time it may take to prevail.
“Just about every issue in this film is one that I am very moved by, care about a lot, and am interested in,” Chanoff says. “There’s Jewish history, there’s the Jewish lawyer, the Holocaust, international law, refugees and the impact of that experience through generations; and these individuals who relentlessly continue to struggle against all odds.”
This article was written by Laura Paull, 3200 Stories Producer.