Over 120 countries have united to form the International Criminal Court (ICC) — the first permanent court created to prosecute perpetrators, no matter how powerful, of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. The Reckoning follows dynamic ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo and his team for three years across four continents as he issues arrest warrants for Lord’s Resistance Army leaders in Uganda, puts Congolese warlords on trial, shakes up the Colombian justice system, and charges Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir with genocide in Darfur. Like a deft thriller, The Reckoning keeps you on the edge of your seat. Will the prosecutor succeed? Will the world ensure that justice prevails?
Pamela Yates the director of The Reckoning is the recipient of a 2008 Guggenheim Fellowship. She is the director of the Sundance Award-winning When the Mountains Tremble, the producer of the Emmy Award-winning Loss of Innocence and the executive producer of the Academy Award-winning Witness to War.
Previously, Yates directed State of Fear (2005), a feature length documentary that tells the epic story of Peru’s 20-year “war on terror” based on the findings of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Before that, she directed Presumed Guilty, a two-hour primetime PBS special about the ethical and moral dilemmas faced by the San Francisco public defenders in their quest for justice. She produced, directed and co-wrote Cause for Murder, which was commissioned by the PBS international series Wide Angle (2002). The film explores the cost of political bravery in the lives and deaths of two young Mexican lawyers, Digna Ochoa and Marigeli Tamés. In 2000 she produced and directed Brotherhood of Hate, a study of violent white supremacy, broadcast on the Showtime Networks. Brotherhood of Hate and Cause for Murder were both co-productions with The New York Times.
Bijan Tehrani: What motivated you to make The Reckoning?
Pamela Yates: I first heard about the International Criminal Court from a Peruvian truth commissioner. The last film I made was a film called State of Fear and it’s based on the findings of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I went to all the hearings all around Peru and, high up in a small village in the Andes where I spoke to one of the Truth Commissioners. I asked him what he had done before he was a Peruvian truth commissioner. He told me that he worked for the coalition for the international criminal court. I said, “What’s that?” and he started to tell me about the International Criminal Court. This was in 2002, the year the court came into existence. I thought it was a fascinating idea and I thought that it could be a very hopeful and inspiring global institution, but I didn’t know how it was going to take shape. As a filmmaker, I thought about how amazing it would be to tell the story of the first few years of the International Criminal Court; its successes, its failures, its obstacles, its mistakes. So I thought that if I didn’t know what the International Criminal Court was—and I consider myself to be a very engaged person interested in human rights and justice—then probably a lot of people didn’t know about it. What if you made it a film that could introduce this amazing concept to a very general audience? Beyond that, I think that The Reckoning is really a political thriller about international crime and punishment. It was only when I started to make the film that I realized that that would be the way to tell the story about the International Criminal Court.
BT: What was your decision as far as the structure of the film? It seems like a very difficult film to make because finding a focal point for this broad subject is difficult.
PY: Well, that was part of this odyssey of discovery that every non-fiction, feature-length documentary film is. First, I thought that it would be really interesting to go into detail about all of the situation countries and what has happened in those countries to cause such incredible violence. But then I realized that it involved way too much information for people to absorb because each conflict is so dense. So then I decided, along with the editor Peter Kinoy, that we would make the court the main character in the film; that the story we were going to tell was really about the International Criminal Court and that we should look at the situations, the implications, and the constitution from the point-of-view of the court. If we are going to make a film to introduce the concept of this new court, then the court would be the main character. I also really wanted to humanize the people who work at the International Criminal Court. Because from outside, it really seems like this faceless institution, but inside it are people who, every day, struggle with moral, ethical, and judicial decisions that have a huge effect in the situation countries. I wanted to show them going through that; understanding how high the stakes were and what effects their decisions will have. That kind of drama makes for a riveting film.
BT: How long did it take to make this film? Did you have to travel a lot or gather a lot of footage to make the film?
PY: The Reckoning was filmed across four continents, in six languages, and it took us three years to make the film. We didn’t really shoot that much footage though because I work with a great cinematographer, Melle van Essen, who comes from the filmmaking tradition. So we had a really good sense of what we wanted to film and how we wanted to film it. What we didn’t know until we got into the situation countries is how difficult it would be to film in conflict zones and how we were going to find people who agreed to be filmed. Also, once they agreed to be filmed, how were they going to stay safe after we left? So those were some of the really intense challenges. But I always take a long time to make films; I don’t like to release a film until I feel like I got it right. When you’re dealing with a really complex subject, you want to make sure you get it right. I haven’t made that many films in my life—I usually take three or four years to make a film.
BT: How much time did you spend in the editing stage?
PY: I’m really lucky because I started Skylight Pictures seven years ago with Peter Kinoy. Skylight Pictures is a company that is dedicated to making films about human rights and the quest for justice; Peter Kinoy is an editor. So we actually conceive the films together and he works with me in every stage, even when I’m shooting in the field. He receives the footage, he looks at it, and he makes comments and suggestions on it. I would say that, in terms of editing, he was with me every step of the way. The last eight months, leading up to our world premiere at Sundance, was probably the most intense editing time. We just spent sixteen hours a day, seven days a week doing it. But basically we are editing, thinking about everything, and thinking about the story pretty much the whole time that we are making the film.
BT: What has been the effect of the film in different places that you have screened it?
PY: I think that The Reckoning does what we set out to make it do, which is generate interest and excitement among a very general audience about what the International Criminal Court is. And I think in the case of American audiences, they are really interested in this new court and they want to know why the United States isn’t a part of it. We should really be part of standing up with other countries and being against crimes against humanity or crimes in genocide. They also have a lot of questions about what the Obama administration is going to do; is the United States going to re-engage with the International Criminal Court? It also brings up these ideas about rule-of-law and no-one above the law. As you know, in The Reckoning, the climax of the film is the Darfur case and the asking for the arrest of the president of Darfur, Omar Bashir, on charges of war-crimes and crimes against humanity. That makes a lot of audiences ask, “Well, what about here?” If there’s evidence here that shows that American officials were complicit in breaking the law, shouldn’t they be put on trial?
BT: Has anyone from the Obama administration or any officials in Washington seen this film?
PY: Well, we’re working on that, especially leading up to our national broadcast on PBS on July 14th. We actually have a three-year outreach campaign planned—The Reckoning is really the flagship of this campaign. So we have many, many outreach partners that we’ve worked with during the making of this film including large NPO’s like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Center for Transitional Justice. We’re beginning, based on our broadcast campaign, to launch the first phase of this outreach campaign. That will be to send messages to the Obama administration that we want them to complete their policy review about the International Criminal Court as quickly as possible and we want the Obama administration to support the International Criminal Court.
BT: Any ideas about the next project that you will be working on?
PY: Yeah, the next project I’m working on is a sequel to the very first feature-length film that I made, which was called When the Mountains Tremble. When the Mountains Tremble was made in 1982 and it’s about social revolution in Guatemala. The storyteller in the film was a young Mayan woman named Rigoberta Menchu. Ten years after we made the film, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1999, she brought a criminal case against the generals who had killed so many Guatemalans in 1982. The lawyers in that case have asked us to go back into our film and all of our outtakes to gather forensic evidence in this new case. The new film, Granito, which means “tiny grain of sand”, is really going to be about this twenty-five year story that’s unfolding, but it’s also about how documentary films make a difference. I hope we finish that in 2010.
BT: Great! Thank you very much for your time!