The Reckoning

PBS Premiere: July 14, 2009Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: How did you hit upon the idea of making a film about the International Criminal Court?

Pamela Yates: In 2002, we were working on a film about the Peruvian truth and reconciliation commission called State Of Fear, and some of the people who were working on the truth commission had also been very involved in working toward writing the constitution for the International Criminal Court (ICC). So they told us about the ICC and I thought it would be really interesting to do a film about the first years of this court.

Paco de Onís: I was traveling with the Peruvian Truth Commission in remote locations for State of Fear then, and every morning the commission members and I would have breakfast together. I remember asking one of the guys who was part of the commission what he had done before that, and he told me that he had worked with the Coalition for the International Criminal Court. I asked, "What's the International Criminal Court?" And he explained that it hadn't come into being yet. The treaty existed back then, but the court would actually start up about three weeks after we had that conversation, when there were enough ratifications. I thought, "Wow, it's an incredible idea to have a court like this for humanity."

POV: How did you gain access to the court to make a film? Did you come up against any resistance or legal hurdles?

de Onís: We came up against a lot of resistance. Gaining access to a legal institution is always difficult. Understandably, the ICC had a lot of concerns about witness protection and information getting out. But we are long-term filmmakers — we usually take about three years, more or less, to make each film, and part of our method is to spend a lot of time with the subjects of our films. So we develop trust with the people we're working with over time.

Yates: Being an independent documentary filmmaker means that you really have to build relationships with your subjects. But I think when you're working with a judicial institution, it's even more difficult than it usually is, because there's so much that can't be known. Attorneys are skeptical by nature, so they don't always believe what you say and they don't always believe what you say you're going to do. So when we first went to the International Criminal Court, people were distant; it was very difficult. But we kept shooting – we shot at the court and we shot in situation countries, Uganda and the Congo and Colombia. We put together sample reels and we showed people what we were doing.

In that way, they came to understand how we could connect the situation countries to the International Criminal Court. And slowly, over three years, we built a relationship of trust with our subjects. But it wasn't easy. I think no good film is easy to make.

Every single film presents its own challenges. And I would say that The Reckoning is the most difficult film I've ever made, because it combined danger with a judicial institution that was impenetrable and a situation that was unfolding and changing. How do you see the forest for the trees? How do you make a really coherent film about a difficult and complicated subject and make it accessible to a general audience? We wanted the audience to think, at the end of the film, that the ICC is an amazing institution, and we wanted the audience to work to help the ICC exist and gain momentum.

Pamela Yates, far left, director; Melle van Essen, cinematographer; Jimmy Otim, line producer, and Lucy Akongo, survivor of an LRA attack.

Pamela Yates, far left, director; Melle van Essen, cinematographer; Jimmy Otim, line producer, and Lucy Akongo, survivor of an LRA attack.

POV: Were you ever fearful for your own safety?

Yates: Fearful for my own safety – that's my middle name! There were dangerous situations, but I preferred to focus on the people in the situations themselves. I thought about whether the people we were interviewing were going to be safe after talking to us. Ultimately, we, the crew, can leave the conflict zone, but the people we interviewed had to stay there.

In the case of the Congo, there's no tradition of independent journalism there, so when we came and started to ask about the International Criminal Court, many people thought we were actually working undercover for the court and that we were going to gather evidence to take to the court. So that was a particularly volatile situation. We had to be really careful about the people we talked to. We had to make sure the people we talked to who appeared on camera were okay with it. In the case of former child soldiers, we had to make sure that they were already in protection programs.

We went to the scenes of the alleged crimes and we tried to find out as much about what had happened with the crimes as we could. We were not privy to any of the confidential information of the court, so we had to try to piece together the story as best we could. When we were in Bunia, which is a provincial capital in the eastern Congo, an arrest warrant was issued for Germain Katanga, who was from Bunia. Katanga was arrested and sent to The Hague, and at the time we didn't know whether the town of Bunia was going to erupt in response to his arrest. On the one hand, I was very happy to be there to document the moment as a filmmaker. On the other hand, it was a really frightening experience not to know what was going to happen. But I want to emphasize that the safety situation is much more difficult for the people who stay in the countries where we worked. We have to be sure that they're secure and we have to be sure that our crew is secure. So we're not really thinking about the danger to ourselves very much.

de Onís: Oftentimes people ask us if we went to some of the locations with armed guards and we definitely didn't; in fact, that would be a terrible idea! I think you're almost inviting an attack if you do that. At the same time, when you go out in a place like the eastern Congo, where there are still militias roaming around, you never know when they're going to have a roadblock in place. The same goes for northern Uganda, where there is the Lord's Resistance Army. So what we tried to do was to get as much information as possible in those areas where the United Nations has local intelligence offices. We asked them about what they'd heard, what had been going on, whether there had been attacks on certain roads, which areas we should avoid. You just have to be street smart, in that sense.

As for the long-term safety of the people who work with you and who live in the region, you have to be careful and make it very clear to them that you are looking at these crimes so that they know exactly what you're doing. Our local producer in the Congo had to leave town for a month at one point, because his work with us and with journalists put him at risk. Those people take really big risks, but they feel that the stories of the region need to be told, and they are very courageous.

POV: Beyond being a film about the ICC, what is this film ultimately about for you?

Yates: For me, the film is about accountability. It's really about bringing the perpetrators of the worst crimes happening in the world to justice. The International Criminal Court is a part of that, along with regional courts, ad hoc tribunals, domestic courts and hybrid courts like the court that's set up in Sierra Leone, and all those courts are influencing each other and contributing to a global system of justice.