From sober courtroom mysteries by John Grisham to the absurd machinations on TV's "Boston Legal," Americans love dramatizations of the justice system. The inherent drama of ethnic cleansing is currently under consideration as a jurisprudence issue at the Vermont Law School in South Royalton. A Friday afternoon cinematic showcase, called the Genocide Film Series, complements the educational institution's first-ever course on the subject.
"We're trying to understand how we, as lawyers, can use the rule of law to prevent and punish genocide," says Tracy Bach, who teaches the genocide class with fellow professor Pamela Stephens. "The films offer some nonlinear thinking about the topic, so our 13 students can learn from a different set of senses."
The motion pictures provide narrative focus for a syllabus that's otherwise solidly in legalese.
The course took shape when Bach and Stephens simultaneously happened to read the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide by Samantha Powers. They also referred to a wealth of time-honored documents, such as the United Nations Charter and the Geneva Conventions.
For Bach, genocide has a somewhat personal connection. She spent 2002 in Rwanda, where eight years earlier Hutu militants had slaughtered almost a million Tutsis during a 100-day period of bloodletting. The media called it "tribal warfare," while the world looked the other way. Even the U.N. was shamefully slow to act.
Bach took a leave of absence to live in the African nation with her physician husband and their two children. He practiced at a hospital in the capital city of Kigali; Bach eventually did some consulting and taught at a law school in another part of the country.
Apart from a bullet-riddled government building, however, she did not see much evidence of the collective trauma. Perhaps selective amnesia is a survival mechanism, but Bach was surprised to find, "It's the rare Rwandan who'll tell you where they were in 1994."
The free film series, which is open to the public, bears witness to such tragic chapters of human history. It began a few weeks ago with two selections: Ararat, about the World War I-era extermination of an estimated 2 million Armenians living in Turkey, and Schindler's List, Steve Spielberg's Holocaust masterpiece. Six more screenings remain on a schedule that continues through the spring:
February 10: Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) by Louis Malle traces what happens to a Jewish boy harbored at a French boarding school run by priests during the Nazi occupation.
February 17: The Killing Fields (1984) depicts a New York Times reporter (Sam Waterston, who now plays a legal eagle on "Law & Order") covering the Khmer Rouge takeover with help from a Cambodian, who is then persecuted when all the Westerners leave.
March 17: Hotel Rwanda (2004) taps into a grim scenario of Africans left behind as white people flee the massacre. Don Cheadle portrays a courageous man saving 1200 locals marked for death.
March 24: Sometime in April (2004) is an HBO feature about the Rwandan horrors, from the perspective of a war-crimes tribunal a decade later.
April 7: Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) zeroes in on journalists from around the world gathered in Bosnia to report on the conflict.
April 14: Videoletters (1999-2005) is a compilation of 20 short documentaries that trace communications between people estranged or separated by combat in the former Yugoslavia.
For more information about the Genocide Film Series, visit http://www.vermontlaw.edu or call (802) 831-1309.
Tonight, February 1, the Rutland Free Library is sponsoring a 6:30 p.m. screening of clips from an unfinished documentary, In Their Own Words: Iraqi Perspectives on the Occupation. The Massachusetts filmmaker, 25-year-old Brian Conley, will be on hand to discuss his recent stay in Mess o' Potamia, as Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" often designates the embattled Persian Gulf locale. During the Baghdad sojourn, he interviewed many peace-minded people opposed to the U.S. presence.
Conley is unsure when the project will be completed. "It partially depends on whether I return to Iraq in the next few months or not," he writes in an email. "I have no idea right now how long the final piece will be, perhaps 90 minutes, give or take. I have around 40 hours of footage to distill."
Check Conley's website -- http://www.aliveinbaghdad.org -- for details.