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War and Justice

Documentary about the International Criminal Court is enrapturing and compelling, heightened by the real-life performance of Argentine prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo - from the 40th Munich Film Fest


The remarkable career of Argentine prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo has had too many twists and turns to cover in a single film. One of his most famous cases, the trial of senior members of the military junta that ruled his home country from 1976 to 1983, was depicted in Santiago Mitre’s Argentina, 1985 (2022), nominated for Best International Feature Film at the 95th Academy Awards. He has also appeared in a string of documentaries, each playing its part in piecing together a portrait of the man behind the prosecution of some of the most notorious war criminals in history. The latest of these is War and Justice, which covers his most recent work at the International Criminal Court.

Also seen throughout the film are the late Benjamin Ferencz, chief prosecutor at one of the Nuremberg trials, Karim Khan, the ICC’s current prosecutor, and a multitude of other figures, most notably Angelina Jolie, then Special Envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Moving back and forth between archive and present-day footage, War and Justice is concerned primarily with exploring the achievements and limitations of the ICC, with particular focus on crimes committed in the ongoing Ukrainian War. With some of the world’s greatest powers unwilling to recognise the court’s legitimacy, how can war criminals in such a conflict ever be consistently brought to justice?

Following Moreno Ocampo through a string of meetings, commutes and speech preparation, the majority of the film resembles a workplace drama in terms of its actual content – there’s certainly none of the glamour or intensity of a Hollywood legal thriller here. Yet by hopping back and forth in time with pacey editing and a shrewd use of archive footage, directors Marcus Vetter and Michele Gentile inject a real sense of propulsion to the film, whereby the high stakes of Moreno Ocampo’s line of work are made palpable. On occasion, the traditional talking heads provide context to what we are seeing, but for the most part the film is an eclectic mix of clips from the prosecutor’s previous trials and fly-on-the-wall footage following him, Ferencz and Khan.

What is most striking about the interactions on screen is their casual nature. The subjects of the film talk about genocide, child slavery and impending war as naturally as most office workers might discuss spreadsheets and monthly sales. In one of the film’s more humorous exchanges – of which there are surprisingly many – Moreno Ocampo arrives to give a speech and spots an old colleague in the audience. When asked how he is, the gentleman responds: ‘Well, we are closer to World War Three than at any point in my lifetime.’ Shrugging it off, Moreno Ocampo replies: ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ll talk about that.’

This isn’t by any means to say that the characters on screen treat the subject matter with anything but the utmost respect. Indeed, their choice of language has a precision that only those who live and breathe criminal law possess. Moreno Ocampo spends a great amount of the film working with a legal assistant to perfect his speech, the nuances of every word and phrase carefully examined to ensure maximum effect and appropriateness. This is where War and Justice really excels, in arguing for the importance of a consistent linguistic and semantic framework to support the relatively novel, not to mention eye-wateringly ambitious, project that is the ICC.

Equally impressive is the film’s frank admission of the ICC’s limits. With the likes of the USA, Russia and China refusing to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, its jurisdiction is still frustratingly restricted and there is much to be done before its objectives can be achieved in full. The story told in War and Justice is therefore unfinished, but the film itself doesn’t feel unresolved. Recognising the consequential limitations of their own project, Vetter and Gentile present to us what was only ever meant to be a short chapter in the lives of its subjects. In doing so, they throw down the gauntlet emphatically for audiences, world leaders and future generations alike.

War and Justice just premiered at the 40th Munich Film Festival.

By Louis Roberts - 26-06-2023

Louis is a freelance writer and digital communications professional based in Liverpool. His love affair with independent film began at Manchester’s dearly departed Cornerhouse in the early 2010s, an...

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