On the 22nd of November 2017, the Bosnian Serb General, Ratko Mladic, was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Tribunal For The Former Yugoslavia in The Hague and sentenced to life in prison.
Mladic was one of the most infamous figures of the Bosnian war of the 1990s and became synonymous with the murder of over 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995 -- the worst crime on European soil since World War II.
Filmed over five years with unprecedented access to the Prosecution, the Defence, witnesses who came forward to give evidence, and Mladic's family members and supporters in Bosnia, this film tells an epic story of justice, accountability and a country trying to escape from its bloody past.
When we started making this film, Henry and I were conscious of the historic nature of the Mladic trial – one of the largest and most significant since Nuremberg. As our filming progressed, we became increasingly aware of the importance of the trial for the people in the region. This was especially the case in Bosnia, an incredibly beautiful country with a tragic past that remained bitterly divided along ethnic lines. And we also came to recognise that the story of the trial and the blueprint of justice it represented had a resonance beyond Bosnia, with so many counties around the world convulsed by war and war crimes, and with the victims of those crimes suffering in a climate of impunity. The film felt historic but also hugely relevant and important to the world we live in today, which for us was a very compelling combination.
The first challenge of the film was access. We initially contacted the Tribunal in May 2011 when Ratko Mladic was arrested and it took over a year of negotiations before we were allowed to film the opening statements in the trial. The stakes were incredibly high: Mladic had been on the run for over sixteen years and had become the Tribunal’s most wanted fugitive as the prosecution regarded him as the chief architect of the Srebrenica genocide.
In particular, the Prosecution were concerned about us disrupting their work, upsetting important and often traumatised witnesses and undermining the integrity of the whole process, with the potential to cause a mistrial. And the defence, whom we saw as crucial to our ambition of telling the story of the trial and the conflict from both a Muslim and Serb perspective, were profoundly suspicious of Henry and me as ‘Western’ (read NATO) filmmakers. They doubted our ability to explore the trial and the conflict in an objective manner, and to faithfully represent their views of Mladic, whom they considered not only innocent, but a hero of the Bosnian Serb people. And the suspicion of the defence lawyers was doubly shared by Mladic’s wife and son, whom we were anxious to include in the film as we felt there was considerable value in trying to understand him as a human being rather than the nightmarish caricature of ‘the Butcher of Bosnia’. We felt we could do this without ever justifying his motivations and actions.
While lawyers are typically risk-adverse – and the ones at the Tribunal were no exception - one commodity that an international war crimes trial affords in abundance is time. Although this was extremely challenging from a budgetary perspective, it did give us ample opportunity to earn the trust of the Court and our contributors, with the result that the access we secured was genuinely unprecedented.
The Mladic Family
Persuading the Mladic family to take part in the film took several years, over which period we met on numerous occasions in Belgrade and had an ongoing dialogue via email and also through Mladic’s legal team. Once the defence lawyers were convinced of our integrity as filmmakers, they had no problem endorsing us and the project. The same endorsement came from defence witnesses whom we filmed giving evidence at court and included members of Mladic’s inner circle.
We also filmed at an annual event held in Kalinovik - Ratko Mladic’s birthplace in the Serb part of Bosnia- where his supporters gather to cut grass (Mladic’s family had always worked on the land), drink plentiful amounts of homemade rakia, sing songs and celebrate their beloved General. It was at this event, that Darko (Mladic’s son) witnessed first hand our efforts to get to know a different side to his father and we finally persuaded him to let us film the intimate family gathering that appears in the documentary. From that point on, he was happy to support the project and allowed us to follow him and his mother during the emotionally charged judgement, which concluded the trial and provides the climax to our film.
Between our footage, news archive and the in-court footage supplied by the ICTY, we had almost a thousand hours of material with which to make a hundred-minute film.
Our first job was to watch and log all the material we had shot, which took approximately six months. And then a filtering process took place where some material was discarded and the rest was passed on to a team of edit assistants, who extracted the best sync and cut down the scenes we had identified in the logs. The strongest stories were then given to our editor Anna Price and were considered for the film. But even then the task was mammoth - neither Henry or I had been faced with so much material before - and it took nearly 40 weeks to edit the documentary.
The scale of the war and the crimes in the indictment were so enormous that we realised that it would be impossible to make a film that covered the entirety of the trial - it would be far too sprawling and lack focus. This is why we arrived at the decision to concentrate on the two genocide charges against Mladic, even at the expense of the Sarajevo component of the case. We then prioritised material that encapsulated an important part of the prosecution or defence case, could be made accessible to a general audience and crucially had a compelling human story at its heart. Irrespective of whether you’re from the region or have very little knowledge of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, no one will watch a film without a good story and engaging characters however important the process or the ideas being explored. Even then, we had a lot of extremely strong material that did not make it into the film, but the editing process always involves making difficult decisions, cutting out stories and characters you love to ensure the film has a clear narrative line which your audience can understand and will want to follow.
We remain grateful to the incredible patience and talents of our editor, Anna, who stuck with us and the film and brought the very best out of the voluminous amounts of material on offer. We also feel very fortunate for the support we received for our co-producer, Ida Bruusgaard, who joined the production at a time when Henry and I felt rather overwhelmed by the enormity of the task – keep in mind we were making other films at the same time. Ida brought a much-needed dose of Nordic cool to proceedings.
And despite the rather attritional nature of a production that lasted over six years, our overwhelming feeling was one of privilege – to be on the inside of such a historic trial and to be trusted to tell the stories of witnesses and victims who contributed so much to the process and had endured and continue to endure unimaginable trauma. Their bravery in coming to testify, and preference for justice over revenge, is what ultimately tips the scales in humanity’s favour.
We hope the film does justice to their stories and, at a time when so many atrocities are being committed in places like Syria and Myanmar, shows the moral imperative of holding individuals accused of the worst crimes to account. Given geopolitical realities, there is currently little chance for an international war crimes trial to take place for someone like Assad, but the Mladic trial, if nothing else, shows what’s possible.