Tracing the Evidence: The Trial of Radovan Karadžić

Documentary filmmaker Sarah Vanagt has always shown us how the winners can write the official histories of their times. In her documentary Boulevard d’Ypres/Ieperlaan in 2010, which I reviewed for BTG, she set out to give a voice to the marginalised combatants in WWI, the denizens of the colonies who came and died fighting in a war for their European colonisers. She showed archive footage of the Battle of Ypres and interviewed immigrants living and working in her own street: Boulevard d’Ypres in Brussels.

The latest work, Dust Breeding, also looks at how we write and rewrite history, how we use the evidence, how it can be manipulated, erased, expunged, reconstructed and contested. It puts a present-day spectator in the position of judge, and also forces the denizens of a consumerist society to ask ‘do we care about history?’

Dust Breeding centres on the art of rubbing and my only acquaintance with this art lay in the technique of placing paper on a brass slab on a mediaeval tomb, the final resting places of lords and ladies, knights returned from the Crusades, all spending eternity in English country churches. One made an imprint of the effigy engraved or cast in brass on the tomb by rubbing graphite across the paper. Making rubbings is not exactly a fashionable hobby these days. In Dust Breeding, rubbing is the artistic metaphor used by the filmmaker to raise questions about reconstructions of reality.

She visits the war crimes tribunal in The Hague to attend sessions of the trial of Radovan Karadžić for his part in genocide during the Balkan wars that took place in the early 1990s. She makes rubbings of various objects in and around the courtroom. This functions as a parallel to the attempts by the Serbs to erase the evidence of mass executions by removing the bodies from mass graves and disposing of them elsewhere. Aerial photography reveals the disturbed ground and clearly points to the sites much in the way that rubbings reveal marks, patterns or arbitrary defects, while making the gesture with chalk or graphite also seems like erasure or covering up.

The trial is ongoing and Karadžić is conducting his own defence. He questions the expert opinions given by forensic anthropologists, and challenges the testimonies of survivors and witnesses to the mass executions. He tries to cast doubt and to delay the proceedings. He claims that his enemies have set up places to train people who can subsequently pretend to be victims and testify against him. He claims that the international experts are not qualified to evaluate the evidence because they don’t understand local customs.

Vanagt’s film and the rubbings she makes are objective. She makes no commentary. But, she challenges us to consider our understanding of truth. This, of course, puts the responsibility to judge the evidence, and to create meaning, on the spectator.

She made rubbings of the floor in the lobby, the judge’s desk, the chair used by the accused as well as those used by witnesses. She also makes a rubbing of the glass dividing the court from the spectators’ gallery. What do they reveal? Can they function as historical evidence? Can their meaning be contested? The rubbings were on display after the film and it interesting to realise that these pieces of paper actually bring the reality of the courtroom in The Hague home to us. We invest them with meaning. The absence of the rubbings made of Karadžić’s desk and chair from the exhibits is also raises questions.