Destruction of Memory review

Tim Slade’s film, based on Robert Bevan’s 2006 book of the same name, documents the cultural destruction that has wrought catastrophic results across the world. It’s a must-see, says Veronica Simpson

Vast Productions USA.
Written, Directed and Produced by: Tim Slade
Review by: Veronica Simpson
Architecture at War by: Robert Bevan

‘People are people within their place. Their history, their identity, how they draw meaning about who they are, happens in a place. And what happens to that place matters… Those buildings are part of who they are.’ With these words Robert Bevan, former editor of Building Design, sets out his case for protecting significant cultural buildings and relics from acts of war and vandalism, as a human right, in Tim Slade’s powerful documentary.

Destruction of Memory, inspired by Bevan’s 2006 book of the same name, is a tough but compelling film that takes an even-handed look at atrocities from all sides of the globe, but also takes no prisoners as it examines the way strategic attacks on key buildings and artefacts belonging to particular nations or ethnic and religious groups have increasingly been deployed as a weapon of war and terror in the past 100 years.

From the Armenian genocide of 1915, when the Ottoman empire ‘disappeared’ around 1.5 million Armenian citizens and almost all traces of their existence, to ISIS’ use of video technology — filming the bombing and dismantling of mosques and museums and releasing the clips on social media as part of its ‘shock and awe’ campaign — man’s inhumanity to man is the dominant narrative.

Not that this is news in these troubled times. What Slade does, however, to make this documentary more compelling, richer, more humane and more poignant than the above outline would suggest, is expand and enrich Bevan’s narrative of war, weapons, architecture and politics through interviews with those who have tried to prevent or prosecute the practice of cultural destruction; those who have experienced these attacks at first hand; and those who are busy trying to rebuild those shattered spaces and places.

The humanitarian high ground is dominated in the first part of the film by lawyer Raphael Lemkin, the Jewish refugee from Poland who, in 1948, tried to introduce the category of ‘cultural genocide’ as a war crime, at a UN General Assembly; to their discredit, the USA, Australia and Canada successfully campaigned against, it because they feared what it would mean for the treatment of their own aboriginal/native cultures and peoples. Lemkin had better luck with a 1954 Hague Convention: attacks on cultural property were singled out as illegal within armed conflict. But there was a proviso — a ‘military necessity’ waiver.

Although the following 40 years were relatively peaceful, the Balkan wars at the end of the 20th century showed that the rules of engagement had shifted again and cultural destruction was a primary aim. The siege of Sarajevo saw unprecedented destruction of significant Muslim buildings — libraries as well as mosques — and the demolition of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But it also saw the game change for legal redress, with the subsequent prosecution of Serb leader Slobodan Miloševic for intentional cultural destruction, by the International Criminal Tribunal, thanks to another of the film’s heroes, Harvard librarian and UN war crimes court expert witness Andras Riedlmayer.

A Malian soldier outside a historical siteA Malian soldier outside a historical site

Technology plays a supporting role throughout the film, both military and civilian, for worse and for better. We learn that advances in large-scale aerial bombardment during the Second World War were first and most effectively deployed in strategic cultural destruction by the British and their allies in Dresden (a lesson that Goebbels declared his intention to emulate, in his diaries).

Now, with ISIS sending out online clips of its own war on art and architecture, there has been a small but vital online counterattack, with heritage professionals on the ground in Iraq, for example, being advised how to protect their key buildings and artworks, via online tutorials on Facebook. And there is also mention of the fascinating work of CyArk, a company that operates across the world’s most troubled zones to make and store 3D scans of leading monuments at risk, to preserve them (at least digitally) for posterity.

Though Slade was inspired by and collaborated with Bevan, the film has a further six years of history to add to Bevan’s 2006 publication, and introducing ISIS and CyArk into the story brings it bang up to date. This added timescale also allows Bevan to introduce ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, another hero(ine) who hopes to secure a successful prosecution in 2016 of a Malian terrorist leader, for the destruction of important tombs in Timbuktu.

Daniel Libeskind is a significant presence in the film, unlike in the book. Architect of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Dresden’s Military History Museum and the post 9/11 World Trade Center master plan, he offers insight into the way buildings can offer powerful, post-traumatic reparations, by reflecting history but enhancing empathy.

As an exploration of how architecture expresses identity, and how architects can reflect both history and humanity in their reconstruction efforts, this film is a must-see. But its potential audience is far reaching. In a post-screening interview, I asked Slade what impacts he hoped the film — launched this summer, with global screenings scheduled for the rest of the year — would have.

He said: ‘It’s only just beginning, but it’s showing signs of reaching different types of audiences, both the general public but also policy makers and government and museum curators and the art market, and they all respond in different ways. Policy makers and politicians are the ones who need to implement the changes. Hopefully it can have a positive impact in that way, to sustain awareness of the issue, and change dialogues about it.’

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