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The Destruction of Memory

“The dead are dead.
We know that.
But without our culture we cannot go on living.”

Not quite, but almost, the first words of Tim Slade’s documentary The Destruction of Memory, based on Robert Bevan’s book.

It is a bleak beginning - and due warning - this is not a film to be taken lightly. The thesis (for this is a film with a thesis, make no mistake) can be described pretty simply: the destruction of artefacts, buildings and statues is often far from ‘senseless’ as our clichéd formulation might have it. Instead it is portrayed as a programmatic, premeditated plan to rewrite history: the systematically disenfranchisement of a minority, by removing their cultural ties to place (and places of gathering), forcing flight and simultaneously removing all traces of their existence.

The film is in roughly chronological order, charting an accelerating history through the 20th and 21st centuries, staring with the Armenian Genocide.

In 1915 the Ottoman Empire oversaw the killing of approximately one and half million Armenians, a Christian minority. Millions more fled. The genocide was noted not just for the barbarity meted out on men, women and children, but also for the wholesale violence against the built environment. Churches and monasteries that stood as symbols of faith and culture, but also served as meeting places, were burnt and bulldozed, their remains buried. This systematic destruction achieved at least two distinct goals. Firstly, it removed any possibility of return – for what was there to return to or for? Secondly, in enabled the re-writing of history, enabling the Turkish government to deny the size of the Armenian minority population before the ‘events of 1915’.

The Armenian genocide is not merely an apt example that happens to give a neat time frame for the film, but the failure to prosecute those responsible for the violence provides the inspiration for Raphael Lemkin - the lawyer who coins the term ‘genocide’ (surprisingly late, in 1943 or 44) and who drafts the UN resolution on the subject. If this film has characters, then Lemkin is the hero, and his drive to define genocide as war crime the primary narrative.

The film continues on through history: a mix of archival footage and talking heads. The Second World War segues into the Balkan conflicts, Iraq. Personal stories: librarians risk their lives for books, the museum curator tortured and executed for refusing to divulge the location of hidden treasures. This is not however a film about the atrocities of “others”: the film’s ideological balance is apparent in the treatment of Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris and in the prominence given to the American destruction of statues of Saddam Hussein.

Afghanistan, Syria. Isis. Footage of a man standing on the head of an Assyrian Winged Bull, his sledgehammer crashing against its face. Watching this, I feel the violence in my body, my stomach twists as if in pain. Isis aren’t committing genocide against the Assyrians – they disappeared some two and half thousand years ago – so why do I feel this act more viscerally than the others? Is it because, not far from where I sit, the British Museum holds a pair of similar Lammassu, and so I am more familiar with the power, delicacy and sheer beauty of these statues than the vanished churches, mosques, bridges and libraries I’ve witnessed burnt, blown up, shelled or knocked over in the rest of the film? The film suggests a different reason for Isis’ action and my revulsion: to gain our attention and demonstrate their power to hurt us.

But the documentary is not simply a wallowing in destruction. There is a concern with solution, as well as a characterisation of the problems. The film traces Lemkin’s efforts to have Vandalism (here defined as the systematic destruction of cultural objects) categorised as a war crime. Removed from the final text of the 1948 resolution, due to opposition from the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand, this has subsequently been integrated into international law.

The film ends with the destruction of mausoleums and a mosque – part of a world heritage site in Timbuktu. The leader of the perpetrators, Ahmad Al Mahdi, will be the first person to be charged solely with the war crime of destroying religious and historic buildings, when his case comes before the International Criminal Court in August of this year. Ahmad Al Madhi has announced his intention to plead guilty and prosecutors hope his case, and subsequent sentencing, will serve as a deterrent.