Production values: News of a massacre

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The Independent Culture
Dispatches (C4) this week followed a team of Finnish forensic scientists trying to investigate multiple murders in Kosovo. Team leader Professor Helena Ranta, exasperated but patient, wanted to get to Gornje Obrinje where the killing of 22 ethnic Albanians, allegedly by Serb forces, had led to Nato's final threat of violence last year. The local authorities were much keener that she should investigate Klecka, where it was Serbs who had been murdered, allegedly by the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The Serbs did everything they could to prevent a visit to the other site. They refused visas to the rest of the team, then insisted that a Serbian judge accompany the observers. After three weeks the group did set off for Gornje Obrinje without the judge. A few miles down the road the judge arrived with a Serbian military convoy and announced that the soldiers with her were forensic science experts who would do the investigating themselves. To avoid the bloodshed that would have resulted from Serb forces entering KLA territory, the expedition was abandoned, never to be remounted. The narrator called it a victory for secrecy, cynicism and the Serbs.

Emotionally charged scenes of the massacres appeared late in the programme, after its factual credentials had been established. Scenes of horror like this can perform a function akin to bearing witness. At its best a programme like Dispatches can do good by leaving an impression of the reality, so that it can be recalled when Kosovo is just another news story. The sight of Ymer Deliaij walking a field, calmly naming the freshly piled graves of 22 members of his family, will certainly come back to me when I see the next report from this disturbed country.

The programme had the outer form of a current affairs documentary, but it took sides too. The story it told had the shape of a myth: the hero on a journey to a place of special significance faces a number of obstacles. But heroes do not mix easily with objective reporting: it was slightly odd but significant that Professor Ranta became Helena almost from the start.

The film reinforced the view that the Serbs are bastards. The programme makers seemed to have good reason to go along with that view and my guess would be that the view is correct. But it is a guess.

Dispatches ended with a profoundly depressing soundbite: "I just hope one day I will be able to seek retribution." Since it was spoken by Ymer Deliaij in his unimaginable bereavement, it is hard to see how one might argue against it. Let's just all pray this one doesn't run to a series.