Trial by media

A new weapon in the trial of a Serb war criminal is a chilling British documentary on Bosnia's killing fields
Click to follow
In an era of supposed dumbing down, television programmes are hardly meant to have an impact on world affairs. But that might well be the effect of A Cry from the Grave, a searing contribution to BBC2's Storyville documentary strand, which may help convict a war criminal.

Leslie Woodhead's 104-minute film unflinchingly charts the atrocities perpetrated by Bosnian Serbs on the Muslims in Srebrenica between 12 and 16 July 1995. During those five days, the Serbs marched into the UN safe haven and overran the Dutch peacekeepers there. They then proceeded to round up and slaughter at least 7,414 Muslims - making it the biggest massacre in Europe since the Second World War.

"I've never heard anything like those screams in the night," recalls one survivor. "Not even in those castles where they set horror films." More than a thousand bodies still lie unidentified in white sacks in salt- mines nearby.

Drawing extensively on previously unseen camcorder footage, the film has an unsettling immediacy. In one scene, a Muslim father is forced by his captors to call his son out of his hiding-place to certain death at the hands of the Serbs. They make him cry out: "don't be afraid of the Serbs!"

The Serb General Ratko Mladic, indicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal but still on the loose, is also shown delivering a nationalistic battle-cry to the accompanying propaganda cameraman as he struts into Srebrenica: "Just before a great Serb holy day, we give this town to the Serb nation," he declaims. "Remembering the uprising against the Turks, the time has come to take revenge on the Muslims." Bone-chilling stuff.

In an intriguing develop-ment, the man at Mladic's side during this sequence, General Radislav Krstic, has been arrested, and is due to face the International War Crimes Tribunal. A Cry from the Grave will be shown to the judges prior to his trial next year. The arbiters will surely be horrified by what they see.

Woodhead certainly was. In nearly 40 years of film-making, he has never been so profoundly affected by a single piece of work. "When you watch a forensic scientist digging bags of bones out of the ground, it's pretty grisly," he sighs. "You also hear stories of neighbours coming at each other with bread-knives and axes. The sheer ferocity of it was off the scale.

"Making this film depressed me tremendously. I first went to Srebrenica in a January blizzard. It's the most dismal place on earth, frozen in the trauma of war. At first I thought, 'do I want this is in my life for a year?' But I was sucked in by the story. The idea of people being trapped in this remote town has an epic, nightmarish quality that drew me in. But nothing I have ever done has invaded my dreams as much as this. I know things I wish I didn't."

Woodhead admits that his film hardly constitutes comfortable viewing. "There is audience fatigue about Bosnia. It's full of people with funny names and tangled ethnicities, and the map is a bewildering mass of fragments. It's tremendously complex."

However, he is grateful that there is still a home in the schedules for such challenging work. "In this multi-channel world, the fatal connection between ratings and survival means commissioning editors have become very greedy about audiences. Thank God, Storyville is a place where we're not tyrannised by those forces. Where else in the world could you get a 104- minute documentary about Bosnia on air?"

As his thoughts return to the current situation in Bosnia, Woodhead is relieved that "at least people are not killing each other anymore". But he ends with a strong warning: "It's asking a tremendous amount of the people in Bosnia to return immediately to amity. It's like asking the Jews to cosy up to the Nazis four years after the Second World War. Someone in Bosnia said to me that 'if the 32,000 international peacekeepers left one morning, we'd all be killing each other again by the afternoon'."

'Storyville: A Cry from the Grave' is on BBC2 tonight at 10.25pm