Published  19/07/2016

Tim Slade: ‘The whole point about erasure is to allow you to pretend that nothing has happened’

Tim Slade: ‘The whole point about erasure is to allow you to pretend that nothing has happened’

The Destruction of Memory charts the global loss of historic artefacts through war and terrorism. It is a film that Slade hopes will change the way governments and policy-makers view such cultural vandalism


The Destruction of Memory is a blisteringly uncompromising documentary, looking at the damage done to civilisations and cultures during the course of the past 100 years through strategic attacks on cultural artefacts in the name of war and terrorism. At the same time, it investigates the roles played by art and architecture as symbols and repositories of collective memory and also individual and ethnic identity.

Film-maker Tim Slade was inspired by Robert Bevan’s book The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War, published in 2006, but has brought the narratives bang up to date with reports on recent legislative advances, as well as investigations into the role technology is now playing both in encouraging cultural vandalism (for example, Islamic State – Isis– regularly bombards global sensibilities with online footage of ancient temples and icons being smashed to pieces, as a strategic part of its “shock and awe” campaign), but also assisting in the rush to document and preserve it.

Woven through the gripping narratives of human tragedy and military strategy is a fascinating story of the brave individuals who have been trying to legislate so that the category of cultural genocide can be included as a war crime, and its perpetrators held to account; it also lifts the lid on historic manoeuvring on the part of some of the world’s leading democracies to stop that from happening. In moving footage, architects, criminal investigators, archaeologists and ordinary civilians bear testimony to specific destructive campaigns and their impacts, along with leading figures such as the director general of Unesco and the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Slade was born in Australia, but currently lives in New York. His films have screened theatrically, at film festivals and on TV in North and South America, the UK, Europe, Asia and Australia. His 2007 film 4, on the seasons and how they influence our cultures and behaviours in different parts of the globe, won a gold at the Hugo Television Awards in Chicago. He has also documented the work of the Sydney Dance Company, and its director Rafael Bonachela (built around the compositions of Ezio Bosso, who also provides the soundtrack for his latest film). Since premiering The Destruction of Memory in New York and then at Washington’s Smithsonian Institute, in June, he has been booked for screenings all over the globe for a wide variety of audiences, from civilians through policy-makers to heritage professionals. We caught up with him on a visit to London in July, just after the film’s premiere at the British Museum.

Veronica Simpson: There are some major revelations in this film, for me – as I’m sure there will be for many others who see it. For example, at the start of it, you mention Turkey’s systematic extermination of its Armenian population (the Armenian Genocide of 1915, which killed 1.5 million people and predates the Holocaust), the first example of a community who disappeared almost without trace, because their buildings and homes were destroyed. This is something I knew nothing about. What were the real revelations for you?

Tim Slade: One thing for me was Bosnia (the war on Bosnian Muslims and Croats waged by Bosnian Serb forces from 1992-95) and the extent of the strategic bombing: I was aware of the National Library being attacked and obviously the Mostar bridge [Stari Most]. But I … don’t think it was presented (in the media) as such a long-term, carefully coordinated attack on many, many cultural sites in Bosnia. Reading the book, that was one eye-opening element. It’s a real testament to [war crimes witness] András Riedlmayer’s persistence and determination, with the photographic archive he collected. I believe that his documentation and preparation of the evidence is the only comprehensive set of cultural heritage destruction evidence that has been presented at an international court or tribunal.

I suppose one thing that it also makes me think is that this has probably happened a lot more than we know about, because the whole point about erasure is to allow you to pretend that nothing has happened. We don’t know potentially about many other situations where civilisations have disappeared along with entire populations.

VS: Another revelation is that Goebbels was inspired in his attacks on British cultural targets by our own bombing campaign in Dresden. It seems the British could be said to have invented the bombing of cultural targets rather than infrastructural or military ones, as a wartime practice. And there is footage of Dresden after the British attacks that I’ve certainly never seen before.

TS: Yes, interestingly, nobody in the (British Museum screening) audience talked about Dresden much. I would have thought, with an English audience, they would be very interested in that.

VS: But perhaps that’s because your film and the book taps into a real collective guilt on so many fronts – including the revelation that when the hero of this film, campaigning lawyer Raphael Lemkin, is close to succeeding in having cultural genocide listed as a war crime, it’s Canada, Australia and the US that veto it, for fear that their own behaviour with native populations might come under scrutiny.

TS: It became clear through the language that Lemkin put forward in 1948 that it would leave them liable to possible prosecution. Obviously, there is this whole, complex realpolitik situation going on – which seemed to have been partly led by Eleanor Roosevelt, actually - so that’s one of the main questions still. I think most people would say it’s very unlikely that the Genocide Convention would be revised to include cultural genocide because of the complexity of what would need to happen. But there is a real move to integrate human rights and cultural rights and reflect the essence of what Lemkin is getting at with the idea of cultural genocide.

VS: It must be an extraordinarily painstaking process deciding how to turn a highly regarded factual book into a documentary, given that you will have no idea which people will be accessible, or make the best interviewees, or what footage is available. How did you begin? For example Daniel Libeskind – architect of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Dresden’s Military History Museum as well as the World Trade Center Masterplan - ends up being a key interviewee. Was he mentioned in the book?

TS: It mentions him around the World Trade Center. I think he was the first person we interviewed. We were interested in him because he was an architect, and his work deals with memory a lot. He was very articulate on the Jewish Museum, on Dresden and his experiences as a Polish Jew. It was a good place to start.

VS: Another standout piece of footage is when you show former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević being indicted for his cultural and humanitarian crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal, when Riedlmayer is contradicting him on every false claim he makes about the bombing campaign. That look of surprise and defiance on his face as he realises that Riedlmayer knows more than he does is priceless.

TS: Yes, it’s funny isn’t it, because Milošević and others consistently denied what they did.

VS: As a film-maker, it could be easy to be drawn in to the trap of telling it like a battle between heroes and monsters, but you’re very even-handed. Nobody escapes unscathed.

TS: We tried to be balanced in that way and just present as much of the verified facts as we could.

Small moments strike me, too, like when Daniel Libeskind talks about the day he opened the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which was on September 11, 2001. I mean, it’s obviously a coincidence, but it’s this very bizarre situation, which shows - as he says - that you never really finish with history. These things repeat, and they have funny ways of connecting to each other.

VS: That was another fascinating point because, up until then, we had been looking at historic monuments, but the Twin Towers were modern buildings. And yet the attack had this seismic effect on American consciousness.

TS: And does so even today: for New Yorkers, the Twin Towers were their Eiffel tower, their St Paul’s, because of what New York is, which is about progress and money. For them, I think if the Brooklyn Bridge had been attacked it wouldn’t have had the same impact, its scale is smaller; it’s a more historic structure. It doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to them.

VS: Do you think it might even be helpful for Americans to see this event reflected in the film in this way – to see it in the context of all these other strategic demolitions of cathedrals and cities.

TS: Yes, I think you’re right.

VS: There is wonderful footage of the monument to the Twin Towers, a stunning piece of architecture and landscape design. So you start to look at how, through rebuilding, we also trigger or preserve memories. It’s fascinating, for example, to see that Dresden’s Frauenkirche has been rebuilt almost exactly as it was before the war. It really raises the question; how do you heal the scars of war through architecture?

TS: Yes, and Robert [Bevan] is really fascinated about how you rebuild. He’s got very strong ideas about how you do that. It was interesting going to Dresden. It’s almost like that silhouette of the Frauenkirche on the skyline was so important that to replace it with something else was a very complex thing to do. Not everyone agrees that the Frauenkirche should be rebuilt like that. There are little touches (that bring more recent history into the design), like the main cross inside is two pieces of steel from Coventry Cathedral. They’ve integrated things that point to what happened …

VS: The pacing of the film is really interesting, because you only get up close and personal once, and that’s with the woman Amila, whose sister Aida died in the Bosnian Serb attack on the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo. You really linger on her story. Why was that?

TS: Amila is really interesting. When she talks about the Oriental Institute being attacked, that incident really seems to strike people and it certainly struck people when we were doing early edits. The Oriental Institute was just this small library, really tucked away. She realised that if they are attacking that they are obviously not trying to get to some military objective. They’re doing it for a reason. I think she describes (this realisation) as looking into the abyss. She’s an academic, but has such as sense of personal loss. Her father was killed by a sniper during the war as well.

VS: How did you find Amila?

TS: After speaking with András. He mentioned Aida being killed on the day the library was burned. He spoke about her sister Aida, but I thought it would be interesting if the family could speak about her. We found Amila, whose own area of research is similar to this so I knew by speaking with her you’d get an interesting perspective you wouldn’t normally get.

She also told us a story about that awful transition between when everyone is friends with each other and then when people turned on each other, including some of the teachers at the university. They became ultra-nationalists and possibly orchestrated some of this stuff. I think that really still haunts her, that idea that people you trust can turn on you.

VS: Then you feature that village where people refuse to betray their friends and neighbours. Were you aware of having to weave the stories of humanity - people doing the right thing – in order to leaven the horror stories of what people are capable of?

TS: Yeah. That village is on top of a hill, so it’s sort of cut off from anything around it. So, generally, nobody has bothered them. They say that three times the armies came up the hill and told them to kill each other, but they kept refusing. And, ultimately, they left them alone.

VS: For all the horror stories, there were plenty of inspiring spokespeople. You ended up with some really uplifting characters, fighting for justice – and most of them emerged on the scene after Robert’s book was published.

TS: That was interesting: casting people in the way that you cast a drama. People slowly fall into place who contrast with each other really well or complement each other. But they are all generally very passionate people. ICC chief prosecutor [Fatou] Bensouda and András, in particular. He’s a librarian. He’s very low key. But he’s a real hero – not in a glib way – but determined to forge ahead because of what he thought was right, without very much support.

VS: In the end, it’s the overpowering humanity of these people that leads you to the point where the audience is in no doubt that preventing such destruction has to happen on humanitarian grounds. That warmth and humanity is beautifully evoked by [the British actor] Sophie Okonedo’s narration. What made you choose her?

TS: I’m Australian. I’ve lived in America for a bit more than five years, but it ended up being an American film, produced in America. But I was conscious that Robert was the author still – not that his ideas and positions are British, but it seemed it would be better having someone more aligned with him as a narrator. From the outset, I’ve always wanted a female narrator. It’s a very aggressive subject and it’s generally men perpetrating it. But, in the end, as you probably noticed, most of the interviews are with women. So it wasn’t necessary to have a female voice, but that was my initial thinking.

VS: The music is also masterful – never crashing over that line from tension into high drama or sentimentality, but always with a taut, emotional undercurrent, largely thanks to the use of strings. How did you choose your composer, Ezio Bosso?

TS: Ezio is an Italian composer, but lives in London. I’d made a film about the Sydney Dance Company and its artistic director Rafael Bonachela, who used to run Ballet Rambert. Rafael uses Ezio’s music a lot. I like Ezio’s minimalist style. It’s emotional, but it sits under the film and supports it without dominating it.

VS: What was your inspiration, stylistically or atmospherically?

TS: I suppose there is an inspiration with the music: there’s some influence from [film director] Errol Morris. He always uses minimalist soundtracks for that reason, to not inject any sentimentality into things. And there’s a sharpness to his editing and his style which I like. The film moves fairly quickly and it’s a bit unrelenting; it can come across as a bit of an uncomfortable rush. That’s deliberate - to not let you rest too much, because of that snowballing of the issues unfolding. I suppose it was our intention maybe to make the audience feel a little bit exhausted … There are a few moments where it sits back briefly, but it’s a bit of an onslaught.

VS: What impact were you hoping this film would have?

TS: I think it’s different from any other film I’ve made. It’s an issue film really. So, therefore, the purpose is to have some impact. It’s not just about appreciating a film. 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. So I think that, hopefully, it can have a positive impact in that way, to sustain awareness of the issue, change dialogues about it.

VS: One of the most interesting narratives that runs through the film is the role of technology. It starts with the fact that military technology developed 100 years ago suddenly made destruction on a massive scale possible through aerial bombardment, but now we have technology playing a very different role both in destroying and preserving monuments. We have Isis sending out its “culture bombs” – images of the destruction of artefacts at the Mosul Museum in Iraq, for example – while in the same territory, the internet played its part in alerting the people on the ground, through Facebook, as to how they can protect the treasured buildings that remain.

TS: Yes, and the project that CyArk is conducting (making and storing 3D digital scans of leading cultural monuments at risk) is so interesting. And its involvement in Ur in Iraq was a fluke – my understanding is that there was a Chinese crew in Iraq doing something else, and CyArk said: “If you’re near the Ziggurat of Ur, please can you go and scan it because someone might blow it up next week.” That’s interesting: that rush to document things in those situations. [The CyArk Ziggurat of Ur film is now available on YouTube.]

VS: What elements of the story do you wish you had been able to include or would you like to go back to?

TS: There were other things about the Bosnian narrative that were really rich, but there wasn’t enough screen time (to include it). We sort of had to do it in a single episode. But we could easily have made two episodes from the material of an hour each. It was difficult … People often ask why didn’t you include something in Asia. I think that some stories, say Jerusalem, that’s a whole little universe in itself. We realised we couldn’t look at that briefly and pass on. Because it’s an ongoing issue, it was hard enough trying to work out at what point we should stop making the film. We managed to just get an update about the ICC Mali case [where ICC prosecutor Bensouda has included “intentionally directed attacks against protected objects” among other listed war crimes), but there’s a whole situation going on in the Yemen which is terrible. But there wasn’t time, unfortunately, to put that in.

VS: And what happens to the film now?

TS: In June, we had a screening in New York (and then) a screening at the Smithsonian, mostly for cultural heritage people, with cultural heritage workers from all around the world, to teach them methodology. That was a good audience. There was a woman who had worked at the Mosul Museum, which Isis had smashed up. So that was really interesting: to have the reaction of an audience that were much closer to it … For them, it’s really personal. I think there were a lot of tears and distress, really.

So now, quite a few TV broadcasts in different territories are planned, and then a lot of targeted screenings through the rest of the year, lots of museums and universities and, hopefully, some that can have an impact in a more formal way, through policy organisations and governments.

VS: So it’s doing its ambassadorial bit to promote conversations.

TS: Yes, people are talking about using it as a tool, an educational, experiential tool, distilling a way to learn about the issues.

VS: Finally, to what extent do you feel that this was a collaboration with Robert, in terms of his setting out a case, articulating it beautifully and then you creating a different artwork from his ingredients?

TS: It’s definitely a collaboration. It’s interesting with books, when you adapt them. As we structured the film, I talked to Robert about the newer stuff that’s not in his book and how to approach that, and what his thoughts were. So Robert was great for us, because he’d done so much work for the book, his head is full of further information you might need.

And what’s good is that it seems to be inspiring people to read his book. We made the film so that the ideas in his book could be digested in a short form. But a lot of people have said I’m going to read the book now.

• For information on screenings, go to:

Robert Bevan’s book The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War is available from Reaktion Books.

The Destruction of Memory was produced in association with TVO, with the support of SVT, the Henry Luce Foundation, the Rothschild Foundation UK, Global Heritage Fund and World Monuments Fund. Click here to see the trailer.

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