Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Can justice be brought?

CONFLICT / A film set in the present, about the past, that points to the future...

Viktor Portel’s documentary debut, The Investigator, is based on a book written by a former Czech Interpol officer who was part of the Hague Tribunal investigating team that sought to bring war criminals from the Yugoslav civil war of the early 1990s to justice.

Based on a bestselling memoir (The Investigator – Demons of the Balkan War, Grada 2017, and Potomac Books, 2019) by Vladimír Dzuro, the investigator and main protagonist that details his experiences of delving into human rights abuses, murder and torture during the bitter Balkans war, Portel’s film is – like Dzuro himself – sombre and factual.

The Investigator, a film by Viktor Portel
The Investigator, a film by Viktor Portel

Gut-wrenching work

Although the director – and Dzuro himself – is at pains to demonstrate that all sides in the conflict committed war crimes that included massacres of civilians, it is the example of Serbian crimes examined in the film. Dzuro once gave a speech to hundreds of students at the UN – where he subsequently worked after quitting his Hague job after a decade of the gut-wrenching work of exhuming rotting corpses and trying to catch war criminals in international jurisdictions. He counselled that though he would detail Serbian crimes, all sides committed heinous acts against civilians, and his audience should accept that the examples spoke for all acts contravening international rules and treaties governing war and civil strife. That did not stop a couple of dozen Serbian students from angrily confronting him after his speech. «These young people were not even born when these atrocities were committed, yet they exhibited as much hatred as I’d witnessed in the 1990s», Dzuro drily observes.

The Investigator follows Dzuro on his first trip back to the Balkans in a quarter of a century as he reconstructs the crimes he investigated and interviews eye-witnesses – including those who miraculously escaped death and relatives of those that did the killing.

Scratchy video footage from the 1990s – that looks as if it belongs to an age ever further distant than a few decades – shows the young Dzuro (now bald) with a full head of blond hair negotiating access to Vukovar with a Serb officer. Serbian soldiers had just taken the town, and a deal had been struck to evacuate 300 patients from a hospital in the Croatian town that had operated for months under siege and bombardment. But the evacuation – in November 1991 – came just as reports surfaced that the bodies of 41 Serbian children had been found on the grounds of a school on the outskirts of the town. Serbian forces claimed the children had been executed by retreating Croatian soldiers – and took western journalists to the scene. The story gained international coverage before being taken off screen in the west after doubts were raised over its veracity. But the damage had been done, and Dzuro’s attempts to get into Vukovar were taking place just as the Serbs were taking 300 patients and injured Croatian prisoners of war away to a dank warehouse, where they were shot in groups before being buried in a mass grave nearby.

Dzuro demonstrates that minute procedural traps that war crimes investigators must be aware of; any mistakes can invalidate a prosecution.

Picking up the story

The director picks up the story with Dzuro returning to the scene of the massacre and sticking photographs from the scene, and of suspects to a window, before using red marker pens to draw arrows and make connections – in the manner of a popular TV police procedural drama. The local Serb mayor of Vukovar – which like most Croatian towns, had been a multi-ethnic community until the war broke out – was swiftly identified as a perpetrator and organiser of the massacre. Some of those marked for death had escaped, and others had been led to safety by a Serbian soldier who later agreed to be a witness for the prosecution in return for anonymity and lifelong protection. (Dzuro, in his laconic style, soberly notes that the man’s testimony was crucial but that as one of the perpetrators, he had «got off lightly.»)

The detective story of how Dzuro got his man – the team managed to lure him back from Serbia, where he’d fled, onto Croatian territory, where they arrested him.

Portel tracked down and interviewed the mayor’s widow. Time has not mellowed her view that her husband was innocent and that he was tricked into returning.

Dzuro demonstrates that minute procedural traps that war crimes investigators must be aware of; any mistakes can invalidate a prosecution. (When they got their man to court, Dzuro was advised to stick to the absolute truth, as the Serb’s counsel was a sharp operator.) Again, Portel tracked down the lawyer, who remains a devout Serb nationalist and critic of the Hague Tribunal. The defendant killed himself before the end of the trial, a result that Dzuro laments fails to give closure for the victims and fails to allow Serbian society to heal.

The same point is made in the story of his attempts to bring Arkan, a notorious Serbian warlord and criminal, to justice.

The Investigator, a film by Viktor Portel
The Investigator, a film by Viktor Portel

«Arkan’s Tigers»

«Arkan’s Tigers» was a freelance unit of Serbia militias who hunted down and murdered Bosnian Muslims – for fun. One of their victims, who survived execution when bullets passed through his chin and collar bone, takes Dzuro back to the rural barn where he and other men endured torture, including being forced to lick their underwear clean when they defecated during beatings.

After the war, Arkan became a popular public figure in Serbia and was elected an MP. Dzuro failed to arrest him on a rare trip to Madrid, where Arkan’s local soccer club was playing. Again, justice failed to catch up with him: as pressure built from the international investigation, Arkan announced he would cooperate with the Hague Tribunal. It came just as former Serb president Slobodan Milosevic was on trial and did not sit well with the Serbian security apparatus. Arkan was never brought to trial. Instead he died on a Belgrade street, shot down by a Serbian policeman.

The Investigator is a timely film. Released just as EU politicians have formally adopted a resolution to set up a war crimes tribunal to try Russians (and others) accused of human rights abuses in Ukraine, it demonstrates just how difficult it is for the apparatus of states governed by law to bring to account those operating under the lawlessness of rogue states, such as Russia has now become. Its subject may be about the past and its setting in the present, but this really is a film about the future.

The Investigator screens as part of the 2023 FIPADOC European Stories programme

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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