In ‘In Flow of Words,’ War Crimes Performers Tell Their Own Stories

A woman speaks to the person who killed her children: “I would like to know in which grave they are, so that I, their mother, can give them a decent burial.” She says this, but she doesn’t say that, not exactly. These words, in English, come from a man looking out of a window at The Hague. He speaks for her. As an interpreter for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Besmir adopted the point of view of whoever he was translating – victim or perpetrator. In the complex legal proceedings of the tribunal, which took place from 1993 to 2017, the interpreters had a critical, but functional responsibility: if they do their job well, they are almost invisible. In “In Flow of Words” by Eliane Esther Bots, which won the Golden Calf Award for Best Documentary Short at this year’s Dutch Film Festival, they take center stage, describing the experience of translating war crimes.

Bots lives in The Hague, where the court has been held for most of his life. She never thought about the work of interpreters until a chance encounter with one, a woman named Alma, who was haunted by the stories she had translated. The bots watched hours of court archive footage and compared the proceedings to theater: “everyone has a role.” In an impromptu scene early in the film, Alma compares the role to that of a vase: “A vase’s only purpose is to hold a flower. And our sole purpose here. . . is to provide interpretation, facilitate a conversation and nothing else. And yet, this facilitation is both skillful and powerful. “Hey, it’s just words, don’t worry,” an interpreter named Nenad says in voiceover. His tone is calm, he speaks slowly and deliberately. “Take it easy. Listen to me. With my voice and the choice of words” – here the voice runs a rhythm, the sound of nothing goes wrong – “I can make any sentence less confrontational, while giving a correct interpretation.

Throughout the film, the performers reveal what was asked of them – neutrality, the use of the first person – and some of the ways the work affected them. But more is not said. In nearly twenty-five years of existence, the tribunal has translated one million documents into five languages; trials were conducted in three or sometimes four languages. The tribunal investigated war crimes committed in a territory that now encompasses seven countries, and virtually the only people able to move fluently between the tribunal’s languages ​​- English, French, Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian, Albanian, Macedonian – were those who lived where the violence took place; many performers had themselves been victims.

Besmir, who says he lost his childhood in the Yugoslav wars, remembers his first job at the ICTY: at the age of nineteen, he accompanied archaeologists and excavators on the discovery of a mass grave near Srebrenica. The smell of corpses at first disgusted him, but then he realized that if he had been born twelve miles from his birthplace, he might have ended up in that grave himself. After that, he says, “their smell wasn’t so overpowering to me.” But the works would take their toll. After translating the story of a young boy’s murder, Besmir returned home and began drinking. He stayed drunk for a month.

“Everything that comes out of your mouth is important. Suddenly your thoughts are my thoughts,” Nenad says. The bond between performers and their subjects lasts long after their work is finished. Alma can’t shake the memory of a painting of the Jajce waterfall in central Bosnia that she saw in the home of an elderly couple she once visited on a fact-finding mission. The painting hung in the couple’s living room, alongside photographs of their sons who had been taken to a concentration camp and disappeared. “I realized that after eight years they still believed their children were alive – and it was just heartbreaking,” she says. In the room where she tells this story, another picture of Jajce waterfall hangs on a different wall. She is lying on a bed surrounded by the image of the waterfall.

“I didn’t go to see a psychologist because I thought it would pass,” Alma told me. “But it’s not really going away.”

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