Can tearing down a building be an act of genocide?
Thath's the thesis of The Destruction of Memory, a new film by documentarian Tim Slade tracing the troubling history of how some soldiers have destroyed cultural sites in an effort to destroy a culture itself.
The documentary is based on a 2006 book on the same theme by architecture critic Robert Bevan, and covers a variety of conflicts and the eradication of historic sites from the Armenian Genocide through World War II, the Bosnian War, and today's conflict with ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
"The assumption has long been that heritage is an unfortunate collateral casualty of war," says Bevan, who continues to write about the overlap of heritage sites and human rights. "What this film demonstrates is that, instead, architecture can be targeted deliberately for destruction, particularly in campaigns of ethnic genocide and cleansing. It is vital, therefore, to make more explicit the links between cultural protection and the protection of human rights."
According to The Destruction of Memory, the demolition of heritage sites was initially a core aspect of genocide as initially conceived by pioneering human rights lawyer Raphael Lemkin. On par with biological and physical genocide, "cultural genocide" included the destruction of identity symbols and artifacts such as buildings, books, and artworks.
To learn why the United States, Great Britain, and others campaigned to remove this element from the ratified genocide laws of 1948, you'll just have to see the film. But the international debate about prosecuting those who demolish heritage sites isn't over.
ISIS is notorious for their destruction of high-profile cultural and religious sites, and while there are some fascinating initiatives currently underway to use digital preservation methods to save threatened architecture, the film makes an elegant case for doing more to protect these physical symbols of culture and bring perpetrators of cultural destruction to justice.
The film is showing at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City on June 21, 2016, and at the British Museum on June 26 before further international screenings.