Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. Secretary of State and Nobel Laureate, fled Nazi Germany and grew up to become one of the most influential men in U.S. political history.
He is a man both revered and reviled – but is he a war criminal? That’s the controversial premise of The Trials of Henry Kissinger, a new documentary by New York’s Jigsaw/Thinktank Productions.
The 80-minute film was inspired by a book of the same title, published by Verso and written by British journalist Christopher Hitchens. Playing the role of prosecuting counsel, Hitchens sets forth on a damning campaign against the diplomat, whose crimes reportedly range from authorizing the killing of a Chilean general in 1970 to engineering the secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969. Hitchens calls Kissinger, ‘personally responsible for murder, for kidnapping, [and] for torture.’ Harsh words and ones Alex Gibney, producer of Kissinger, knew would make a scintillating film. ‘It seemed like an intriguing premise – the idea of revisiting Kissinger’s career to see whether or not it needed to be re-examined in a new light,’ says Gibney. ‘We don’t follow Hitchens exclusively, but it’s certainly a point of departure for the film.’
Making the US$400,000 doc was challenging from the start. Kissinger wouldn’t agree to an interview and Gibney initially feared others would follow suit. ‘My biggest concern was that nobody would talk to us,’ he says. ‘There is a fear of Kissinger. I think his friends and colleagues close rank pretty quickly.’ Following the paper trail was also daunting, but was made easier by the U.S. government’s decision to release thousands of formerly classified documents from the 1970s. ‘The unique aspect to this was that we had access to new documents, thanks to the National Security Archives and others,’ Gibney explains. ‘What was interesting about Hitchens’ book and what is interesting about the film is that it’s setting a new context for Kissinger’s career.’
Another challenge was the timing. Although filming had begun in spring 2001, the film was not fully funded when the September 11 tragedy occurred – an event that could have stalled the production. Says Gibney, ‘We were initially afraid the project might never see the light of day and people wouldn’t want to engage a subject that was critical of Kissinger at a time when patriotism was at a premium.’ Ultimately, though, Gibney believes September 11 raised fundamental issues that made the film even more relevant. ‘Essentially, the search for al-Qaeda is about a kind of international criminal code saying nobody can get away with the killing of innocent civilians. We felt it gave our investigation even more currency.’
Gibney and his partner, Eugene Jarecki, used Kissinger’s celebrity to their advantage; not a hard thing to do considering the visibility of the former Secretary of State – a man who has become so much a part of popular culture he’s been featured on an episode of The Simpsons. ‘I think we tried to use a multifaceted visual approach,’ notes the filmmaker. ‘[What's] interesting about Kissinger’s career is that his celebrity has given him more power.’
It’s a power that has struck a chord with viewers. The film aired in early March to positive reviews on BBC4. Other broadcasters that have signed on include ARTE in France, TV2 Denmark and Canada’s History Television. Given the difficulty of marketing and distributing such a controversial film, Gibney says he is pleased with the results. ‘It was initially difficult to get interest, but we had a lot of support from the BBC, and the controversial nature of the subject actually attracted a lot of interest. Our distributor [Massachusetts-based CS Associates] did a great job of pre-selling it in a number of foreign territories.’
For Gibney, The Trials of Henry Kissinger is as much a film about the search for universal justice as it is a film about Kissinger himself. ‘It’s only by reckoning with the past that you can come to some understanding of how you want the future to be constructed,’ he says. ‘We want a world in which people are held accountable for past actions so that the next time somebody comes forward maybe they’ll think twice before they act.’