'Zero Impunity': Film Review | Annecy 2019

Zero Impunity Still 1 - Annecy International Animated Film Festival - Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Annecy International Animated Film Festival
Informative, well-meaning and a bit heavy-handed.

Filmmakers Nicolas Blies, Stephane Hueber-Blies and animator Denis Lambert screened their politically charged documentary in Annecy's new Contrechamp competition.

In the eye-opening animated documentary Zero Impunity, the controversial subject of wartime rape is explored from a variety of angles and techniques revealing how devastating such a crime can be for the victims, their families and their people as a whole. Even more disturbing is the fact that such an act — whether committed by aggressors or peacekeepers, the latter including UN and U.S. soldiers — often goes unpunished, creating deep-seated wounds that can lead to further wars in the future.

Directed by Nicolas Blies, Stephane Hueber-Blies and animator Denis Lambert, the film offers up a veritable crash course on a subject many of us know next to nothing about, taking us to Syria, the Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Washington, D.C., to show how rape and sexual assault have been present in many conflicts across the globe while constantly being ignored by the powers-that-be.

To that extent, Zero Impunity, which was made in tandem with an online social campaign (#zeroimpunity) and multimedia project, does an important job in creating public awareness of an issue that definitely needs more attention. As a movie, though, it feels slightly dense in its narration by focusing on several stories at once, while relying on heavy-handed aesthetics — melodramatic music, interviews projected in public spaces a la JR — to make a point that didn’t need to be so overemphasized.

Cutting between documentary scenes where interviews with activist journalists (from the collective YOUPRESS) are screened outdoors on buildings, bridges and other structures, and animated sequences that recall the sober 2D drawings of Waltz With Bashir, the investigation is divided into six parts spanning several recent conflicts.

In perhaps the most harrowing section, entitled “Radioactive Weapon,” a Syrian mother recounts how her 11-year-daughter was arrested by the forces of Bashar al-Assad, then imprisoned, drugged with hormones and transformed into a sex slave for the army. When she was finally released, the girl was so traumatized that she was unable to speak or be around any men, including her own father and uncle. And yet, her fellow villagers refused to acknowledge the incident, with the shame of it spreading like radioactive fallout that would poison them for years to come.

Other chapters in the film deal with a disturbing case of rape committed by a Russian soldier on a journalist inside the Ukraine, the sexual abuse of prisoners by American servicemen and -women at Abu Ghraib, the prostitution of underage girls at the hands of UN humanitarian workers in the DRC and instances of rape carried out by the French army in the Central African Republic.  

What’s most troubling about these incidents is how they have generally remained unsanctioned, with the UN failing to properly police its own operations and the U.S. refusing to join the International Criminal Court, where many such cases are tried.

in one section devoted to official U.S. policy, former General Counsel of the CIA John Rizzo details how certain forms of torture, including sexual violence, were warranted by the White House in the wake of 9/11 in order to prevent further terrorist attacks. “They would say they weren’t comfortable with it,” Rizzo explains when referring to conversations with former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. “They never said we shouldn’t do it.”

Casting a blind eye to sexual violence seems to be the norm during wartime, when it can be used as a weapon to humiliate and harm the enemy. This is a known fact in history — cases of mass rape during WWII have been highly documented and publicized — but Zero Impunity brings to light how much this is still, unfortunately, happening around the world right now.

For that reason alone, the filmmakers have crafted a necessary document that should see further fest play and pubcaster pickups after screening in Annecy’s all-new Contrechamp competition. Theatrical distribution is also possible in select territories, although it’s unfortunate that the movie doesn’t fully convince on an artistic front, whether by covering too much ground in its narration, or, in its overwrought finale, trying to hammer home a statement that was best made through simple testimony.  

Venue: Annecy International Animated Film Festival (Contrechamp)
Production companies: a_BAHN, Melusine Productions, Webspider
Directors: Nicolas Blies, Stephane Hueber-Blies, Denis Lambert
Screenwriters: Nicolas Blies, Stephane Hueber-Blies
Producers: Marion Guth, Stephan Roelants, Louise Cosserat, Nicolas Blies, Stephane Hueber-Blies
Editor: Aurelien Guegan
Composer: Holland Andrews
Animation: Denis Lambert
Sales: Indie Sales

In French, English
95 minutes