An Inside Look at “The Destruction of Memory”

18, October 2016

Cultural destruction—the purposeful destruction of buildings, books, and art in order to erase a people’s history and identity—has been happening for years, but it has seen an explosion in the 21st century. The Destruction of Memory is a new documentary that explores how and why cultural warfare has evolved, as well as the efforts to protect, salvage, and rebuild. Following is a Q&A with the film’s producer and director, Tim Slade.

Photo of the Ferhadija MosqueRebuilding of Ferhadija Mosque, Banja Luka, Bosnia & Herzegovina. Photo by Derek Wiesehahn. Image courtesy of Vast Productions USA.

Q. What inspired you to create this documentary?
A. After reading Robert Bevan’s book The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War, I was intrigued by the realization that cultural destruction is a process, something that happens all the time and has happened throughout history. It struck me that this would be a fascinating subject to look at and that people would be more likely to watch a film. So, I reached out to Robert, and he agreed to have his book turned into a film.

I did initial interviews in 2010 but then put the film on the side for a while because there wasn’t a whole lot of interest—people saw this as something that happened occasionally and not as an ongoing problem. Then in 2012 the civil war in Syria was in full swing, and Islamist extremists destroyed the mausoleums in Mali. Then there was ISIS.

Q. How did you choose the stories told in the film?
A. Our main goal was to tell a story that would make sense to an audience. I wanted to get a combination of the most pressing stories—those of Syria, Iraq, and Mali—and the stories that would tell the history of the issue. The case stories in the film fit a chronological time frame to reflect the evolution of legal and policy ideas regarding cultural destruction.

Q. Why do you think this sort of cultural warfare has increased?
A. What we look at in the film is the fact that since World War I, the technology of warfare has become more powerful. So previously if you wanted to destroy an entire city, you could, but it would take time. Now you can bomb a city to oblivion in the blink of an eye.

Our world has also seen a big increase in iconoclasm through the acts of groups such as ISIS and the Taliban. These groups very publicly destroy things to send a message. They see cultural destruction as a powerful tool, and the reaction of the international community is very key to that.

You’d like to think that this wouldn’t happen to Paris or New York—but you don’t know that it won’t. Cultural destruction has a huge impact globally. Once it reaches the level where large parts of a country are destroyed, as in Syria, it’s very hard to stop it. Part of the reason we made this film is to raise awareness that these things need to be monitored and legislated against.

Soldier patrolling in TimbuktuA soldier patrols in front of Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu. Photo by Francois Rihouay. Image courtesy of Vast Productions USA.

Q. Your film highlights the stories of people who are risking their lives to protect and preserve cultural heritage. What was the most dramatic story you captured while making this film?

A. Two stories really stand out, because they show the lengths people will go to to protect their culture.

Aida Buturovic was a librarian at the National and University Library in Sarajevo. Even as the city was under siege, she and her colleagues continued going in to work, desperately trying to protect the books and get them out of the library. Buturovic was there the day the library was attacked and burned to the ground. She survived but was killed on her way home—all because she was trying to protect the books.

Khaled al-Asaad was the custodian of artifacts in the ancient city of Palmyra, in Syria. Prior to the city’s capture by ISIS, Asaad and others ensured the removal of hundreds of ancient statues from Palmyra to safe locations, to protect them from being sold or destroyed. After ISIS took the city, they imprisoned Asaad and tortured him for more than a month. They beheaded him when they realized he would never tell them where the artifacts were hidden.

Q. What was the most inspiring story?
A. Andras Riedlmayer, a bibliographer at Harvard University, exemplifies how one person can have a real impact. During the Bosnian war, he realized the extreme level of targeted destruction that was happening in Bosnia and other parts of the Balkans. After the war, he went to Kosovo and Bosnia—of his own accord—and documented enormous amounts of evidence of cultural destruction. He took this evidence to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague and served as a key witness against former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.

Reconstructed mausoleum in TimbuktuReconstructed mausoleum, Timbuktu, Mali. Photo by Francois Rihouay. Image courtesy of Vast Productions USA.

Q. From what you’ve witnessed thus far at screenings, what has resonated the most with audiences who may initially feel removed from these incidents because they’re happening so far away?
A. People have been responding to what’s happening in Syria. They see the human face of what’s happening there, so I think they sort of make the connection to how this could impact their own country. The level of destruction and the fact that it’s widespread show it could potentially happen anywhere.

Western audiences are also responding because they see that some of the key players, experts interviewed in the film, are from the West. I think this shows that no matter where you are, you can still have an impact, even on things happening in other parts of the world.

We also look at the 9/11 attacks from a cultural perspective. We make the point that, yes, those attacks were against the United States as a superpower and New York as an economic center—but they were also very much an attack on identity.

Q. What can St. Louisans do to help aid global cultural-preservation efforts?
A. Contact your political representatives. Let them know you feel that cultural preservation is an issue that needs to be addressed, both now and in the future. The people perpetrating these crimes need to know that the international community won’t just sit by and watch cultural destruction happen.

Progress is starting to be made on this front. Just last month, the man responsible for leading the destruction of tombs in Timbuktu (in northern Mali) was prosecuted in the International Criminal Court, marking the first successful prosecution of cultural destruction as a war crime.

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