Milosevic on Trial: Cutting World History

The historic trials of Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, ending in worst-case scenarios, presented daunting cutting-room challenges for Team Productions, who documented both.

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic died in March 2006, during his trial at the Hague war crimes tribunal for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide, robbing us of the conclusion to one of the most important trials of the century. The verdict, which could have been a historical touchstone and turning point, never came. Having followed and documented the trial for the four years that it ran, Team Productions now had to find a new central thread in thousands of hours of footage.

"I didn't play down the basic notion that the one person who really brought down Milosevic, had he ever been convicted, was Milosevic himself. Once I reached that conclusion, everything became much clearer." Michael Christoffersen

"I didn't play down the basic notion that the one person who really brought down Milosevic, had he ever been convicted, was Milosevic himself. Once I reached that conclusion, everything became much clearer." Michael Christoffersen

Michael Christoffersen, the director, chose to see artistic potential in not having a predetermined outcome: dramaturgically, the material was more open to interpretation now. "Had the trial continued on course and a verdict been reached, the conclusion would have been generally known and that would have been like knowing the score in advance," he says. "The dramaturgy would have been expected to lead to that conclusion, which would have confined the story a lot.



Born 1954, Denmark. Director of documentaries since the 80s. Founded Team Productions with Mette Heide in 1999.

Has directed and produced several international documentaries, including "Genocide: The Judgement" (1999) for BBC and SVT, about a trial at the Rwanda court, and the feature-length, behind-the-scenes documentaries "Slobodan Milosevic – præsident under anklage"/"Milosevic on Trial" (2007) and "Saddam on Trial" (2008).

"That line was broken, of course, when Milosevic died and there was no conclusion," Christoffersen says. "No one was willing to wager one, so I had to sit down and interpret the material. There were both advantages and disadvantages to that. One advantage was that it allowed me to relate more freely to the material.” He followed the trial daily online or in the courtroom for the four years that it ran.

The director was dealing with an enormous amount of material: thousands of hours of courtroom footage from fixed cameras operated by producers affiliated with the tribunal, plus his own crew's shots of the defence attorneys, prosecutors and other participants in the trial.

Christoffersen continually took notes during the trial and kept a log of interesting situations, which included the witnesses and the defendant himself, Milosevic, who acted as his own attorney assisted by a team of Serbian lawyers. Those notes turned out to be a huge help in the editing process.

Milosevic on trial Geoffrey Nice foto Marott

Geoffrey Nice, chief prosecutor in the Milosevic case. Photo: Thomas Marott


"I felt that the story really got good at the point when Milosevic took up his own defence," Christoffersen says. "Relating less all the time to the actual charges against him, he blustered and speechified about politics and conspiracy theories instead. In this self-revelation, he showed how little he was really able to deal with the trial. So we cut it down and selected the witnesses that I thought best illustrated the proceedings. As we cut it down from eight hours to four hours, we more clearly began to see the bones of a story. I had other sets of eyes on it too, because there were times when the editors and I became swamped in footage. "At one point, we decided to write the whole thing out, as we would have done for a film with a voiceover – which turned out to be a good idea because it gave us a much more precise narrative structure," he says.

To Christoffersen and producer Mette Heide of Team Productions the driving idea with both the Milosevic and the Saddam projects was to explain and analyze a historical event, offering behind-thescenes glimpses at what went on in the courtroom. The crew wanted to get close to the key participants, their strategies and schemes, and reveal the human drama, while describing the personal victories and defeats that played out.

"I picked the witnesses and situations that were both crucial and dramatic – there were a lot of very tiresome witnesses," Christoffersen says. "Meanwhile, I didn't play down the basic notion that the one person who really brought down Milosevic, had he ever been convicted, was Milosevic himself. Once I reached that conclusion, everything became much clearer."

"We broke the chronology in certain places, but only to simplify the story. The main idea was to produce a historical and dramatic document," the director says.


The volume and complexity of the material necessitated a monstrous task of pruning, and gleaning essential footage that also had dramatic potential.

"After all, this isn't bicycle theft we're dealing with but three and a half wars with nation-founding and political showdowns – a historically very complex sequence of events, with one party, Milosevic, trying to turn the whole thing into a political process, and the other party, the prosecution, seeking to make it a criminal case with Milosevic on trial for killing people," Christoffersen says.


"We decided to pin down Milosevic's responsibility. And we went for the duel aspect of the criminal case, even as Milosevic was constantly trying to make it a struggle to tell the Serbian version of the story. Ultimately, Milosevic himself gives the game away, essentially crafting his own defeat," the director says.

"There's a good story in that, basically: the prosecution is unable to come up with the evidence, and it's only when Milosevic takes up his own defence that he slips up, letting the prosecutor in on important information," Heide says. "The criminal exposes himself."

"It was condense, condense, condense," Christoffersen says. "The more we cut, the easier it got. Gradually, the details became apparent. Still, there’s a lot of amazing material we would have liked to use. It was a reductive process a good deal of the way, until everything began to get clearer."


Whereas the Milosevic trial dragged on for years, the trial of Saddam Hussein at a Baghdad court ended altogether more abruptly at year-end. Team Productions had promised its main financing partners – TV 2/ Denmark, BBC, ZDF/ARTE of Germany and SVT of Sweden – that they would have a film for them immediately after the hanging. The broadcasters had scheduled the film for the third week of January. That gave Christoffersen and Team productions only three and a half weeks to finish the film. Moreover, footage of the American lawyers advising the Iraqi court could not be used for security reasons, since they were still in Iraq after Saddam was hanged on 30 December.

Team Productions and the Spanish filmmaker Esteban Uyarra decided to produce 50 minutes about the trial, focusing on the Iraqi prosecution and Saddam's defence team.

"Because of the time pressure, we had to find a satisfactory structure for the material as fast as possible," Heide says. "We divided the film into 10 five-minute sections. Esteban wrote a script and I started writing the voiceover of four lines tops for each five-minute interval."

"That's how we worked to advance the story, in order to make it in such a short time," Heide says. "Of course, the whole thing was re-evaluated and rewritten in the process. After two weeks, when we had a 50-minute cut, we wrote out all the dialogue and sent it to the network editors. We used this transcript as a tool in the continued editing, and every night our assistant would write out that day's cut."

The editing process ran round the clock, with Uyarra, a trained editor, cutting at night and Brian Tagg, a British editor, cutting during the day. The actual process of shooting the film in Baghdad under such difficult conditions had already presented so many obstacles – endlessly changing contacts, no-show participants, months of waiting for various permits – that the crew was starting to feel like victims of Murphy's Law.

"We had a lot of unknown factors to work with. Producing a film of this kind, you always fear the worst-case scenario will happen – and it did, for both films!" Heide says. "For the Milosevic film, the worst thing that could happen was that he died before a verdict was reached, and he did. For the Saddam film, we feared that he would be hanged before we completed editing, and he was."

"In both cases, we ended up making an entirely different film than we had thought we would. But that's a challenge you have to face when you make films that document trials, and I really think both films turned out the better for it. The long version of the Saddam film, now completed, in particular, is a much more universal film about a group of young American lawyers who go out to fight for certain ideals and get disillusioned in the process," Heide says. "The film has a lot more universal recognition and identification now."

Michael Christoffersen foto Bente Jaeger