The Crime of Crimes

In "Saving Saddam", Bill Wiley, a Canadian lawyer, wants to abolish the death penalty. The film is produced by Mette Heide and Michael Christoffersen for Team Productions, the company that produced Milosevic on Trial, about The Hague Tribunal.

There it inevitably ended, on the podium, with the steps leading up to it. Did anyone count the steps? The black-hooded executioner ties a black kerchief around Saddam’s neck, next the noose, which looks just so. The mobile phone video shows all, and it’s not pretty. It’s every bit as horrifying as the ghastly video of the trial against Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu with its unshakable image of the two of them wearing their overcoats in the chilly schoolroom where a military court was hastily convened.

"Say what you want about the tribunal and the trial against Saddam Hussein, but it was, and still is, a real attempt to have a judicial process accordning to international principles, a first in the region. But of course, such trials always have a political dimension, this one more than most." Michael Christoffersen

"Say what you want about the tribunal and the trial against Saddam Hussein, but it was, and still is, a real attempt to have a judicial process accordning to international principles, a first in the region. But of course, such trials always have a political dimension, this one more than most." Michael Christoffersen

The protagonist of "Saving Saddam", Bill Wiley, a Canadian lawyer, wants to prevent the same thing from happening again. He wants a fair trial according to internationally recognised rules. He wants the killing to stop. As an initial step, he wants to abolish the death penalty. Esteban Uyarra and Michael Christoffersen’s film looks at this lost opportunity.


Esteban Uyarra framegrab 



Born 1970, Spain. Awardwinning director, editor and cinematographer of documentary films. Worked for several UK television channels, including the BBC and Channel 4. Films include the feature-length documentary The Light in the Dark, The Runner and War Feels Like War, the latter screened worldwide, and was nominated for the prestigious Grierson Award.

Michael Christoffersen foto Bente Jaeger Alsing

Photo: Bente Jæger Alsing


Born 1954, Denmark. Has been working as a documentary director since the 1980s. 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 "Milosevic on Trial" (2007) and "Saving Saddam" (2008).


Founded 1999 by producer Mette Heide and director Michael Christoffersen. Produces national and in ternational documentaries to clients ranging from the Danish broadcasters and BBC to a wide range of European national broadcasters. Productions: Mette Heide from Team Productions was executive producer on the worldwide media event and documentary series "Why Democracy?" (2007), comprising ten one-hour films on the subject of contemporary democracy. Two company signature films are the extraordinary behind-the-scenes achievements "Milosevic on Trial" (2007) and "Saving Saddam" (2008). Short documentaries include "Little Grown-up" (Anders Gustafsson, 2008), chosen for Kids & Docs at IDFA, Amsterdam.

The film opens by saying what we already know, that he failed. The phone rings. Picking it up, he says he’s been in Baghdad for 19 months, trying to save Saddam Hussein. When the film opens, we know that the project it describes won’t succeed. The film then closes with the same scene of the phone call.

In the meantime, Wiley’s experiences over those 19 months have made us much the wiser. They trace the film’s storyline – ambition, hope, hard work, resistance, persuasion, stubbornness, a victory of sorts just before the final defeat and disappointment. Saddam may hang, but in a way he still wins. Deboarding a plane in Canada, Wiley exclaims, “I’m alive!” But of course, he lost. The film tells us how and why.

As Wiley first saw his role as advisor, he would fight for Saddam Hussein getting a fair trial. But the new Iraqi government wants revenge. As do the demonstrators in the streets, the politicians and the prosecutors. Even the judges want it all along, a lot would indicate. What Saddam and his defence team want is less certain.


Wiley is grounded in international criminal law. “My job, my moral duty,” he says, “is to try and save any man whose life is in peril without respect to his goodness or lack thereof. So if it turns out in the judgement that I’ve succeeded, at least in this one case, I will be very, very satisfied.”

Wiley is a lawyer from Canada with years of experience in international criminal law. He comes to Iraq from Congo, where he worked as an investigator for the UN’s International Criminal Court, a relatively new permanent tribunal. Wiley quit because of poor security, after several UN officers were killed. Now in Iraq, the UN has assigned him to monitor the trials against Saddam Hussein and his cohorts to make sure they get due process. Thus, he is a UN observer when the Iraq Special Tribunal opens the trial against Saddam. As a foreign attorney, he can’t actually appear in the trial, though he can serve as an advisor outside the courtroom.

The trial was set up and funded by the American government through an entity known as the Regime Crimes Liaison Office (RCLO), with the Americans providing funding and logistics. Soon realising that Saddam’s defence is a shambles, RCLO, i.e., the Americans, hires Wiley to step in as an advisor to the defence team, though without the defence’s consent. Wiley eventually manages to establish a rapport with them and lends his  assistance, though that side story gradually descends into chaos. Our protagonist, then, comes to Iraq as a neutral observer for the UN, but then switches roles when the Americans employ him to ensure that the trial meets international standards. As a climax, he writes Saddam Hussein’s closing document, the final statement by the defence, thought it fails to avert the death penalty. As he says at one point, “Maybe we were naive ….”


As the story unfolds, we realise it’s about this strange naivety. How certain Western political institutions have a hard time putting themselves in someone else’s place, understanding that others don’t automatically accept the Western concept of democracy or the Western view of law. Wiley is divided. He has his long legal education, his broad base of knowledge, yet he somehow understands Saddam’s reluctance to accept him on his defence team.

His growing awareness, expressed as mounting frustration, is edited as an inevitable development for the protagonist. Wiley is constantly thrown into conflict between his idealism and his sense of reality. Meanwhile, he is falling under the influence of Najeeb Al-Naumi, the utterly disillusioned head of the defence team and his intellectual equal. The film’s other focal point, Najeeb is a profoundly fascinating character, and the film effectively pits him against Wiley. Ironic disillusion versus naive idealism. Najeeb is a former minister of justice in Qatar, where he now runs a law firm.

Saving Saddam2 framegrab

"Saving Saddam". Framegrab

In principle, no foreigners are allowed in the actual courtroom. Nonetheless, when the time comes for Saddam and his daughter to pick their defendants, their choices include Najeeb of Qatar and Ramsey Clark, a former United States Attorney General on his own political mission (he once defended Slobodan Milosevic), as well as an Egyptian and some Iraqi attorneys. Bending the rules, the tribunal allowed the foreign attorneys in.

The defence attorneys are a motley crew. Sometimes they’re in Baghdad, at other times they meet in Amman, where Saddam’s daughter is staying, or in Damascus. Mainly working out of his Qatar office, Najeeb increasingly isolates himself, when he begins to sense that the others have a totally different agenda. This is the context of a key scene, a confidential call between Najeeb and Wiley, outlining the trial’s complicated standoffs: Saddam versus vengeance, a concept he essentially recognises, and Saddam versus a new, flimsy international court he does not recognise.


Christoffersen co-directed "Saving Saddam" with Estaban Uyarra, who made his name as a daring documentarian with his 2004 film about the invasion of Iraq, "War Feels Like War". Christoffersen had already made two films about international war crimes tribunals: "Milosevic on Trial" (2007) and "Genocide: The Judgement" (1999) – respectively about the tribunal in The Hague, 2002-2006, and the tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, 1994, that convicted the mayor of Taba, Rwanda, for a number of serious crimes relating to the massacres in his town. "Genocide’s" main character, the Swedish judge Lennart Aspegren, characterises the UN tribunal as the first human rights trial since Nuremberg, an experiment with the potential of international law to prosecute the crime of crimes – murders of civilians, genocide and other crimes against humanity.

All three films centre on the crime of crimes and the historically still quite young international justice system prosecuting such cases. Each film fuses the story and a charismatic central character with an understanding of the law and ethics – as effectively embodied in gentle, thoughtful Aspegren in "Genocide", tough and efficient Geoffrey Nice in "Milosevic on Trial" and frustrated Wiley in "Saving Saddam". The three works, as a whole, constitute a collective journalistic and documentary experience of international law. Filmed on location, Christoffersen’s films uniquely document the ambition for a comprehensive legal system during its early formative years.

After his third experience with the subject, Christoffersen says, “Say what you want about the tribunal and the trial of Saddam, but it was, and still is, a real attempt to have a judicial process according to international principles, a first in the region. But of course, such cases always have a political dimension, this one more than most, and ultimately that was a decisive factor. Writing off the trial as an unfair political charade is way too simplistic, to the best of my opinion.”