There is a fine balance between unbiased, objective reporting and the dissection of the emotional layers in a subject that is the mark of a great documentary. A new documentary on the epic tale of the Crimean Treasures in a Dutch museum and the ensuing legal disputes managed to strike this fine balance with perfect harmony. The documentary was directed by Oeke Hoogendijk and co-produced by Zeppers Film and NTR, with support from Cobo Fund, the Netherlands Film Fund and the Netherlands Film Production Incentive.
The documentary covers the tale of the extremely rare Scythian archaeological treasures, many of which made of gold, that had been borrowed from regional museums in Crimea to participate in a temporary exhibition in the Allard Pierson Museum of Antiquities in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. This mere fact would not have been worthy of such an international controversy had it not been for the political and military events that ensued, and which drastically altered the fate of these treasures. For those readers less familiar with the case, we’ve previously covered this dispute here and here and in our Art Antiquity & Law academic journal, here.
The main political and military events we refer to are, of course, the annexation/occupation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014. It is not only the lives of local people who continue to be affected by the presence of the Russian government in Crimean soil but also the very fate of these objects as well. This is because, when faced with the news of the invasion, at the time the exhibition came to an end, the Dutch museum found itself unable to simply return the artefacts to the Crimean museums. The Ukrainian government at that point stepped in and a bitter dispute over the title of these artefacts ensued between the regional museums in Crimea and the Ukrainian state.
The documentary is extremely well-researched and juxtaposes the dissenting views with great care to remain unbiased, even though all parties involved in the dispute clearly feel very strongly about the subject and, more importantly, the artefacts involved. It is not rare for the interviewees to compare the contested objects to beloved children caught in the cross-fire of a nasty divorce and it is not hard to understand why they feel so strongly about the topic, given the fundamental role that cultural artefacts play in a people’s sense of community and identity.
It is also very sad to see the destructive effect of military events on what used to be close personal friendships and professional relationships. Even if some kind of peace could be reached in the geopolitical sphere, it is clear that the relationships would take a lifetime of mending. The Crimean archaeologists and museum staff accused the Ukrainian government of theft, alleging the objects had always belonged to Crimea and not to Ukraine, having been dug up from Crimean soil. On the other hand, the Ukrainian officials feel extremely betrayed by what they perceive to be open collaboration of the Crimean institutions with the Russian aggressor.
‘Between a rock and a hard place’ probably does not even begin to cover the position the Dutch museum suddenly found itself in. It is probably every curator’s worst nightmare that military events should come in the middle of carefully organised exhibitions, and yet this is precisely what happened in this case. As such, an impossible choice arose: should the museum return the objects to the institutions it had borrowed from, and honour the trust and good faith that are the pillars of collaborative work in the art world, as well as the contractual agreements that were put in place? Or should it remain custodian of these objects and keep them in safe storage until a court of law could determine the issue of title? The latter, more conservative, approach was the one chosen by the museum, even though it came under fire from both sides for doing so.
It is not often that documentaries are able to relay the legal intricacies of a dispute to a lay audience, but this was brilliantly achieved in this case. The Director takes us from the very start of the journey of these objects in our time, literally being dug from the sites in Crimea, to their participation into the exhibition and all the legal proceedings that ensued, up until the latest ruling by the Court of Appeal. Whilst the case may not yet be fully closed, as parties can still choose to appeal to the Dutch Supreme Court, the documentary covers every stage of the lawsuit so far, including the challenging technical issue of having a Court of Appeal judge being recused from the case, something which is quite rare. It is equally rare that a documentary should manage to regale its viewers with so much raw footage from inside the courtrooms. In this case, such privileged access granted an unparalleled degree of realism to the viewers and brought the very technical legal elements of the dispute to life, even for a lay audience.
More important than the legal grounds, in this type of dispute, are perhaps, the very human, emotional and highly personal links of all parties involved to the contested objects and the outcome of the lawsuit, which the documentary captured with mastery. It will be screening at Bertha DocHouse in London from this Friday 14 October. Definitely one not to be missed!
Image credit: Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam, via Wikimedia Commons.