‘The Cranes Call’ Director Laura Warner on Shadowing the Clooney Foundation and Uncovering Russian War Crimes in Tribeca Doc (2024)

To make war crimes doc “The Cranes Call,” which premiered at Tribeca on Sunday, director Laura Warner embedded withinvestigator Anya Neistat of the Clooney Foundation for Justice. While in Ukraine, Warner watched Neistat as she doggedly documented evidence of human rights abuses to bring Russian commanders and soldiers to trial in courts across Europe.

Neisat worked closely withSolomiia Stasiv, her young Ukrainian interpreter, who quickly became her invaluable sidekick as they traveled to all corners of Ukraine and spoke to survivors of violence, sifting through wreckage and piecing together clues from a still ongoing conflict.

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Warner and the doc’s executive producer SiobhanSinnerton spoke to Variety about the challenges of making this slow-burning thriller-like piece.

How did the project originate? What role did Hilary Clinton’s HiddenLight Productions play in germinating it, and what role did the Clooney Foundation play?

SiobhanSinnerton: Well Hidden Light has a whole range of output series and single docs, but a lot of my background personally is in conflict documentary, in one form or another, whether it’s Syria or Myanmar, or wherever it might be. And particularly with a focus on the impact on civilians on the ground. So when [the war in] Ukraine happened, it was natural that we were looking around to see what we could do. I knew that there were a lot of really good filmmakers covering the frontline conflict. But I was really wanting to tell a slightly different story; not in the thick of it. And I knew somebody at the Clooney Foundation for Justice from a previous previous project. We started talking about the work that they were doing there, and that’s when I was introduced to Anya, and I thought: “She’s a fantastic character! She’s so experienced; she’s been doing this for such a long time; she’s got such an incredible understanding and passion for it.” So I thought: “This is it. This is our way into Ukraine.”

Laura, how was it working with Anya?

Laura Warner: Well. Anya is a force of nature and she obviously had a mission. She knew exactly what she was going to do as soon as the full scale invasion happened in Ukraine. She was adamant that she was going to be on the ground and that she wanted to document the war crimes, because she knew that Russian forces were going to be committing war crimes, she’d investigated them in Chechnya and Georgia and Syria, and so she knew what she was doing. And all we really wanted to do was document her work.

Of course Anya is also Russian. Were there ever moments in which this proved to be some kind of an impediment with people on the ground in Ukraine?

Warner: Never. I think the overriding factor is that Anya is – and was – on the ground to do something that everybody instantly understood. She turns up, she explains what her mission is, which is ultimately to provide justice to those who had suffered at the hands of the Russian forces. And that’s all that really mattered to them. It’s like everybody knew what side Anya falls on.

There is this thriller element to this piece, which is given by the fact that it documents a war crime investigation. Was that a type of storytelling that you’d thought of before shooting?

Laura Warner: So we went in knowing that we weren’t going to be shooting a frontline film. That was clear. It may be a war movie, it’s set in a war zone, but it’s not a war movie. And then it became really clear that, actually, it was more of a crime thriller. We didn’t have to force anything. We just followed Anya’s work, and we made a few choices in the edit. We arrived at the beginning, we followed her work, the cases became really obvious. I think she had a pretty good idea of what crime she was going to be investigating, and we just followed the process. So from that perspective, it was quite simple.

In terms of shooting, you are credited as the cinematographer. Did you do all the camera work yourself?

Warner: Yeah, I did all the camera work, or at least most of it. There were a couple of scenes where I just couldn’t make it. I couldn’t make it to shoot with Amal because I was on my way to Ukraine and a couple of other scenes. But other than that, yes, I shot it all. My back really hurt a lot, but it was really important to me that we didn’t just go to war zone and shoot, and I’m not being disparaging of anybody that’s on the frontline. I’ve been there, it’s really hard work. But right from the offset, I wanted this film to have a completely different feel. I wanted it to have a completely different visual sort of grammar. I wanted it to be thoughtful and powerful and slow.

Is there a particular scene that stands out in terms of difficulty for you?

Warner: There is a scene when we entered this school and it’s like a little primary school. So you’ve got all of the kids’ toys. I’ve got little kids, and it’s like the mini sinks and the pianos and the school books and all of that is there. But then what you don’t get is you don’t get the smell of the fact that the soldiers have gone to the toilet everywhere. There’s alcohol bottles everywhere. There’s graffiti all over the walls, and it’s basically a torture chamber. And it’s really grotesque, but with this backdrop of it being a primary school, and… yeah, that was quite affecting.

Siobhan, the film got rare, if not unique, access to Amal Clooney doing human rights work, basically deciding with Anya which cases to bring to the German prosecutors. Was there ever an issue with getting that access?

Sinnerton: No, I mean, they were very open with us. They decided early on that they were going to let us film the whole process. So it was mainly Anya on the ground. And obviously Amal wasn’t on the ground in Ukraine at all, but where she intersected naturally with Anya’s work, then they were absolutely open to that.

Amal Clooney is one of the legal experts who recommended that the chief prosecutor of the International Court of Justice seek arrest warrantsfor Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas leaders. Do you think this doc can take on a broader significance beyond Ukraine?

Warner: Yeah, there’s a universality, I hate to say it, to victims around the world. This conflict in Ukraine has been going on for two years. It’s taken us two years to make this film, and it’s really great that we can keep it in the spotlight. But ultimately the spotlight should be on any region where there are alleged war crimes happening, and they do need to be investigated.

‘The Cranes Call’ Director Laura Warner on Shadowing the Clooney Foundation and Uncovering Russian War Crimes in Tribeca Doc (2024)


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