The Broken Promise, a Marin filmmaker’s new documentary, examines current and past genocides, providing a chilling reminder that history will keep repeating itself until we learn from our mistakes.
Gayle Donsky, a retired social worker from Mill Valley, is the force behind The Broken Promise.
Distraught about the dangers posed by autocratic governments around the world, Donsky, the film’s executive producer and cowriter, set out to produce a documentary that fosters an understanding of why and how genocides continue to occur. She succeeded.
“Since the Holocaust, there has been an unprecedented movement against genocide,” Donsky said in an interview. “I wanted to know why it didn’t work.”
The film’s name refers to our failure to protect people from massacres, disregarding “Never again,” the vow made after Nazi Germany’s attempt to annihilate the European Jewish population.
This isn’t Donsky’s first foray into the subject of genocide. In 2018, she produced Faces of Genocide, an award-winning short-form documentary that told the stories of genocide through the eyes of survivors. Kurt Norton directed both of Donsky’s films.
The Broken Promise, a full-length film, builds upon Faces of Genocide. The new documentary has three chapters: The Pattern, Ripple Effects and Arc of Justice. Survivors, their children, politicians, scholars, activists and archival footage paint a picture of a genocide’s roots, its enduring impact through generations and the steps individuals and governments can take to prevent recurring human rights violations.
“This film is much more comprehensive,” Donsky said. “It sheds more light on genocide and how crimes against humanity happen. We’re at a really dangerous time in our country and in our world—on the road to autocracy.”
One of the many narrators of The Broken Promise is a Marin native, Alexa Koenig. As the executive director of the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law, Koenig conducts investigations into war crimes, including international crimes such as genocide and crimes against humanity.
“For most people, when we talk about genocide, socially, what we’re talking about is killings of large numbers of people,” Koenig told the Pacific Sun. “But from a legal perspective, the technical definition is the intent to destroy, either in whole or in part, a group of people because of their religion, their race, their ethnicity or their nationality.”
While The Broken Promise looks at past genocides and crimes against humanity, including the slavery of African-Americans in the United States and the Armenian genocide, it also delves into Russia’s current war against Ukraine and China’s oppression of the Uyghurs, Turkic Muslim people living in Xinjiang.
The Uyghurs, an ethnic and cultural group of East Turkistan in Central Asia, have a 4,000-year history. The area was conquered by the Chinese in 1949 and renamed the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. For the past five years, the Chinese government has systematically placed an estimated one million Uyghurs into concentration camps. Forced labor, torture and sexual violence are but a few of the crimes committed against the Uyghurs,
It is likely the largest genocide since the Holocaust, although many Americans are unfamiliar with the Uyghurs and their plight. The Broken Promise aims to change that by interviewing two Uyghur people, a survivor who relates her harrowing experiences, including the death of one of her triplets, and an attorney and activist who shares his insights into the genocide.
Nury Turkel, a Uyghur-American attorney who is the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and a cofounder of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, has been working diligently to bring awareness to the atrocities being carried out by the Chinese government.
Before explaining how politics and economics are intertwined in the genocide, Turkel recalls from his childhood that Uyghurs were “the others.” They want political freedom, causing a problem for the Chinese government. Rather than grant them sovereignty, China is forcing them to assimilate or sending them to concentration camps.
From sneakers to solar panels, many products imported by the United States from China are made by the Uyghurs. A whopping 80% of the cotton products made in China are sourced from the Uyghur region. Several global brands have been “implicated” in buying goods produced by Uyghurs, including Hugo Boss, Volkswagen, Nike and Coca Cola, says Turkel. Some companies are actually lobbying U.S. politicians to allow the continued importation of these products, which is currently banned by the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act signed into law by President Joe Biden last December.
U.S. Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts picks up the narrative about China. In 2021, the Congressional Commission on China held a hearing on the corporate sponsorships of the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. None of the U.S. based company leaders would acknowledge concern over the Uyghurs’ forced labor.
There are steps that a government takes prior to genocide, according to Koenig. She likens it to the metaphor of boiling a frog, turning the temperature up a little at a time so the frog doesn’t realize it’s in boiling water until it’s too late.
“Genocide is often led by a very charismatic leader who activates people’s fears about their own personal futures and says there’s a solution to making the world better for those that rally behind his or her cause,” Koenig said. “By creating a stigmatized group, you identify the inside people and the outside people.”
Holding those who commit atrocities accountable is important, says Koenig. Yet prosecuting perpetrators of genocide is difficult because there must be proof of intent. Instead, they’re often charged with crimes against humanity of persecution or extermination by showing that large numbers of people are being targeted and killed.
Donsky ends the film on a positive note, with the participants suggesting ways ordinary people can encourage change. Personally, Donsky tries to be hopeful.
“Humans are capable of doing really bad things, but they’re also capable of getting together and preventing these things from happening,” Donsky said.
‘The Broken Promise’ premieres on Sunday, Nov. 6 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. A reception begins at 4pm and the screening is at 5pm, followed by a panel discussion. Tickets are free and can be ordered online at www.rafaelfilm.cafilm.org/broken-promise.