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Film TIFF 2018: Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz on ‘inspiring’ documentary Prosecuting Evil and his fears for the future

Directed by the Montreal-born documentarian Barry Avrich, Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz elegantly tells the story of the last surviving prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials. Ninety-nine-year-old Ben Ferencz, who was also a key campaigner for the creation of the International Criminal Court in the Hague, spoke to The Globe and Mail from his modest winter home in Florida, where he lives with his wife of 73 years – “without a quarrel ever” – while swimming laps everyday and relentlessly advocating for “law, not war.”

Ben Ferencz was a key campaigner for the creation of the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

Robin Utrecht/Courtesy of TIFF

You’re the subject of Barry Avrich’s Holocaust trial documentary Prosecuting Evil. What did you think of it?

I think it was creative, accurate, far-sighted and inspiring.

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Do you see yourself as inspiring?

Absolutely. That’s the only value I have. I’m 99 years old. When I talk to young people, I get a standing ovation, and I get that standing ovation for the simple reason that they know I’m telling the truth.

Read more: The Globe’s guide to TIFF 2018 movies

What is the truth?

The truth is that they’re in great danger. We have the capacity to kill everybody on this planet. And if we don’t change our fundamental institutions and approaches to differences, we will do that. It doesn’t bother me – I’m 99 years old. But I am concerned for their welfare. They need to open their hearts and minds to a new system if there is to be any future for them at all.

You use the word "incomprehensible" in reference to the Holocaust. Is it possible that it is so incomprehensible to younger generations now that they doubt it could happen again?

Yes, I’m sure that is the case for some people. There are enough other concerns in their everyday living and their daily entertainment – baseball and dancing and so on – that they won’t dwell on something that happened ages ago in a faraway land to strange people. And there is an element of desired forgetfulness about all this. Anyone who has experienced it, of course, will never forget it and will be traumatized, as I have been.

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You mentioned baseball. Are you a fan?

Not at all. I saw Babe Ruth hit a home run three times in my life, and that’s the only three games I ever attended. Free tickets were given out to the kids at school, so I had to go watch the games. I thought it was rather dull. I didn’t do well at basketball either. But I was pretty good on the trapeze.

Can you talk about being picked to be chief prosecutor for one of the 12 trials at the Nuremberg tribunal?

I was 27 years old. It was my first case. I convicted 22 defendants of murdering in cold blood over a million people simply because they didn’t share the race or the ideology of their executioners.

There was something more than punishment to the trial for you. What were you after?

My goal was not vengeance or to seek justice in a sense of keeping everybody accountable or responsible. It was to create a new rule of law, which would protect everyone in the future. So that everyone would have a right to live in peace and with human dignity, regardless of race or creed. This is now the 70th anniversary coming up of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights document. That was the plea I made when I was 27 years old. And I haven’t stopped making it ever since.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.

Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz screens at TIFF Sept. 7, 3:30 p.m., Lightbox, and Sept. 13, 6:30 p.m., Scotiabank

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