Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: ‘The Treasures of Crimea’

Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: ‘The Treasures of Crimea’

[Keri van Douwen is a PhD Candidate in Public International Law at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam.]


In February 2014, the exhibition The Crimea – Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea opened at the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam. Not long after, the Russian Federation illegally annexed the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. The events prompted archeologist and curator Valentina Mordvinseva to request the Allard Pierson Museum to return the exhibits to the participating Crimean museums as soon as possible. The director of the museum, Wim Hupperetz, speaks of ‘an insane, unique situation.’ As a result of the annexation, he no longer knows who the rightful owner of the exhibits is, nor to whom he should return them. Ukraine? Or Crimea? 

Synopsis and Reception 

The documentary film The Treasures of Crimea by Oeke Hogendijk centers around an art collection that has become ‘stateless’ and is withering away in a dark cellar in an Amsterdam museum. As both the government of Ukraine and the participating Crimean museums consider the collection as theirs, the art pieces become a toy in a geopolitical game, with this round being played at the Dutch courts. The Treasures of Crimea captures part of this nearly ten-year long battle happening far away from the battleground that Ukraine has become. The documentary was released in November 2021, before the Dutch Supreme Court had reached a final verdict and before Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. At that time, the documentary was received as offering a unique perspective on the annexation of Crimea. 

In what follows, I show how The Treasures of Crimea presents the annexation, as well as international law, to its public. I do so by highlighting three storylines present in the documentary. First is the personal feud between Valentina Mordvinseva (curator of the exhibition) and Lyudmila Strokova (director of the Historic Museum of Kiev) that takes center stage. Second is the role of museums and their directors. Museums are here presented as peaceful, soft, cooperative – in other words, ill-fitted in the nasty world of geopolitics. If you ask the lawyers of Ukraine, however, they will tell you that the museums are not as innocent as they pretend to be. This brings me to the third and last storyline that I will discuss: that of lawyers as good/bad ‘guys.’ Before turning to these three perspectives, I first discuss documentary film as a product of popular culture and the important role of structure in helping ‘determine the way the sociohistorical world is transposed to the screen’ (Spence and Navarro, 2011, p. 113). 

Documentary Film as Pop Culture 

As noted by Van Munster and Sylvest, documentaries are powerful instruments in comparison to other products of popular culture (p. 4). They argue that this results from documentaries’ claim to authenticity, truth or reality which translates into expectations of trustworthiness. It is in providing a particular way of seeing that is often taken to be true, real or authentic that documentaries are able to mediate particular understandings or beliefs of an audience (p. 8). It is thus this ‘truth-value’ that differentiates documentary films from fiction films. At the same time, it seems abundantly clear that the former are no more ‘an innocent means of transmission’ than the latter (p. 7). For one because ‘the aim of presenting the actual always (and necessarily) involves a production of that self-same actual’ (p. 8). This process consists of a myriad of decisions that ultimately organize and shape knowledge. Documentaries, as much as fiction films, rely on a structuring device in order to get its message across. 

One example of such a structuring device often used in documentaries, Spence and Navarro argue, are comparisons and contrasts, noting that ‘contrast creates a conscious and deliberate incongruity and, in doing so, begs us to compare’ (p. 119). Whether pre-existing or artificial, narrating a story through contrasts sharpens distinctions. Film components such as editing and sound design further contribute to the effectiveness of the structure. As a result, documentaries are able to persuade spectators of a particular point of view while maintaining its claim to authenticity. In the following paragraphs, I illustrate how The Treasures of Crimea makes use of contrasts to present ‘the reality’ of the annexation of Crimea and international law. 

A Personal Feud 

Much of the documentary centers around a personal feud between the Crimean museum directors and Strokova, the Ukrainian national museum director. It is clear that the women have known each other for much longer, and blame one another personally for what has happened- that is, the Russian annexation, not the situation with the art pieces per se. The interviews with the women are edited in a way that they seem to respond to one another, and while we hear them talk we see meaningful glances being cast in the courtroom. When Valentina, the initiator of the exhibition, is asked how she heard about ‘it’, she responds: ‘Then I need to tell you about Strokova. I will say bad things about her. Is that allowed?’ Before Valentina can tell her story, we cut to Strokova who informs us that she does not think that the organizers of the exhibition did anything criminal, ‘other than betray Ukraine.’ 

Apart from depicting the conflict as a personal feud rather than the result of a geopolitical conflict, the documentary creates a contrast between Valentina – who is filmed in her home, speaking to her mother, feeding her cat, singing to her lawyer, and excavating treasures – and Strokova – who is only interviewed about the conflict and seen in the courtroom. Valentina is personally affected and feels responsible. She compares the treasures to a child being forcibly adopted; after hearing the judgment of the Amsterdam Court, she declares: ‘I’m dying’ (which, watching the documentary again after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, hits differently). As a result of this, Valentina’s humanity is placed front and center, and it is to her that the audience can relate. In contrast, Strokova – and note that I am here following the documentary in referring to both women differently, i.e. by using their first name and last name respectively – is presented as a mere agent of the state of Ukraine, unable to gain our sympathy.  

Museums in a Geopolitical World 

Following from the above, it is no surprise to hear Valentina’s lawyer declare in court that this case is ultimately about people: people that have become the victim of a geopolitical struggle. From the other side of the room, the delegation of Ukraine argues that the conflict is neither about people nor between Russia and Ukraine. Instead, the museums – both the Crimean and the Allard Pierson – are presented as responsible for what is happening. The Allard Pierson is responsible because it tried to stay neutral. The Crimean museums are because they did not try to stay neutral but ‘actively contributed to the russification of Crimea.’ 

As I watch the director of the Allard Pierson museum take in, and struggle with, the words accusing him of ‘relying on so-called neutrality out of fear (‘angsthazerij’)’ and having created the conflict by thinking he had the right not to return the ‘Ukrainian national art treasures,’ I am reminded of the words he spoke earlier about the mutual trust between museums. He describes the museumworld as eager to work together, sharing and exchanging collections. 

The documentary plays with the contrast between the world of museums (or art more generally) and that of (international) law and geopolitics. Not only is the world of art characterized as peaceful, soft and cooperative – quite the opposite of the world of law and politics – the documentary makes use of color to underline this contrast. All scenes that are filmed in the courts have a blue tone, adding to their cold, unwelcoming or even hostile atmosphere. In contrast, the few scenes set at the peninsula show Crimea in warm, golden sunlight. These editing decisions subtly hint to the audience that law complicates what may otherwise be peaceful. We are reminded in less subtle ways too, as an older Crimean shepherd tells us that he does not understand nationalities, needs no flag or homeland. ‘I wake up, I see the sun, I wish the sun a good morning, and I am happy.’ 

Good Lawyers and Bad Lawyers

The way the documentary contrasts between art and law/politics may imply a similar contrast is made between artists and lawyers. However, this is not the narrative that the documentary goes with. Not all lawyers are bad, just some. 

Sanders and Van den Bergh, who present Ukraine, are always filmed either in their office or in the courtroom. We see them mostly alone, sitting behind desks, doing lawyerly things while looking out over the Amsterdam canals. They only speak of Ukraine as ‘the client,’ and we never see them meeting with Strokova, for example. The longer the case drags on, and after some setbacks, more people seem to be added to the case, their meetings taking place in ever bigger and more impressive rooms. Sanders is filmed, half laughing, as he talks about the ‘selective tears’ of the Crimean museums, he calls a judge a ‘liar’ who he wants to get rid of while the camera zooms in on two rolls of toilet paper with Putin’s face on it, lying on a desk. These lawyers are cold, standoffish, arrogant. They know they will win. 

In contrast, the lawyer representing the Crimean museums – Van Leeuwen – is introduced to the audience as he is flying to Crimea while holding the book on the exhibition. This lawyer is warm, attentive, a traveler who cares about local cultures and its peoples. He meets several times with the Crimean museum directors in Crimea, intently listens to them, makes them feel seen and heard. He visits Valentina in her home, tells her that they are in this together. Although Van Leeuwen is passionate about telling the story of these Crimean women to the Dutch court, he warns them of the public opinion that is very much against them. ‘Crimea is identified with Russia, Russia is bad, and Ukraine is good. Russia shoots planes out of the sky.’


In April 2022, the Václav Havel Jury presented The Treasures of Crimea with its ‘Special Award,’ arguing that the documentary ‘shows that the real treasure that was taken away was the importance of human relations.’ Thinking back to the night that the documentary premiered, I remember Valentina climbing on stage to receive flowers, and being given a standing ovation. I also remember wondering whether Sanders and Van den Bergh were not ashamed to receive flowers in front of an audience that had just seen them depicted as the bad guys in a story about injustice. In other words, I agree that the documentary is successful in creating a narrative of legal battles as decentering human relations, and in turn, of accentuating its importance. In leaving its audience with this message, we are left to imagine differently. 

Yet, documentaries themselves are clearly ‘a blend of detailed observation and imaginative reach’ (Spence and Navarro, 2011, p. 114). As I have illustrated above, the structuring device of contrasts is hard at work in The Treasures of Crimea, turning it into a compelling story that tugs at our heartstrings. Knowing this, and in light of the disclaimer with which the film now opens (‘this film was concluded before Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022’), we may question to what extent it is the law that decenters humanity, and to what extent The Treasures of Crimea centers the humanity of some, and not of others, and whether a mere three months later, the documentary itself would have imagined differently.

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