Thoughtful, sobering, hopeful, despairing, inspirational, depressing, and just in time for the holidays comes Darfur Now, a documentary about genocide in the Sudan. Chances are you won’t have to get there early to stake out a seat. At an afternoon show this weekend, my wife and I were the only patrons in one of the large theaters at the DeVargas.
This is a curious bit of year-end marketing. As the malls fill with shoppers, Darfur Now will lurk gloomily among the cheerful holiday movie posters like a lump of coal in a Christmas stocking. And yet it is as timely a reminder of the real values of the holiday spirit as anything we are likely to encounter in this season of counting our blessings and remembering those less fortunate than ourselves.
Writer-director Ted Braun has put together a well-crafted film that follows six distinct storylines, each built around a champion committed to doing something about the genocidal atrocities being committed in the Sudan as we go about our Christmas shopping. The ethnic minorities in that African country’s Darfur region are being systematically burned out of their homes and their villages, raped, beaten and murdered. Their oppressors are the Janjaweed -- not a recreational smoke from the Caribbean that the name might suggest, but a vicious Arab militia whose name translates as “devils on horseback.” The Janjaweed have been unleashed on Darfur by the government of the Sudan. Under their merciless onslaught, more than 200,000 have been killed, and two and a half million more have been displaced, most winding up in refugee camps. The movie is more committed to telling us what has happened than why.
In Darfur, Hejewa Adam carries an automatic weapon. She has the sort of memories that most of us have been spared. “I remember my friends whose throats were slit before my eyes.” After she was beaten and her infant son was killed by the Janjaweed, she learned to fight. “It’s very natural,” she says simply. “It’s like drinking water.” She and her sister fighters are hopeful that help will come from “the white people” in America.
One of those people turns out to be Don Cheadle, the black movie star who became aware of the desperate situation in Darfur while in Africa shooting Hotel Rwanda. Cheadle, who co-produced Darfur Now, has used his celebrity and his celebrity connections to lobby governments that do business with the Sudan to bring pressure to bear on its government. He and his friend George Clooney headed a delegation that went to talk to leaders in China and Egypt, two of Sudan’s biggest trading partners. “We’re the highest level (American) delegation to go to Egypt to discuss the situation in Darfur,” Cheadle says angrily. “That shouldn’t be. That’s embarrassing.”
A young student activist at UCLA named Adam Sterling stands on the streets of Los Angeles handing out flyers, and trying to gather signatures on a petition to support legislation requiring California to divest itself of its pension fund investments in companies that do business with Sudan. People walking by avoid him, and pretend to be absorbed in cell phone calls or distracted by shop windows.
In a Darfur camp, a sheikh named Ahmed Mohammed Abakar rallies his fellow refugees, and holds council with other sheikhs. A relief worker named Pablo Recalde organizes deliveries of desperately needed staples through the World Food Programme, the UN’s food aid organization. It is hazardous work. Delivery convoys get shot up, and sometimes relief workers are killed. But he perseveres, out of a burning sense of commitment. “What’s the threshold?” he asks. “At what point are you going to stop making excuses not to act?”
And finally there is Luis Moreno-Ocampo, an Argentine lawyer who is the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at The Hague. He is painstakingly gathering evidence that will stand up in court to produce indictments for crimes against humanity of Ahmad Harun, Sudan’s minister of the interior, and Ali Kushayb, a leader of the Janjaweed militias. It seems an impossible task, but Ocampo has seen unexpected justice happen in Argentina, where once-powerful Junta figures were at last brought to the dock and tried for their crimes.
On the other side of the ball is Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, Sudan’s ambassador to the United Nations, an oily, slippery-looking character who spreads his hands and purrs “We are proud to be an Afro-Arab country based on tolerance, based on understanding.” All this talk of genocide is merely Western propaganda, he explains, to make political capital out of what is simply an internal problem of discipline and apportionment of resources.
Ocampo brings his indictments, but the Sudanese government refuses to recognize them. Sterling perseveres, and his bill is passed by the California legislature and signed into law with a dramatic flourish by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cheadle continues to fight to raise awareness, and has co-authored (with John Prendergast) a book, Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond. Recalde keeps on delivering food through dangerous country to starving people (we can help at www.friendsofwfp.org.) Hejewa Adam patrols with her assault rifle. And Darfur Now begs for its slice of attention from moviegoers at the end of a day of holiday shopping who are trying to decide between a documentary about genocide or The Golden Compass.
© Text 2007 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be
© Pictures Lynsey Addario 2007 AIW Documentary, LLC and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.