Friday, October 12, 2007

Coming Soon: Darfur Now

Which describes your feelings about the genocide in Darfur? A: It is a vast human tragedy perpetrated by an intolerant Islamist regime. B: It is a very sad thing that deeply touched celebrities like Don Cheadle and George Clooney. If you answered A, you will be profoundly disappointed in Darfur Now. If you answered B, this is the film for you.

Darfur Now opens November 2nd, and a full review will be posted then. Despite its unquestioned good intentions, DN is undone by its poor historical context and questionable celebrity worship. Written and directed by Theodore Braun, DN provides precious little context into why the genocide is happening. While the filmmakers do explain Sudan is ruled by the National Islamic Front, they do not mention NIF’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, the international jihadist organization. The NIF established Sharia law and embarked on an ethnic cleansing campaign against Christians and animists in the south, but DN does not think these facts are relevant, glossing over the 1990’s as a period of “civil war.”

Darfur Now’s reason for being is to raise consciousness of genocide in Darfur, yet ignores past genocide itself. The trailer makes this clear, explicitly dating the beginning of the genocide at 2003. Conservatives have criticized Hollywood activists for turning a blind eye to Sudan’s genocidal campaign against Christians, only belatedly stirring to action when the Wahhabist government began its mass murder of the moderate Sunni Muslims of the south. Unfortunately, DN will further support that argument.

While DN’s grasp of history might be lacking, its coverage of celebrity activism is slavishly comprehensive. DN follows six main characters, identified for their efforts to bring positive changes to Darfur. Naturally, co-producer Don Cheadle is one on them. We get to see riveting scenes of Cheadle writing speeches for rallies. More embarrassing, are the home movies shot by Cheadle of his amateur diplomatic trips to China and Egypt with George Clooney on behalf of Darfur. This is basically Entertainment Tonight level stuff.

Of the six primary characters, only two are native to Darfur, but viewers see them the least. Probably the most screen time is given to Adam Sterling, a college student spearheading a campaign for California’s divestiture from Sudan. His budding idealism is admirable, but not great cinema.

Perhaps the most compelling character is Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor assigned to crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. After a year and a half investigation, he brought provisional indictments against a high-ranking Sudanese official and a leader of the Islamic Janjaweed militia. In a telling scene, one of Ocampo’s lieutenants asks if Sudan will actually turn over anyone they indict. Another answers with words to the effect of: “of course, eventually they will have to.” Here’s a spoiler: six months after the indictments, it has not happened yet. In fact, one, Ahmad Muhammad Harun, is currently the government official in charge of Darfur refugee camps.

The timing for this film will be interesting. It will be released a week after Jonathan Demme’s hero-worshipping Jimmy Carter Man from Plains documentary hits screens. Of course, Carter recently announced to the world that what is happening in Darfur does not qualify as genocide, just really bad luck. At least, DN’s intentions are noble. Despite the film’s blind spots and weaknesses, it deserves some credit for raising awareness of the very real ongoing tragedy in Darfur. One just wishes this film had been made years earlier, and done better.