Friday, November 02, 2007

Darfur Now Opens

When a film is made on an important topic in need of greater attention, but fails in its execution, it is particularly disappointing. Such is the case with Theodore Braun’s documentary Darfur Now opening in New York today.

As detailed in a previous post DN actually whitewashes the genocide of Christians and Animists in the 1990’s, basically giving the regime a free pass for crimes committed during “a period of civil war.” The Islamist nature of the Sudanese government is also glossed over and its history of sheltering Bin Laden and Al Qaeda is evidently not considered relevant. What we see all too much of is Hollywood celebrity worship run amok, which really undercuts the film’s integrity.

DN follows six individuals identified for doing something to “make a difference” in Darfur. Only two are actually Sudanese. Ahmed Mohammed Akakar is a former pillar of his Darfur village, now trying to hold his community together in a refuge camp. Hejewa Adam is a grieving mother who joined the rebels in response to the murder of her son. Their stories are clearly compelling, but are the least developed in the film.

Conversely, the face shown most often is that of student-activist Adam Sterling, spearheading a campaign to divest California’s pension funds from companies doing business with Sudan. It is a good cause, which frankly ought to be expanded to all countries which sponsor terrorism. However, the often over-wrought Sterling’s dramatics border on embarrassing. It is interesting to see him get a political education though. When meeting with the legislative director of the California NAACP, Sterling finds himself grilled as to whether his palm cards were printed in a union shop, revealing the true priorities of his supposed ally.

Another subject seen too frequently is co-producer Don Cheadle. DN seems to have a new age philosophy of empowerment through activism, and Cheadle is its chief proponent. We see him at book signings earnestly urging people to “get involved.” At times it seems DN views Darfur as important not as a human tragedy, but primarily as a venue for activism, which leaves one increasingly uncomfortable. As for scenes of Cheadle writing speeches for rallies, they would be better left to Hollywood gossip shows, rather than a serious documentary.

Perhaps the most interesting characters are those involved with multi-national organizations. Pablo Recalde runs convoys of food into Darfur for the World Food Program, the importance of which is unquestionable. Also note-worthy is the work of Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor for crimes in Darfur. It is fascinating to see him build a case for genocide, and his idealistic belief in justice is laudable, but ultimately he is undone by the nature of the ICC. Despite handing down two provisional indictments after a year and a half of investigating, Ocampo has yet to see any of the perpetrators in the ICC’s docket.

Though well intentioned, ultimately DN is distracted from the real story in Darfur by its New Age empowerment philosophy. We hear too many extortions to the effect of: “don’t ask what you can do, tell us what you can do.” To its credit, it is non-partisan. In fact, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) comes across best of all politicians who appear in the film. He is well informed and genuinely seems to care about Darfur when seen meeting with Cheadle. The music is also effective, with Graeme Revell’s score employing musicians from Darfur, as does the nice recasting of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today” from Songs in the Key of Life, as a duet for Wonder and Bono.

Unfortunately, DN does little to substantially increase the general understanding of events in Darfur with what it presents on film, shying away from graphic examinations of the nature of the atrocities in Darfur. DN just gives too little attention to the full historical and political context of the genocide, and too much screen time to Hollywood activists, like Cheadle and George Clooney, who are a world away from the events in Darfur.