Not Braun’s Best, Either?
“This is not the best we can do.” The quote comes from the book What Is The What, written by Dave Eggers. The main character in the book is Valentino Achak Deng, a Dinka from a province in Sudan just south of Darfur, who became one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan.” The despair of this statement was made real to me as I left the theater after viewing Darfur Now realizing that this documentary only echoes Eggers’ character both in content and presentation.
Director Ted Braun gives a clear reason for taking on the genocide occurring in Darfur—“get inside the crisis… humanize the conflict… transport audiences to places they [have] never been.” The potential is enormous, but Braun fails to deliver on several levels.
I suppose it could be argued that there must be a place to begin, and the area of Sudan called Darfur is undeniably experiencing a genocide that can legitimately be called appalling—especially by soft and cushioned Western minds wrested from concentrating on which latte with which to begin the day. (Don’t get nasty; I’m pointing at myself here, too!) However, focusing on Darfur completely negates the truth that the entire country of Sudan is embroiled in a multi-leveled and very complex civil war; and the genocide is not limited to the Furs. Darfur has now become the focal point just as the southwest’s Lost Boys were in the 1990s. The major difference is that the Furs are in refugee camps within their own country and the people of the southwest walked into Ethiopia (and eventually to Kenya) when killed and driven out first by their own countrymen and then by Ethiopians. I find it tragic when Hollywood gets worn out with a cause because there are no fast answers or quick results, and then just moves on to the next cause.
Braun chose to center on six individuals who are experiencing the conflict in Darfur in separate and unique ways. Adam Sterling was instrumental in getting California to pass a divestiture bill that requires all state retirement funds to drop any connections with company stocks or funds that support the Sudanese government in monetary trade. Ahmed Mohammed Abakar is a displaced Darfurian who leads Hamadea camp, attempting to protect, govern, care for, and listen to 47,000 refugees. Luis Moreno-Ocampo is the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Pablo Recalde, leader of the World Food Program team in West Darfur, lives away from his family, mobilizing huge convoys of food only to find them often hijacked and, incredibly, as often stolen by the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) as by the Arab-backed murderers and raiders—the Janjaweed militias and government forces. Hejewa Adam is the only female subject; she has joined the SLA rebels to defend the Fur people and her home. Finally, there is the American actor, Don Cheadle, who unapologetically admits that he and fellow actor George Clooney use their celebrity to pressure government officials and world leaders to act. It sounds and looks like a fine cast, but only Luis Moreno-Ocampo and Pablo Recalde show real passion for their chosen roles. The rest walk in and out of Braun’s action as if it were just another day. Sterling, Cheadle, Clooney, Hejewa, and Abakar are not compelling sellers. They look pretty and sincere framed in their shots, but are completely passionless in their dialogue.
Another problem with the documentary is that there is an almost constant sense of disconnection. Just when a conversation with one of the characters begins to develop some depth, Braun jumps back to the Netherlands or back to the World Food Program compound or Don Cheadle’s ostentatious Los Angeles home or a shot of bones and flesh desiccating in the sun of Sudan. I came away with a sense that Braun, the producers, the stars, even Adam Sterling and Governor Schwarzenegger feel that they have done their job. The problem is that they haven’t really heard Luis Moreno-Ocampo when he repeatedly states that it will take decades to bring Sudanese government officials to justice, if it ever does happen. Dreams are good and dreams can come true, but what happens when the wheels of change grind so slowly that everyone moves on to some new cause because the root causes of Sudanese civil war are too complex to keep people who have never suffered on such a scale interested? I wish that Braun had focused on one aspect, and that being what is happening to the people of Darfur. I am overwhelmed by the dreams of so many people and of such scope. I don’t understand what is happening in Sudan any better than before I saw Darfur Now.
Finally, Braun says that he had no intention of “demonizing the Government of Sudan without first attempting to understand them on a human level.” Unfortunately, the government has no presence in the film except for a few very short conversations with Sudan’s United Nations Ambassador who has his head so buried in the sand that his words are comically tragic. There is no attempt to explore the history of this conflict and help explain why things have come to be as they are. I am not driven to fly away to Sudan and see for myself as George Clooney and Don Cheadle would like everyone to do, but instead am going in search of more information and meaningful and practical ways of becoming part of an answer.
Hmmmm… maybe Braun got me in spite of himself.
Darfur Now is rated PG for “documented themes involving crimes against humanity.” This is not a documentary for children or even young teens. While I think that it is important for our youth to know that there are problems and horrors in this world that defy explanation, I do not believe that they need to have images of burned and mutilated corpses etched upon their retinas. If they show an interest and are mature enough to view a documentary with subtitles, make sure that you’re discussing what they are seeing.
Courtesy of a local publicist, Kathy attended a promotional screening of Darfur Now.