Instruments of Change
Sometimes you come up against something you just can’t understand. —Don Cheadle
Today, more than four years into the crisis in Darfur, you might think that some essential information would be familiar. As many as 200,000 people have been killed and another 2.5 million displaced, and still, nations stand by, reluctant to name the genocide or intervene. Though Mia Farrow and Steven Spielberg in April drew discomforting attention to China’s support of Sudan’s government, the killing and dislocation have continued.
And so it appears the facts must be restated. Just so, Darfur Now begins with stories that will be familiar for many viewers—assuming that these many viewers will know their history, have seen previous films on the subject (say, The Devil Came on Horseback), or have paid even scant attention to recent statements made by some of the stars who show up in this documentary, including Don Cheadle and George and Nick Clooney. A map of Sudan’s Darfur region gives way to some montage-style overviewing: in 1989, Omar al-Bashir came to power in an Islamist-backed coup, weapons “poured into Sudan,” the Janjaweed (a paramilitary force supported by Bashir’s government) initiated the decimation of the non-Arab population. Here a tense heartbeat on the soundtrack underscores the dread and desperation embodied by the Janjaweed, whose murderous campaigns have left behind thousands of orphans. The film’s display of sad and emaciated children makes an effective argument, but awareness is not the only issue. Though President Bush has issued a call for action (“The world needs to act. If President Bashir does not meet his obligations to the United States of America, we’ll act”), still, the U.S. has not interceded.
“This is not right,” says one victim. Darfur Now goes on to show how six individuals are responding. Occasionally awkward in its cutting among their diverse backstories and efforts, the documentary makes the case for multiple points of resistance. A resident of the Hamadea refugee camp, Ahmed Mohammed Abakar helps to organize aid for the other 47,000 camp inhabitants. His frustrations intermingled with a grim determination, Abakar leads Ted Braun’s camera crew through the diurnal difficulties of getting food to starving people.
At the same time, University of Southern California student Adam Sterling works relentlessly to draw attention to the crisis, handing out flyers and, most effectively, campaigning for California’s divestment from Sudan (Governor Schwarzenegger makes a brief, flourishy appearance as he signs the bill). Among Sterling’s co-campaigners is Cheadle, who, with John Prendergast has written a book, Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond. Cheadle acknowledges the usefulness of his celebrity (“While I’m talking about George Clooney and Brad Pitt,” he says, “I can also talk about Darfur”), and recalls his introduction to the crisis during the production of Hotel Rwanda (the documentary includes footage of one that film’s most harrowing scenes, as Cheadle’s character, based on the real-life Paul Rusesabagina, discovers massacred bodies on a road at night). Showing pictures drawn by children he met in camps, images of bloody mayhem, he says, “Maybe their journeys are somehow tied into my journey on this planet.”
Rebel fighter Hejewa Adam describes her own journey, initiated when her village was attacked and her three-moth-old son was beaten to death on her back as she tried to run from the invaders. She learned how to fight, she says, seeing no other recourse. Her drills with arms have become “normal” now, “like drinking water.” Still, she asserts that violence is not the solution: “People who go to school and get an education, they will solve the problem. Fighting with guns will not solve it.” Ecuador-born activist Pablo Recalde leaves behind to wife and children for long months at a time in order to direct his World Food Program team in West Darfur. “Power and despair,” he says. ‘“Put them together and you have what the Darfur crisis is about.”
Taking on the crisis from an entirely other direction is Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Having seen war criminals in his home country of Argentina prosecuted, he is dedicated to the legal process, sifting through evidence (photos, testimonies) in an effort to bring leaders of the genocide into a system of international justice and judgment. “I believe the truth will prevail,” he says, “And we unveil the truth.” The ICC (formed in 2003) has issued arrest warrants for Sudan’s minister of the interior, Ahmad Harun, as well as Janjaweed leader Ali Kushayb.
Moreno-Ocampo’s work is painstaking and prolonged, and he uses the film to make clear its moral as well as legal basis. Darfur Now supports his argument with repeated images of the hardships of displacement, and provides an opponent as well, in the person of Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, Sudanese ambassador to the United Nations. But, set against an array of emotionally affecting imagery, Mohamad’s dismissal of the charges of genocide (“Any war is catastrophic, but it is not a genocide”) and the ICC’s “credibility” is hardly convincing.
If its explanation of Sudan’s politics and history is rudimentary, Darfur Now maintains an effectively intense focus on the necessary work to save actual people in Darfur. In this, the film is an unabashedly activist project, encouraging viewers to act—in whatever small ways possible, by contributing time or money, becoming educated, communicating with U.S. representatives. In this, the film follows the models of other recent documentaries—about the war in Iraq, global warming, the aftermath of Katrina—that take up the slack created by news media focused on tabloidy subjects or politicians busy with elections. The documentary showcases small steps, its subjects’ work moment by moment to confront a crisis that appears overwhelming—to feed one child, shelter one rape victim. As Cheadle puts it, individuals—educated, committed, connected with one another—are the “instruments of change.”