Reviews

Darfur Now

Ahmed Mohammed Abakar in Darfur Now

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.


Darfur Now

Director: Theodore Braun
Cast: Don Cheadle, Adam Sterling, Ahmed Mohammed Abakar, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Pablo Recalde, Hejewa Adam, George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Warner Independent Pictures
First date: 2007
US Release Date: 2007-11-02 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer
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."

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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