Sand and Sorrow

“There is a discourse on human rights,” says Dr. Gérard Prunier, “and then there is the reality. The discourse on human rights does not apply to a lot of places that do not matter to the great powers of rich countries.” An historian and author of The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide, Prunier provides broad and deep context for Paul Freedman’s Sand and Sorrow, a passionate, forceful investigation of the genocide in Darfur.

At this point, the crisis — which has been raging full-on since 2003 — has become almost familiar in U.S. media, something of a mini-industry. Documentaries and TV reports have made clear the history and effects of the Sudanese government’s efforts to kill and terrorize its own non-Arab population. The list of reports is long, including recent theatrical releases The Devil Came on Horseback and Darfur Now, as well as Darfur Diaries, Journey to Darfur (made by Nick Clooney and his son George), Frontline’s On Our Watch, which aired on 20 November 2007, and MTV’s Translating Genocide (2006), and online offerings like and the YouTube short, Darfur Genocide. Mia Farrow, Don Cheadle, and George Clooney, among others, have brought the case before a worldwide audience, insisting that world leaders attend to the ongoing genocide.

Yet, it does go on.

The outrage of that going on — that the genocide has been named, the numbers are known, and witnesses have testified — makes Sand and Sorrow matter. Its essential information may be familiar to viewers who have kept up with work by Samantha Power, John Prendergast, and Nicholas Kristof, or seen images from the traveling exhibit, Darfur Drawn: The Conflict in Darfur Through Children’s Eyes, curated by Human Rights Watch researcher Olivier Bercault. But its point remains — tragically, dreadfully — urgent.

What makes Sand and Sorrow compelling is its mix of speakers. It features some usual suspects: Power and Prendergast recount their efforts to raise awareness through the Save Darfur coalition, and Clooney narrates: “Imagine the gods of history looking down on us all after our abysmal failures in protecting millions of innocent human lives from their own governments,” he says. “And imagine them saying to us, ‘We’ll give you another chance, but this time, just to be sure you get it right, we’ll do it in slow motion and we’ll call it Darfur.'” Elie Wiesel provides a sort of gravitas (“From knowledge to action, there’s an abyss”) and Prunier, author of Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, attests to the nature of genocide as a gruesome politics.

Again, you see dead horrific photos of bodies and ravaged villages, and hear the history of Darfur. The film repeats the opposition of the government and the SLA (Sudan Liberation Movement), the incessant manipulations of language (government spokesman Abdulrahman al-Zuma says, “There is a war. I do not think there was genocide. This was just a kind of propaganda well played by the movements”), and the continuous political posturing of the “great powers of rich countries.” Again, the intertwined fates of Khartoum and China provide insidious background for the non-intervention by Europe and the U.S. As Power observes, even as hope was briefly raised by the U.S. administration’s use of the word “genocide” to describe Darfur, in fact, the word only generated a commission on the use of the word. It was, she says, “a masterful case of a government appearing to be doing something by characterizing the violence in a certain way, while not actually developing policy tools commensurate with that characterization.”

All of this revisiting of events and timelines is surely helpful. Apparently, the information has yet to make dents in policy and funding decisions, and such dents will only be made when U.S. constituents pressure their representatives to wield their hammers. Kristof points out that the current lack of action has everything to do with historical lack of reporting — in print and especially on TV. The network coverage of Darfur constitutes seven or eight minutes, compared to hundreds spent on Martha Stewart or now, Britney Spears. Despite proclamations of “never again,” he writes in a New York Times editorial, “The government of Sudan is engaging in genocide against three large African tribes in its Darfur region here. Some 1,000 people are being killed a week, tribeswomen are being systematically raped, 700,000 people have been driven from their homes, and Sudan’s Army is even bombing the survivors. And the world yawns.”

While these testimonies are vigorous, the film also offers a couple of other scenarios. One takes place in Darfur, where victims testify as to the details of the attacks and identities of their assailants (the Janjaweed, representatives of the government), and with workers whose frustrations and fears persist. Sabina Blay, a member of the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS), walks each day into IDP camps (for internally displaced persons) without arms, but with sympathy and ingenuity. She finds ways to help rape victims who cannot admit they’ve been raped, to attend to injuries, to console children (“I saw the sadness in them,” she says, “They needed a little comfort, they needed care and attention, because the parents that are supposed to give it, they themselves need it”). Because her job is essentially impossible — she and other members of the monitoring 1200 monitoring troops have no mandate, precious little equipment, and no recourse — you might wonder how it is that she does it.

The context for Blay’s daily sorrow is made clear again and again in Sand and Sorrow, including its reconstruction of a May 2006 U.N. brokering of a peace agreement between the government and SLA leader Minni Minawe as a kind of breathless drama (by way of intensifying cuts and music soundtrack). But even as this effort fails (just what it was and how it failed are not specified here), the film looks forward, again, to other work, other opportunities.

One instance — symbolic and emotional — involves U.S. high school students (at Batavia High School in Illinois) who organize their peers to protest U.S. inaction. Working with three survivors of the Rwandan genocide, two sisters, Hannah and Riley McDonald, organize rallies and candlelight vigils. The earnest white faces in Illinois, shimmering over their candles, briefly represent, the narration suggests, “the beating heart of a good America.” Young, hopeful, outraged, they mean well. As they embody Bercault’s assertion that “What happens Darfur is also urgent and directly affects us,” they have not yet hit that wall of history, and yet believe they might convince the “gods looking down on us” that failure is not inevitable. Still, Eric Reeves says sadly, “If the 20th century and the early 20th century have taught us anything, it is that there will be a next time. And all that moves me at times to write and speak is the dim hope that, if history records with appropriate savagery our failure this time, the failure next time will be somewhat lessened.” His may seem a harsh assessment, but it actually sounds hopeful, in the face of the graves that fill the screen at film’s end.

RATING 8 / 10