Directors Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern‘s “The Devil Came on Horseback” exposes the tragedy taking place in Darfur as seen through the eyes of an American witness and who has since returned to the US to take action to stop it. Using the exclusive photographs and first hand testimony of former U.S. Marine Captain Brian Steidle, the doc takes the viewer on an emotionally charged journey into the heart of Darfur, Sudan, where an Arab run government is systematically executing a plan to rid the province of its black African citizens. The Sundance ’07 premiere received a slew of festival wins at Full Frame, Nantucket, Seattle and Silverdocs. The film opens in limited release beginning Wednesday, July 25. Sundberg talks about making the film with indieWIRE.
What attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
When we did this interview just before Sundance 2006–for “The Trials of Darryl Hunt“–I think I answered that I was drawn to filmmaking because at the heart I like a good story, and hoped to become a good storyteller. I was also drawn to the layers of the medium–the shooting style, the pacing and the editing, the music–that create the story. That attraction remains just as strong as it was when I first thought about making films. I’m still learning.
Documentaries are incredible films to make because it’s such a dance between your expectations when you first approach a subject and how the life or truth of your subject bears out along with way. You can maintain your aesthetic style, but you can’t predict many elements, and that’s what keeps documentary filmmaking so alive and compelling to me. There can be a lot of improvisation in making a documentary.
Are there still other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
Ricki and I have a project coming up this fall that is documentary in approach–in that it’s based on true stories and extensive interviews with teenagers–but will be scripted due to the sensitive nature of the material. We share a concern that while the subjects may be willing to be filmed now, they may later wish to rescind their release due to what was revealed in camera, or the filmed result and public exposure could have negative impact years from now. The truth of these teenagers experience is what’s important and that’s what will fuel the script and the shooting style.
I want to move into narrative feature work, but with a story approach that is still driven by my work in documentaries. Kevin MacDonald and Michael Winterbottom‘s films and careers are exciting and inspiring to me, and I also deeply admire Mereilles style and immersion in the cultures he films. I’m currently researching a project in South Africa that would interweave several stories and would be a mix of verite shooting with scripted material.
Please share how the initial idea for “The Devil Came on Horseback” evolved.
Ricki first met Gretchen Wallace (sister of our film subject Brian Steidle) through a mutual business school connection. Gretchen had approached us for advice on doing film work with her projects in Africa. She also told us about what Brian was doing at that time–late 2004–and we were fascinated. We asked to meet him when he returned to the States in 2005, and we sat down for the first time in Washginton, D.C. in March 2005. It was just after Nicholas Kristof had broken Brian’s photos of Darfur in the New York Times, and we were stunned. We sat across the table and listened to Brian’s stories of his work in the African Union, and we saw some of his photographs, and it literally felt like this was the guy who’d smuggled out the diamonds. He had these unbelievable photographs, it was such compelling evidence of a horrible crisis that wasn’t being reported in the news and yet was going on, at that moment.
It was lousy timing for us to start in on a new film as we were literally in the process of editing “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” and we were still raising money to finish that film, but we went ahead anyway. We took the story and Brian’s photographs to HBO who helped us with our initial shoot in Chad, the summer of 2005. And after that point, it was a balance of finishing “Hunt” and continuing to move forward and film Brian’s evolving story, as he was struggling with what to do after he had in essence walked away from any hope of a continued military career. Brian’s story was still playing out, on a personal level, through 2005 and into 2006, as he started to take his photographs and his stories on the road, across the US. We filmed with Brian through the spring of 2006, and his speaking tour culminated with the rally on the Mall on May 1, 2006. It was incredible to watch Brian speak to the thousands who had gathered that day, as a lot of them were there because of him, because Darfur mattered so much he went across the ‘US’ to inspire people to get involved and they followed him, like the pied piper, to the mall. It was amazing.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences as well as your overall goals for the film.
We started editing last summer, with the hope and goal of making Sundance 2007. It was a totally intense schedule, and I began by sitting with Joey Grossfield, our amazing editor, to look at films that mutually inspired us, films that could play to our subject, and to the kinds of footage we had available. We watched some Godard, “City Of God,” “The Killing Fields,” and snips from a bunch of other films that had impressionistic visual styles. We were looking for a visual style for the Darfur section of the film, to indicate that this was an entirely surreal experience, one that was totally incomprehensible, horrible, chaotic, devastating.
At the time, we had Brian’s still photographs, his MP3 field audio recordings, our interview with him, and his readings of his emails home, and we were really fortunate to find gutsy journalists and filmmakers like Phil Cox who had been on the ground in Darfur shooting video around the same time Brian was with the African Union. We also shot a ton of interviews that never made it into the film, interviews with Brian’s parents, his sister, with John Prendergast, Elie Wiesel, a much longer interview with Luis Moreno Ocampo of the ICC, with another African Union monitor from the Netherlands who was the first team leader and set up the monitoring mission. In the end, we decided to stick with Brian, to keep it to his personal experience of Darfur, and what it means to bear witness, what it compels one to do with a life that moves forward when so many were destroyed.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?
One of the hardest things while making the film was getting material from Darfur that matched the time period while Brian was there. In 2003, Sudan shut Darfur down to all foreigners and journalists were kicked out. There were literally no images of what was going on, and people in Nuba and Khartoum had no idea what was happening within their own country. We worked with a lot of the NGOs and particularly with Human Rights Watch which was sending analysts with cameramen into Chad and Darfur, and they were incredibly generous in sharing their footage with us.
It was also incredibly challenging in that many of the shoots were coordinated remotely, in that there was only room in the field or in the truck for Brian and his sister Gretchen, camera, sound, a fixer / driver. There were a lot of bad and expensive satellite phone conversations, and a lot of email between us about how and what to film, especially when the crew was in the camps in Chad. We are so thankful to Jerry Risius and Ivo Hanak who literally carried that shoot.
From a story perspective, it was difficult to know just how much to show from Brian’s photographs, how to not overwhelm the audience and yet communicate the extent of the crisis, and in filming, it was a delicate balance in how to be sensitive and yet still get the Darfurian women to talk openly about rape, which remains one of the most pervasive and damaging methods used to destroy the women who managed to survive.
This project was a creative mix of charitable and investor financing. Thankfully there are many groups who are getting involved in raising awareness about Darfur, and we will continue to work with these groups in the year ahead. We have active partnerships with Save Darfur, the Genocide Intervention Network, STAND and we’re developing a strategy with the Olympic athletes to help put pressure on China to pull back on its economic and political protection of Sudan.
Distribution is it’s own story… we had an emotional Sundance (doesn’t everyone?) where we were courted and the conversations with various major distributors were so promising, that in the end it was very disappointing to hear everyone lose their courage. It seemed that people were scared to take this kind of film out, that “genocide” is a tough sell. But this is really a film about what it means to take on the impossible, it’s a political thriller about what is unfolding inside Sudan, about China and how they have built out that country’s oil systems… It’s a film about a young kid named Brian and how he was thrown into hell and made it back, and the choices he made once he got home. It’s a film about what it means to bear witness, and how it’s not easy to walk away once you’ve been touched by something like Darfur.
What we’re experiencing now regarding audience response has been really promising, and we have been amazed by the audiences that continue to sell out our festival screenings. We just did an academy qualifying run at the Laemmle Music Hall in June, and as it was a qualifying run, on the heels of Cannes, we had very limited press and no advertising presence. And yet we were the top grossing film at the theater that week. So, we’ll see what happens when we open at the IFC Center (in New York). Gulp.
We’re thrilled to be working with International Film Circuit for our theatrical release; they are great people and really good at what they do.
What are your interests outside of film?
I still want to write fiction, and I need to challenge myself to cultivate the discipline and the focus to really do something long form. It’s hard to do it when handling the day to day of running a production–and getting films ready for a theatrical release–well, the days gets away from you and it’s so easy to make excuses.
We are tremendously lucky in that both “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” and “The Devil Came on Horseback” are in theaters at the same time. It’s a little busier than normal too because we’re committed to the issues behind the films, and so we have a full time outreach plan with every city where we open the films. It can get a little exhausting, but it’s been really rewarding.
Things have changed a little in the past two years in that I am now working fulltime as a filmmaker, and that feels incredible. The full time day job has gone away, for now…but those part time gigs are still great to get.