About once a week a feature appears in the New York Times documenting the most recent breakdown in progress toward a lasting peace settlement in the huge Darfur region of Sudan: a massacre of civilians in the southern Darfur city of Muhagiriya by Sudanese government forces and their paramilitary frontmen, the dreaded janjaweed nomads (October 17); and nonparticipation by several of the splintered rebel group leaders in the current talks between UN, African Union, Sudanese government, and Darfur rebel officials in Sirte, Libya. The U.S. government has rightly labeled as genocide the situation in Darfur, in which 200,000 (mostly sedentary non-Arabs) have been killed and 2.5 million displaced by the Arab forces directed and financed from Khartoum. For this article, I interviewed director Ted Braun, an accomplished documentarian who teaches screenwriting at USC, as well as actor Don Cheadle, a Darfur activist since his star turn in the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda” who has chosen to use his celebrity to bring attention to the conflict. Warner Independent Pictures opens “Darfur Now” in limited release beginning Friday, November 2.
Braun selected focal points to lure the viewer into a subject that is complex, frustrating, and tragic. Braun’s goal: to depict those with hope, the do-ers: How else would you get anyone to pay $11 to see the film in a theater? In following his strategy in the film, and by elaborating in person last week upon his astute observations, he helps to deconstruct for us HAWAGE (foreigners) the enmity between the people of Darfur and the central government, and to explain the gray in between the black and white we read about.
Braun received permission to shoot in Sudan from the Sudanese government — unheard of — which, he says, wanted to have their point of view represented. So with a small crew (Cheadle handled camera), and under constant government surveillance, he spent four months in Sudan and shot footage in the Hague, China, Egypt, and the U.S., succeeding in his stated goal of creating “a sense of cinematic scale with a sense of human intimacy.” The film is nicely structured, moves, and looks great (even if some of the trailer-like text could be dispensed with).
Besides Cheadle, Braun builds his doc around the following people: Hejewa Adam, a village woman who became a rebel after her infant was killed; Ahmed Mohammed Abakar, who leads other displaced Darfurians in the Hamadea camp, population 47,000; Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the Argentinean war-crimes prosecutor for Darfur for the International Criminal Court in the Hague; Pablo Recalde, the Ecuadorian-born head of the UN’s World Food Program in West Darfur; and Adam Sterling, a young Californian who has successfully led the fight for the state of California to divest funds from Darfur. Unbelievably, Braun films a janjaweed leader provoking his flock to action, and, as he had planned, gets Sudanese government leaders to articulate their position on camera.
INDIEWIRE: After reading the Times piece on the killings in Muhagiriya, it appears the African Union peacekeeping forces don’t seem to be effective.
TED BRAUN: The conflict is morphing into a new phase. The violence is continuing. One of the sad facts is that we set out to make a film that might document the success of a group of people around the world trying to resolve this conflict. In the end, we thought if that didn’t happen, we might be able to play a role in elevating the public discourse and getting this issue on the country and the world’s moral agenda. Sadly, that’s where we are now.
iW: Are there two different phases of rebels, the initial ones that were part of the original fighting, and then people who became rebels after the genocide began?
TB: There are people who were clearly motivated to rebel based on political convictions and a sense of marginalization and frustration that date back for decades. Then there are people like Hejiwa Adam who, like many ordinary people, were going about her life and were largely unconcerned with political issues until tragedy befell her. As the crisis and its scope widened and now starts to engulf other tribes and nomadic communities, you are going to see more and more people driven to a point where they feel very little option.
iW: I didn’t know that part of the government/janjaweed strategy has been to decimate the villages that offer supplies to rebels who fight from the nearby hills.
TB: There is no question. The evidence that the court has collected is that the rationale behind much of the military action in Darfur was a counterinsurgency. The evidence points to the fact that the government was responsible for the death of a LOT of civilians in an effort to cut off supplies and the cover for the rebels.
iW: The ambassador talks about lack of resources, nomadic versus sedentary, Arab versus non-Arab as root causes of the conflict.
TB: I spoke to a number of people in Darfur during the months that I travelled, people on the government side as well as the rebel groups [and] people not directly involved in the conflict. They all pointed to many different factors: an environmental factor, the drought, for example. They pointed to a regional factor: Chad, Libya, the Central African Republic, that whole area of Western Sudan and Darfur is an area rife with regional instabilities in which different governments are playing and working off each other and trying to get involved in issues of power that stretch across borders.
There is also an issue of marginalization. The area of Darfur has been impoverished and neglected by the central Khartoum government for as long as Sudan has been an independent state, and even before that. If you move back and forth between Khartoum and Darfur, you are really hit by this. I got back to Khartoum after a month in Darfur, and Khartoum seemed like Paris. There is no asphalt in El Geneina, the capital of Western Darfur, no running water. Almost everything is run on generators. There is very little in the way of public education. Whether they are pastoralists or nomads, these people are currently marginalized by a country that is experiencing one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
iW: Are the nomads also marginalized?
They are. Absolutely. One of the things that I found while I was there and had desperately wanted to bring into the film, but was not able to, was that there are huge numbers of nomadic Arabs who have not been party to this conflict, but who are regarded wrongly by the West as being part of the janjaweed. Because of their nomadic lifestyle, and because of this general misunderstanding of the conflict by the West, receive virtually no international support or aid. They look with envy at the families who have been removed from their homes and live in the camps and receive free food, free education, and free health services. They feel outrage and frustration that the international community has been indifferent to their situation.
iW: Were the Darfurians disappointed that Moreno-Ocampo ended up handing out only two indictments?
Ahmad was, clearly. There was no more event more keenly anticipated the whole time I was in Sudan than the announcement by the ICC of who they were going to indict. Everyone, including all the tribal leaders, is really counting on the international community to come help them.
INDIEWIRE: Can you give me a sense of how your activism in Darfur developed from your playing in “Hotel Rwanda?”
DON CHEADLE: After we finished “Hotel Rwanda,” the film was screened at MGM. One of the people at the screening was Congressman Ed Royce from Orange County (California), a Republican. He has been trying to draw attention to what was happening in Darfur. He and his Democratic counterpart from New Jersey Donald Payne (on the Committee on International Relations’ Subcommittee on Africa) were trying to write legislation to try to sanction the government of Sudan, and to find methods to intervene.
Royce thought “Hotel Rwanda” was a good example, in broad strokes, of what was happening in Darfur. He invited me to go along to the area with several other members of Congress to see for myself what was happening. We went to a camp and talked to the African Union. We stayed around at the camp; ABC News was following us. You return to your nice car and house, your educated, well-fed family, and it throws things into a different perspective.
iW: You have said you could use your celebrity status to help out, like mentioning Darfur at the same time you talk about Brad Pitt.
DC: Good politicians answer the questions they want to answer. I think it dovetailed into that. People kind of expect that now when they talk to me, there’s always some questions buried in there somewhere, like, What’s happening with Darfur?
iW: Were you expecting more than two indictments?
DC: Yes, I was. But I know it has to start somewhere. I knew he wasn’t going to name (Sudanese President Omar) Al-Bashir. Because there is no military or police authority that can go in and extract those who are indicted. You have to fall back into the position of giving the UN support. And getting our country to press leaders in other nations to do more.
iW: Is the reason we don’t do anything because there aren’t natural resources that could be useful to us?
DC: If there was some boon to be gained, and that boon were oil, I think definitely.