"Darfur Now," Theodore Braun's infectiously optimistic, if perfunctorily realized, documentary about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Sudan arrives in theaters at a crucial moment. While the civil war in that wartorn region rages unabated, demanding more international visibility, the wave that brought documentary film (and a host of media-silenced issues) to commercial prominence here in the U.S. seems to have crested. As of this writing, only a handful of 2007 documentaries have crossed the one-million- dollar theatrical gross mark generally deemed a minimum condition for reasonable success, and while more and more high profile docs are opening each weekend, the returns have grown increasingly meager. If a solid argument for the continued increase in documentary production is that the mainstream media isn't doing a good enough job of keeping the public informed about our world, recently audiences have responded by staying home.
Braun adopts the split narrative structure favored by recent fiction films like "Babel" and "Syriana" to follow six subjects: Ahmed Mohammed Abakar, an organizer at the Hamadea refugee camp; Adam Sterling, a young man pushing the California legislature to enact a bill mandating Sudanese divestment; Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court; Darfur World Food Program leader Pablo Recalde; Sudanese resistance fighter Hejewa Adam; and actor/activist Don Cheadle. It's a mix that makes an honest effort to capture the panoply of forces at play in alleviating the conflict's worst effects, but somehow, in all the cross-cutting and globetrotting, the Sudanese people themselves get lost. Braun's skewed his movie so heavily in favor of those actors (literal and figurative) working outside of the country's borders, that the film's not able to spend the necessary time debriefing audiences on the complexities of the conflict; we're easily able to grasp the need for outrage and action but might not leave with a concrete grasp on all the players, or the most relevant courses of action.
The latter is certainly part of the point--watching Adam Sterling, a formerly disengaged college student, blossom into an activist with a major legislative victory under his belt suggests that ever-ephemeral possibility of a group of committed individuals changing the world. This locus of interest also allows for some nicely unforced moments in which the veil on celebrity activism is lifted to reveal glimpses of a fascinating mundanity that mirrors Sterling's homegrown efforts: Cheadle ironing a shirt in a small hotel room before a meeting, George Clooney at the same ironing board later, practicing a speech. When Clooney, Cheadle, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger come together in the frame near the film's end (Sterling hovers around the edges), it's about as powerful an image suggesting the impact cinema can have on the world outside the theater I can readily recall.
Produced quickly and urgently (shooting commenced in January of 2007, lasted a few months, and the film opens Friday), "Darfur Now" has unfortunately has left little room for aesthetic niceties. The shooting is utilitarian, the graphics average, the score cloying. The fact remains that if documentary is going to remain politically relevant, it must maintain commercial viability. And if documentary is to remain commercially viable, an anomaly like "An Inconvenient Truth" aside, it must fight for aesthetic innovation. Even the greatest verite documentaries, while certainly in a hurry to keep up with their subjects, are marked by elegance and rigor in their construction. Immediacy in filmmaking should never be confused with sloppiness, and importance of subject matter should never be a free pass for slipshod filmmaking. So, ideologically "Darfur Now" is unimpeachable. Aesthetically, not so much.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and currently works for Magnolia Pictures.]