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Braun in Darfur

Looking for more than nothing

Culture | A trio of documentaries about Sudan tells one gripping story: tragedy while the world looks away

Issue: "Reinventing Hillary," Nov. 17, 2007

Darfur Now

Limited release, rated PG (for thematic material involving crimes against humanity)

In the face of ongoing genocide, with apathy, ignorance, and corruption contributing to escalating violence, the correct response to the atrocities in Darfur can be difficult to discern.

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But as Don Cheadle says in the new documentary Darfur Now, the answer is "more than nothing. A whole lot more than nothing."

Ted Braun's new documentary yearns desperately to get people in the developed world motivated about the plight of the Sudanese in the Darfur region, to finally bring an end to their suffering. In 2004, President Bush broke with the UN to declare the killings in Darfur a genocide, the first time the term had been used to describe a current atrocity. Expert observers and some UN officials concur, but three years later neither the UN nor the Sudanese government has taken decisive action to stop the rape, starvation, and killings.

The film follows six people who have devoted their lives to this cause: actor Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), International Criminal Court head Luis Moreno Ocampo, regional UN World Food Program head Pablo Recalde, California activist Adam Sterling, and two Sudanese citizens.

But the movie's focus on international relief efforts obfuscates the plight of the Sudanese. Victims are often filmed in large groups, desperately searching for the camera to recount their stories in pitched and harried tones.

Braun has chosen to follow two Sudanese, but they get lost in the shuffle of competing narratives. Ahmed Mohammed Abakar is a displaced sheik trying to hold his community together, while Hejewa Adam took to fighting with the rebels in the Sudan Liberation Movement after watching her son die at the hands of the roving janjaweed soldiers.

These brief emotional moments are lost in the shuffle of bureaucratic machinations in Washington, California, and New York. Cheadle enlists the help of his famous friends, Sterling demands action from California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Ocampo charges Sudanese bureaucrats with war crimes at the United Nations.

Their attempts are noble, but their concern often comes across as self-satisfaction, diluting the force of Braun's film. But the most important aspect of Darfur Now is what happens after audiences watch it. If you don't make it to the theater to see the film, go directly to savedarfur.com. Sign, donate, do something. -Meghan Keane

On Our Watch

Frontline, PBS, Nov. 20, 9 p.m. ET (check local listings)

"Never again," the ringing words that followed the Rwandan genocide of 1994, ring hollow for Khadeiga Abdullah. When militiamen on camels chased her from her village in Darfur she carried her baby on her back, and the gunmen "shot him dead, pulled him away from me, then they raped me, and they went away."

Confined to a refugee camp in Chad, Abdullah sleeps on a dirt floor in a burlap-strapped hut with her remaining seven children. Even there, she told Frontline, "It is not safe to go beyond this hill." Pointing to men riding camels in the distance, she said, "Those camel men you see will rape any woman."

Four years into what experts describe here as "slow-motion genocide" that has killed a minimum 200,000 Darfurians and left more than 2 million homeless, Abdullah's words point not only to her past but to her present and perhaps her future: "Even safe places are not safe."

"On Our Watch" not only chronicles what has happened since Darfur rebels and the government of Sudan went to war with each other but also today's spread of violence into Chad and refugee camp areas.

Frontline's investigative pieces, with their habitually doleful tone, can come off as overwrought, but here that tone is reverberant, even understated. Actual footage of camel riders raiding villages and cleaved bodies blue with death cuts to UN headquarters in New York, where the world's diplomats produce streams of resolutions and testimony over Darfur, to little effect.

At one point expert Eric Reeves ("Too little, too late," Aug. 18, 2007) tells Frontline: "It's almost impossible for me to describe the scale of the international failure."

It's a failure with a pedigree, according to the 60-minute documentary's assembled experts, who trace its roots back to Rwanda's genocide of 1994 and Srebrenica's massacre in Bosnia of 1995. They point fingers at two figures who played key supervisory roles: former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who before presiding over empty action on Darfur was in charge of UN peacekeeping operations at the time of Bosnian and Rwandan mass killings; and then-President Bill Clinton, who roadblocked decisive steps against the perpetrators.

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