The Devil Came on Horseback explains how Brian Steidle left the marines to look for a job and found a calling. As an observer for the African Union in the Sudan, Steilde spent six months watching as a nation consumed itself -- as the Sudanese Arab-controlled government enacted systematic genocide against its black African citizens in Dafur. It's not that the government simply stood by as local militias, the Janjaweed, enacted murder, torture and rape against the local black villages and tribes -- the government was actively engaged in aiding and abetting the Janjaweed atrocities as a tool of policy. Steidle was used to action, to being part of forces working for the common good, but all he could do was watch and take pictures and document what happened after murder and mutilation cut across the land like a bitter burning wind, leaving ashes and ruined lives in their wake.
Journalists couldn't get access to the parts of the Sudan where Steidle was posted, but eventually -- driven by equal parts heartfelt outrage and horrified impotence -- he leaked his own pictures to the press in the hopes that the American people and government might be moved to action. Directed by Annie Sunderberg and Ricki Stern, The Devil Came on Horseback tells audiences what has happened in the Sudan through Steidle's own journey; it also shows us Steidle's journey from being just an observer to being an activist. The film incorporates Steidle's own photos and video footage, as well as follows him after his posting is over and he is testifiying before Congress. He briefs Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice on the Sudan. He watches. He waits. Nothing happens.
Something should happen, to be sure; Steidle's photos depict bodies burnt and blackened, corpses stacked like cordwood, rape victims explaining how after their violation, their families abandoned them due to shame. That's exactly what their violators want, of course: to shatter and disperse whole communities, disrupt families, re-make a nation out of murder and crime. The images and testimony in The Devil Came on Horseback are heartbreaking and overwhelming, as they should be. If there's one thing that makes the film even slightly endurable, it's the intrinsic decency and dignity Steidle displays, traveling the country to bear witness, to share his photos, to explain what is happening. Steidle is, essentially, the epitome of what is good about America -- principled, ready to commit to action, eager to support human rights and human decency -- and at every turn, his hope that his personal ideas might be reflected in a political response is doomed, dashed, disregarded.
The UN would like to place peacekeepers in the Sudan, but the Sudanese government won't allow it. With the backing of the United States, the UN might be able to override the Sudanese objections, but, as is public knowledge and public policy, the U.S. doesn't exactly support the UN's missions and goals these days. The Devil Came on Horseback is a dual nightmare -- not just the nightmare of a successfully enacted genocide, but also the nightmare of a completely failed response. Over 450,000 people have been killed in the Sudan; over 2.5 million people have been displaced from their homes by killing, terror and fire. Steidle is taking a long view -- at one point, he explains to a questioner that "There are 35 active Al-Qaeda training camps in the Sudan" -- but he's also as passionate as he is pragmatic, as haunted as he is hopeful. "I stood there for six months and watched people die, and I took pictures of them."
I know this review has focused more on Steidle, his character, his mission and the facts of the Sudan crisis than on the film itself -- primarily because the film itself simply 'presents' Steidle and his character and mission and the facts. The aesthetic arguments against the film I heard in the post-movie chatter of the exit lobby -- it's too long, it's depressing, some of the structure was off -- must, and do, take a backseat to the moral argument presented in it. It's not enough to simply say "never again" to genocide when it is happening over and over and over right now. The Devil Came on Horseback hurts the heart and stirs the soul, because even as I write this, even as you read this, even while this film is perhaps finding its way to a distributor and wending its way slowly to theaters, the killing in the Sudan will go on, and on, and on until someone in power decides that it must stop or until there is no one left to kill.