Would you like to see a movie in which Arnold Schwarzenegger and George Clooney unite against a genocidal African nation? How about a movie dealing with racial problems in the Sudan from the producer of Crash? Technically, you can see both movies in one with Darfur Now, a new documentary featuring the star power of the two actors mentioned and produced by co-star Don Cheadle, who was one of Crash's six producers.
Of course, if you're looking forward to Schwarzenegger and Clooney double-handedly kicking some Sudanese butt, or for Cheadle to head-up a multi-character drama focused on race relations within a society in denial, then you're sure to be disappointed. Still, the latter idea does closely describe Darfur Now. The film spotlights six individuals, some of whose stories directly inter-weave, who are affected by the tragedy in Darfur and have been successful at making a difference.
These individuals include Cheadle, an Oscar-nominated actor using his celebrity to draw attention to the issue, Adam Sterling, a 24-year-old waiter and activist urging Governor Schwarzenegger to sign a bill to keep California funds from investing in companies with interests in Sudan, and Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. Then there's the ones actually situated in Darfur: Hejewa Adam, a woman whose baby was beaten to death by Janjaweed attackers who now fights in the Sudanese Liberation Army; Ahmed Mohammed Abaka, a displaced builder and farmer who now serves as a leader of a camp of 47,000 other displaced Darfurians; and Pablo Recalde, leader of the World Food Program in West Darfur.
Each of the six stories is surprisingly optimistic, and if there's one flaw with the film, it's that it almost conclusively portrays the Darfur problem as no longer a problem. But even if so, Darfur Now is not really a film about the Darfur problem, anyway. It is solely about the power and the conviction of these people, which extends to other featured activists, celebrities (Clooney), Darfurians and, most essentially, the Sudanese representative to the United Nations, His Excellency Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, who serves as the antithetical force of the documentary, offering that one bit of negativity in an otherwise positive forum. While the conflict in general has its villain in Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the film has its own bad guy in the form of the ambassador.
While the hero role is divided up among many, the most charismatic protagonist is certainly Moreno-Ocampo (sorry Clooney), a man as enjoyable to watch as he is impressive and interesting to learn about. Having grown up in Argentina and been a young man during that country's own junta regime, which he later went up against as an assistant prosecutor, Moreno-Ocampo provides Darfur Now with a parallel and an historical and global context that acknowledges Darfur is another in a long line of similar tragedies, all of which necessitate justice Sterling, the young American activist, similarly relates the issue in such a context by being the grandson of a Holocaust escapee, but Moreno-Ocampo offers a more insightful perspective: if his court is successful, he says in the film, then the world will end up like Argentina, "not perfect, but at least we're not killing each other;" but if it's not successful, then the world will be like Darfur in 25 years.
As serious as that may be, Moreno-Ocampo is also the life of Darfur Now, giving the doc its fleeting comic relief. In a scene just before the prosecutor is to address the United Nations, the seemingly well-spoken Moreno-Ocampo requests some speech assistance from an attractive young woman, and at least as portrayed in the film, he appears to be obviously flirting. Later, during a radio interview, the young woman is there again, and the film cuts back and forth between she and he, as if recognizing some attraction or sexual tension between them. Perhaps I missed the fact that they have some kind of working relationship or more, but either way the scene gives the man an added dimension not allotted to the rest of the subjects.
The only person who comes close to being as intriguing is the SLA rebel, Hijewa Adam. Her comments make her out to be at different times intelligent and uninformed, admitting at one point the understanding that guns will not solve their problem. In another clip, she talks about how she wants the white people to fix everything and pave the roads like they do everywhere else. In contrast, I can't recall anything worth relaying that is said by the other Darfur-based subjects. This isn't to say neither of them is interesting, though; merely that in a film about six people, there are always going to be more memorable figures than others.
Actually, the extremes of personality between the six individuals -- as well as others featured in the film -- may be an issue for some viewers. For instance, does the greatness of Cheadle and Clooney's status make them too prominent compared to the less-known characters? Probably, but as much as a distraction their celebrity can be in the film, their presence is appropriate and their role in the issue is substantial. Maybe we don't need to see the clip of Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda, but it's interesting to see him in the midst of real-life involvment. The documentary follows the two actors on a trip to China and Egypt as they meet with leaders in an attempt to convince the nations to stop doing business with the Sudanese government. They point out that they are in fact the highest delegation meeting with these officials and admit there position is "embarrassing," that they shouldn't have to be so instrumental to their cause.
The only way that Darfur Now errs in its employment of such distinctly different figures is that it lumps them all together, inter-cut within one narrative whole. I would have much preferred to see each subject in his or her own short block, each concentrating primarily on that sole individual without the distraction of a larger or lesser personality contrasted against him or her. The film has too many moments where it's concentrating on something holding our attention -- say a community meeting in Abakar's camp of internally displaced Darfurians -- and then abruptly it cuts to another story -- like Sterling discussing his activism with his family -- for which the audience is required to reposition its attention. Sure, some of the stories work well together in such a montage, and some individuals do connect at some point, most noticeably Sterling and Cheadle's when their respective objectives bring them both to Sacramento and Governor Schwarzenegger's office. But I think something along the lines of Iraq in Fragments might have worked more to the film's advantage.
Darfur Now is the first theatrical documentary by Ted Braun, who shows great promise as a filmmaker, if primarily for his ability to gain such impressive access to a little-seen place such as Sudan. And like with the actual Darfur issue, Braun has the benefit of being linked to big celebrities, which should gain him as much notice as a filmmaker as it gains notice for the cause. Because of such famous personalities, Darfur Now will probably even garner an Oscar nomination -- though not for Best Documentary Feature, but rather for Best Original Song for the Stevie Wonder and Bono duet "Love's in Need of Love Today" which plays over the end credits (like this year's winner, Melissa Etheridge's "I Need to Wake Up" from An Inconvenient Truth). It isn't even that great a song, but it has prestige. And good or bad, whatever gets an issue notice is still good for that issue.