Directed By: Theodore Braun
Starring: Adam Sterling, Sheikh Ahmed Mohammed Abakar, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Don Cheadle, Pablo Recalde, Hejewa Adam
Darfur Now is a documentary telling the stories of six people attempting to deal with the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan which was classified as a genocide by the United States in 2004. Hundreds of thousands of African Muslims have been killed and millions displaced by attacks from Arab forces known as "Janjaweed" who have been acting with support from the Sudanese government. Adam Sterling is an American activist who goes from trying to pass out pamphlets on street corners to actively pushing a bill through the California legislature calling for the divestiture of the state's pension funds from Sudanese financial interests. Sheikh Ahmed Mohammed Abakar is the Chief Sheikh at the Hamadea Displaced Persons Camp in western Darfur who strives to maintain order and accommodate the ever increasing number of refugees who reside at the camp. Luis Moreno-Ocampo is a prosecutor for the United Nations International Criminal Court (ICC) who is gathering evidence and pursuing indictments for war crimes against Sudanese government officials. Don Cheadle is an American actor who is trying to use his celebrity status to draw attention to the crisis in Sudan through public advocacy and collaboration on a book with John Pendegrast, an experienced advocate for peace in Africa. Pablo Recalde is the West Darfur Head of Office for the World Food Program who attempts to deliver humanitarian aid to refugees over sometimes very dangerous territory. Hejewa Adam is a woman who lost her family to the government backed Janjaweed forces and subsequently took up arms as a rebel in the Sudan Liberation Movement.
The film does a good job of cutting through the complex political and social elements of the conflict in Darfur to get to the heart of the humanitarian crisis. While it acknowledges that the Sudanese government and Arab fighters dispute the US declaration that the Darfur crisis constitutes a genocide, the plight of the displaced, orphaned, and abused people is presented and explained compellingly enough that the political game of semantics comes across as useless rhetoric. The needs of the civilian refugees and the fate of the dead remain unchanged whether the actions causing them are referred to as genocide, anti-insurgency tactics, or a land war.
That being said, as a documentary, the film's chief weakness is its attempt to compress six worthwhile stories about people attempting to address some aspect of the crisis into less than a hundred minutes of screen time. For instance, while we see Sterling attempting to pass out fliers to people on street corners, most of who avoid even making eye contact with him, and we subsequently see him lobbying State Congressmen for the divestiture of California pension funds from Sudanese business interests, we never really see the journey that got him from one point to the other. Similar examples apply to the other five subjects of the film, which could each have benefitted from more screen time devoted to their tale.
On the positive side, the film has much higher production values than most documentaries I have seen. In particular, Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson has a keen eye for the composition of images within the frame, and her location work in Africa is comparable in quality and impact to big budget narrative films. Similarly, composer Graeme Revell has a knack for turning out scores on a budget that do not sound like scores on a budget, and he does a very good job on this film as do the sound designers who incorporated his music into an unexpectedly immersive 5.1 surround mix.
The film is presented in a widescreen format that fills the entire 16:9 enhanced frame. There is some light mosquito noise around some high contrast edges that is prominent early in the film, but thankfully subsides as the film progresses. Overall, the film looks quite good, especially the portions shot on 35mm film in Africa.
Segments featuring archival footage and the necessity for some shot on video material, including a segment where Cheadle had to work as his own cinematographer when he accompanied George Clooney on diplomatic visits to China and Egypt, include some understandable source-related artifacts.
The English 5.1 mix (technically an English/Fur/Arabic 5.1 track with possibly a few other languages thrown in) has excellent fidelity and incorporates the score nicely into all 5.1 channels.
Extras include an Introduction from Writer/Director Theodore Braun. It runs three minutes and 57 seconds and is presented in 4:3 video letterboxed to a 16:9 aspect ratio. Braun offers a brief background on the film with some explanation of what is included in the deleted scenes.
Next up is a full-length audio commentary from Braun. His comments generally are technical in nature with the most interesting ones covering the editorial decisions involved in telling the film's story. He is frequently complimentary of his various collaborators, but usually not in an overly fawning way. This commentary is also available via an English subtitle stream for the hearing impaired.
Finally, a collection of ten Additional Scenes runs a total of 32 minutes and 31 seconds and is presented in 4:3 video letterboxed to a 16:9 aspect ratio in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound with optional English subtitles. In general, these scenes are all interesting on their own, and many of them illuminate complexities on which the film did not have time to elaborate.
The scenes are as follows:
- The Arab Perspective (3:56) - This segment features leaders of the Arabs in the Darfur region of Sudan explaining their point of view about how they have been historically mistreated by the African residents and how they view their actions as justifiable retaliation.
- Life in Hamadea: A Housing Problem (3:01) - This segment consists of a meeting between Chief Sheikh Ahmed and other Sheiks in the Hamadea Camp in West Darfur in which they resolve a housing dispute involving a claim of ownership of a housing unit by one of the Sheikhs who was saving it for his family.
- Life in Hamadea: Memories of Durri (2:52) - Sheikh Ahmed reminisces about his home village of Durri which was destroyed in attacks by Janjaweed and Sudanese government forces.
- Life in Hamadea: A Murderer in the Camp (4:42) - Sheikh Ahmed and other Sheikhs are made aware of an armed resident in the camp and decide to hand him over to government forces to avoid endangering the rest of the camp's residents.
- How Many Bamboos? A Relief Worker Tries to be Fair (8:46) - Relief Worker and Hamadea Refugee Camp Manager Lisa Biblo wants to generate an accurate count of recently displaced people in a part of the camp in order to distribute valuable non-food items such as bamboo poles used for constructing shelters. In the process, she must contend with a somewhat difficult Sheikh and some likely, but nearly unverifiable attempts at fraud. We then see the poles being distributed along with some additional haggling
- What's the Dollar Amount? (1:59) Adam Sterling testifies before the California Senate Judiciary Committee in Sacramento. A Senator quizzes him about the dollar cost of divestiture and votes to prevent the bill from leaving committee. We learn that he reverses his vote off camera later in the same day.
- Darfur Now: What Can I Do? (2:34) - Essa Faal, a Team Leader with the Darfur Investigation for the International Criminal Court (ICC) talks about his decision to join the ICC. He relates a story of an atrocity that moved him to action.
- Take My Baby (1:18) - Luis Moreno-Ocampo relates a story underlining the desperation of residents to get their children out of the refugee camps and the troubled region
- We Have to Glorify Law, Not War (1:44) - Moreno-Ocampo discusses philosophical points about rule of international law with former Nuremberg prosecuter Ben Ferencz in the lobby of the United Nations building in New York.
- Keep on Keeping on (1:35) - On the Occasion of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu's 75th Birthday celebration in Los Angeles, Don Cheadle asks him about how to apply himself to helping the situation in Darfur. Tutu advises him to use his celebrity to draw attention to the crisis and to "keep on keeping on".
- Black August DTV Trailer (4:47)
- In the Valley of Elah DVD Trailer (:32)
- Michael Clayton DVD Trailer (:32)
- 10,000 B.C. Trailer (1:17)
- Darfur Now PSA (:40)
The DVD is packaged in an eco-friendly recycled cardboard case that proudly indicates that it is "Made with 100%-Certified Renewable Resources". The case opens up like a book, and the disc is contained in a built-in slot/pouch inside the right hand side with no spindle. The case is in turn slotted inside a clear "Earthfirst PLA film" (made from corn) clear plastic wrapping. A sticker indicates that a portion of the profits from the film will be donated to the "Solar Cooker Project". More information about that Project, which aims to protect women and girl refugees from being assaulted when they leave their camps to gather firewood, is printed on the right inner sleeve. Information about the "Sister Schools Initiative" started by NBA Star Tracy McGrady to provide quality education to children from Darfur in refugee camps in Chad is also printed on the right inner sleeve. Information about the crisis in Darfur and the ENOUGH project which supports political action to address it is provided on the left inner sleeve.
While the documentary Darfur Now bites off a little more than it can chew in trying to present six distinct complex stories in under 100 minutes, it does offer a compelling snapshot of both the terrible situation in the Darfur region of Sudan, which has been identified by the United States as the first genocide of the 21st century, and how determined individuals all over the globe are trying to actively address the situation. The documentary has unusually high production value for the genre and is presented on DVD with a very good audio/video presentation marred only by some mild but noticeable video compression artifacts early in the film. Extras are highlighted by a full length audio commentary by the film's writer/director as well as a half hour of additional scenes that further illuminate topics the film did not have time to explore in depth.