"Darfur Now" MOVIE SYNOPSIS
Six people united by a belief that anything is possible.
Six individuals committed to ending the worst crisis of the 21st century.
Darfur Now is a story of hope in the midst of one of humanity's darkest hours a call to action for people everywhere to end the catastrophe unfolding in Darfur, Sudan. In this documentary, the struggles and achievements of six different individuals from inside Darfur and around the world bring to light the tragedy in Sudan and show how the actions of one person can make a difference to millions.
(above photo) Hejewa Adam in director Ted Braun’s documentary, “Darfur Now,” a Warner Independent Pictures release.
Written and directed by Ted Braun, the film explores the Darfur conflict through the first-hand experiences of Don Cheadle, Hejewa Adam, Pablo Recalde, Ahmed Mohammed Abakar, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, and Adam Sterling. Executive Produced by Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Omar Amanat, Matt Palmieri, Gary Greenebaum and Dean Schramm. Produced by Cathy Schulman, Don Cheadle and Mark Jonathan Harris.
Director Ted Braun traveled throughout Darfur from January through May 2007 making a documentary about the complex tragedy unfolding in Sudan’s westernmost region a problem the UN has described as “the world’s greatest humanitarian and human rights catastrophe.”
His goal was to get inside the crisis, literally and figuratively, and return with a film that humanized the conflict and transported audiences to places they’d never been. Braun was granted unprecedented access to the camps for the internally displaced people of Darfur, Sudanese government officials, members of the nomadic communities and the rebels - including exclusive access to the Sudanese Liberation Army controlled territory in the Jebel Marra region, a place and group never before filmed. During most of that time he and the small film crew were the only members of western media allowed in Darfur, which had been closed to the press since mid-November 2006.
In addition to Darfur and the Sudanese capitol of Khartoum, the production led him to the halls of The International Criminal Court in The Hague, the United Nations Security Council in New York, the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC, Cairo, Beijing, and the State Capitol of California. The result is a sweeping documentary of international scope a powerful, humane portrait of the worst crisis of the 21st century.
Darfur Now follows the lives of six people from around the world who are committed to ending the tragedy in Darfur and united by a belief that anything is possible.
The Subjects of DARFUR NOWAt 24 years old, Adam Sterling is one of many young people involved in the fight to help the people of Darfur. A UCLA student whose Jewish grandmother fled Nazi Germany, Adam learned about the situation in Darfur and felt he had to do something. Despite his youth and inexperience in the political arena, he works to get a bill passed that will keep California’s State funds out of Sudan. Amazingly, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signs the bill.
· Once a respected builder and farmer in a Darfur village, Ahmed Mohammed Abakar fled his home and now resides in Hamadea camp with 47,000 other internally displaced Darfurians. Asked to lead the people of Hamadea, he is charged with holding his community together, navigating the complex world of international aid agencies, and protecting the camp from hostile local authorities, corruption, and the threat of attack by militias. Sheikh Ahmed dreams of someday returning to his home.
· Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, dreams of achieving justice for the people of Darfur. At the request of the United Nations Security Council, he launches investigations into the complex and horrifying crimes in Darfur and manages to secure arrest warrants against a top Sudanese official and one of the leaders of the Janjaweed militias. From his position on the world stage, he relentlessly pursues the perpetrators of the worst crimes in Darfur.
· Academy Award-nominated actor Don Cheadle first learned about the situation in Darfur while working on Hotel Rwanda, a film that dramatized the Rwandan genocide. Don was inspired to travel to Darfur and use his celebrity to shine a light on the catastrophe unfolding in Sudan. In Darfur Now, Don travels the world, along with fellow actor George Clooney, to pressure government officials and world leaders to act. He also uses his book, Not On Our Watch, as a vehicle to meet people face to face to show them the steps they can take to get involved.
· Raised by socially aware and politically committed parents in Ecuador, Pablo Recalde is a man dedicated to improving the lives of the most vulnerable people on the planet. Horrified by the conditions in Darfur, he left his wife and children to work in one of the world’s most dangerous places. Leader of the World Food Program team in West Darfur, he mobilizes massive convoys to deliver food to the suffering people of the region. Amid shootings, hijackings, terrorist threats, and an ongoing civil war, Pablo is driven to end the suffering he sees around him.
· Hejewa Adam had been a mother who dreamt of going back to school until her West Darfur village was attacked and destroyed by Janjaweed militias and government forces. When she fled, her three-month-old son was beaten to death as he clung to her back. She faces two choices abandon her home forever or join the rebels to bring justice and peace back to Sudan. Determined to help defend the Fur people of Western Darfur, Hejewa joins the rebels.
In addition to these six people, the film also features His Excellency Abldalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, Sudan’s Ambassador to the United Nations in New York. A career diplomat, His Excellency articulates Sudan’s position on the Darfur crisis from the perspective of a government that feels it has not been fairly characterized by the world’s media.
What initially drew you into this project, was Darfur a place that had been in your mind for a while? If so, what were the feelings you had for the region and was this how you felt you could help?
The way I was drawn into doing this film is a great example of how people who want to do something, but don’t know how, can make things happen. My longtime friend and agent Dean Schramm was driving home from an event at the American Jewish Committee on the Darfur crisis, feeling depressed and helpless, he thought, "I’m an agent. What can I do about a tragedy half way around the world in Africa?" Then a light bulb went off. “Maybe I can interest a client in making a documentary about Darfur.” It was a complete long shot on his part, but by reaching out and using what he had, he initiated a chain of events that resulted in this film.
When Dean called I was dimly aware of the crisis, but knew nothing about the realities of the situation in Darfur. In my early twenties I’d been to South Africa it was during the time of Apartheid. The conjunction of human suffering, bravery and physical beauty marked me for life. But I’d never been able to express it. So, in some way, I had an unfulfilled dream, some unfinished business with the continent. After Dean’s call I spent two weeks reading all I could about Darfur, listening to speakers, attending rallies, and talking to people who’d been there. I realized there was a film I wanted to make. Partly that desire connected back to my experience of Apartheid South Africa. But it was born of a sense of outrage at the world’s indifference to what was happening in Darfur, a feeling of compassion for the victims and a curiosity about what was going on and why. I felt I could make a contribution through the medium of documentary filmmaking.
How did you settle upon the storytelling approach you took to the film?
I was frustrated by the world’s indifference to the catastrophe in Darfur, so I wanted this film to reach a wide audience, not just people who already knew about the subject. Because the Darfur conflict is incredibly complex and not likely to be resolved through the efforts of one person, I recognized that as a storyteller I couldn’t do it justice by focusing on a single individual. So I decided I’d look at a group. The big question then, as with any ensemble picture, was what would unite the different characters.
I found the answer to the question indirectly, by thinking about the audience. With a subject of such suffering and tragedy, how could I ask people to come in and sit down in the dark for two hours? The answer, simple as it seems, was to give them hope. With the Darfur conflict, despite the incredible anguish and rage, there are of course lots of people who do have hope. They share a belief they can do something to bring an end to the crisis.
That was how I realized I would focus on a number of people struggling to end the conflict. We would invite the audience to share these people’s dreams. Whether our characters ultimately succeed or fail, I was confident the audience could travel through the nightmare of Darfur on the dreams of individuals who believe they can make a difference. And because of that we, the team producing and financing the picture, believed we could take a wide audience into a world of conflict and suffering.
Directorially, I wanted to combine two elements: a sense of cinematic scale with a sense of human intimacy. That required us the cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, the sound recordist Wellington Bowler, and myself to use our eyes and ears in ways, and film with technical tools, that could deliver both spectacle and personal contact. So we ended up shooting with a very small crew, a certain type of HD camera, and a focused verité style of filmmaking that still allowed us to reach for cinematic magnitude. Those goals also influenced my work in the editing room with Edgar Burckeson and Lenny Feinstein, and with the composer Graeme Revell and our sound designer Ron Eng.
Darfur faces such a vast array of problems was it difficult to set out to make this movie due to the scope of it?
Oddly enough setting out was, in retrospect, one of the easier and quicker parts of the process. I was joined by a great team of producers and gained the cooperation of our principal characters outside Sudan less than three months from first looking into Darfur as a subject for a film. The first person I asked to collaborate with me was Mark Harris, a colleague of mine at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts Mark’s won two Oscars® for Best Feature Documentary in the last ten years. He was interested but so busy he felt he could best function in advisory role a role that eventually evolved into being one of the producers on the picture.
Dean then arranged for a meeting with Cathy Schulman who was just weeks out from winning her Best Picture Academy Award® for producing Crash. Cathy, to her undying credit, wanted to use the attention and momentum of Crash to do something of social value. She responded to my proposal and said she wanted to produce the picture on the spot, even though she’d never made a documentary. Knowing of Don’s Darfur activism, she thought he might be interested in coming on as a producer and a character in the film. I hadn’t thought of including Don as a character in the film until then. But it was the first of many great ideas from Cathy and the first of many generous acts by Don. We met with Don a week after first meeting Cathy. I asked him about his first trip to Africa. We discovered we’d had similar vertiginous reactions. This connection opened things up. We talked about ideas for the film, the role he might play as a producer and what it would mean for him to be a character in the film.
Don was, and remained, adamant about being a regular documentary subject about not using him as an actor. He didn’t want us filming him doing anything just for the sake of the film. Don, Cathy and Mark were also clear from the beginning that Don’s participation as a character, while it was a great idea from many perspectives, was finally my choice he had to fit within my concept of plunging the audience into the lives of this mosaic of characters. There is an important dimension to this crisis that involves celebrities using their public clout that intrigued me. Don’s interest in Darfur, which comes out of his experience filming Hotel Rwanda, is so pure, sincere and full of humility that I felt he’d be a great character in the film. A week after we met, Don said he was in and I’ve felt very fortunate ever since. It was the beginning of a very satisfying collaboration.
I wanted badly to meet with the Prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, but had no introduction. Dean, Cathy, Mark, and Don were looking for someone to help when I decided to just phone the International Criminal Court. It was a completely cold call. I spoke to someone who worked with him on communications, sent a description of the project and got an email back shortly thereafter saying he’d be happy to meet me in a few weeks.
I prepared like mad for that meeting. The Prosecutor was very open, but told me candidly that he didn’t need this kind of attention yet it was too early in the life of the International Criminal Court (The ICC came into being in 2003). Then he talked about the concept of moral responsibility being related to distance and time the further away in space and time you are from a moral outrage the easier it is to ignore. I told him, “But Mr. Prosecutor, cinema can shrink space and time that’s what we do.” He said if I could find a way to tell the story but respect the confidentiality of his investigation, I could include him. I came back the next day with a few ideas and he agreed. A week later we were shooting him briefing the UN Security Council on the Darfur crisis.
A grant from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation enabled us to begin filming. An in the meantime we’d had meetings with financiers. Participant Productions and Warner Independent Pictures entered into discussions to finance the film. They struck a deal a month after the first Ocampo shoot. It was breathtakingly fast, sparked by the passion and clout of the people involved and the tremendous responsiveness of all parties about the need to act quickly to help the people of Darfur.
You had unprecedented access to the Sudan. How did you accomplish that?
I was committed to having Sudanese as primary characters in the film, but had no idea of how to get into Sudan. Access to Sudan, let alone Darfur, was and is, incredibly difficult for anyone, especially from the media. The US Government has sanctioned Sudan Americans cannot do business there and need a visa from the Sudanese to travel. The Sudanese Government is, understandably, extremely sensitive about its portrayal in the West.
So we were contemplating a number of alternatives including filming in Chad or going into Sudan from a neighboring country the two most common practices at the time for people covering the story. But around that time the American journalist Paul Salopeck was arrested by the Sudanese Government for traveling into Sudan from Chad without a visa. It was an international incident and closed any thoughts we had about that route. I managed to get an introduction to the Sudanese Ambassador to the UN in Geneva. He was traveling in the US and agreed to meet me the morning before he flew home to Khartoum. That meeting lasted four hours and was a turning point for the film.
People think of the Sudanese government as monolithic but there are divisions within the government political, personal and even tribal. Through my initial contact with the Foreign Ministry I came in contact with a group of officials who were outward looking, candid and interested in Sudan’s place among the nations of the world. From the first I was completely transparent about what we were trying to accomplish and committed to understanding their point of view. They knew I was doing a film about the tragedy in Darfur, but they also knew I was focusing on the people who were trying to resolve it; that I was interested in their perspective as well as in a number of other points of view.
I was, and remain, deeply curious about the perspective of the Government of Sudan about their view of what they are doing in Darfur and their rationale. I felt I couldn’t make a film without trying as best I could to understand that and present it. A film that didn’t bring to life the Government’s perspective would, from a purely dramatic point of view, be boring. And to demonize the Government of Sudan without first attempting to understand them on a human level was intellectually lazy. The producers and I had talked about how mass atrocities, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide are all possible only if you first dehumanize the people who are the targets. The Hutu’s called the Tutsi’s cockroaches during the Rwandan genocide. I didn’t want to turn around and portray the Sudanese Government as monsters without first listening to them and trying to understand them as people. And I felt that if I was able to accomplish that and then come to whatever conclusions I did - then the film would be in a position to offer viewers at least a more exciting film and most likely a more informed perspective.
I’ve been asked many times why the Government of Sudan let us film there. And almost every day I try to find an answer. I think the simplest explanation is probably the best they wanted their perspective represented and came to feel I would do that.
Once we had permission to visit Sudan, the relations we had with one branch of the government enabled us to work more easily with others. But at every step it was essential that we gain the trust of each person we dealt with. Once we were in Khartoum, we needed photo permits to do any filming and travel permits to enter Darfur. Once we were in Darfur, we had to meet with the local authorities in each location prior to filming the political leaders, the police, the ministry officials that control the camps, National Security officers, tribal leaders, leaders of the camps, UN agencies, the international aid groups administering the camps. It was incredibly complex. As our first contact advised me, “Talk to the people first. Let them know what you are doing so no one will be surprised. Any misunderstanding could be catastrophic.” I followed his advice, played by the rules and was completely transparent about our aims and activities. It seems to have worked.
Most people think of Darfur as dangerous place. Is it? Were you ever in danger?
We were not attempting to get to the front lines of the conflict, so we stayed clear of fighting. But Darfur is loaded with arms and increasingly unstable. In many ways it reminded me of the American West - the wild, wild west. But you get used to it. In the same way you get used to driving a car down the freeway at 70 miles an hour an incredibly dangerous act, but one you stop thinking about when you learn to drive.
In West Darfur, the roads are dirt, most people walk or take a donkey but automatic weapons are everywhere. There are a lot of different groups, it’s hard to tell who is who even Darfurians have trouble distinguishing amongst the uniformed personnel, let alone the armed civilians. Sometimes that became a little hairy. One day we were filming in a marketplace and a group of nomads with camels were there to trade. A woman amongst them got into a fight with our translator, Izzadin Abdul Rasoul, about the cinematographer and sound recordist who were trying to film some marketplace activity. Izzadin couldn’t keep me to speed with what was happening but I could tell it was not good. The people she was with were armed, watching her very closely, and becoming increasingly angry. Eventually Izzadin said, “Listen, sister, you can call me a Torobora (rebel) and I can call you Janjaweed but we’re all Darfurians. These people are here to tell our story. This is all our land and these Hawaga (white people) can help us.” This appeal to their shared history transformed the situation. She apologized, called him her brother, said it was terrible what was happening to their region and left us alone. But afterwards, Izzadin told me how dangerous the situation had been. He said that someone could have just shot us, walked away and nobody would have intervened.
You also have to understand that we were always under surveillance. More than overt physical danger, this was the aspect of life and work that was the most difficult to get accustomed to. At any given time in Darfur at least six different agencies were keeping track of what we were doing and filing reports. And because the agencies were not in complete harmony with each other we’d often get held up by one, then another. So that almost every other day we’d cease production and I would go meet with one government body or another to get things sorted out. The meetings were always very cordial and the officials’ hospitable endless glasses of hot tea, nuts and candies were a staple. Every international person working in Darfur gets used to this sort of thing. But it was a challenge.
Here’s a small example: We were in Khartoum. I had a watch with an altimeter and stuck my arm outside our hotel window to find out if I could get a reading. We were on the third floor and I sort of maneuvered it around. Two minutes later, the phone rang. It was the police. They’d seen me sticking something out the window, thought it was a camera, insisted we didn’t have a permit to film there without a government official, wanted to know what we were doing and called to inquire a call to our room within two minutes of sticking my hand out the window. That’s how closely monitored we were.
In your words, how would you describe the heart of the journey or objectives each of the six take?
Adam dreams of ending the crisis in Darfur and wants to accomplish this by applying public and financial pressure on the Government of Sudan through divestment. His specific objective in the film is to get a bill through the California legislature and signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger.
The Prosecutor is charged with bringing the people most responsible for the worst crimes in Darfur to justice. He has a larger dream of using the International Criminal Court and the rule of law to bring peace to the world. But in our film he’s trying to build a case against the worst criminals of the Darfur conflict.
Don wants to use his celebrity to affect change. Specifically, he wants to end the atrocities in Darfur by shining a light on what’s happening there and getting people to join him and act.
Ahmed Mohammed Abakar
Sheikh Ahmed is trying to protect the people of Hamadea camp. 47,000 members of the Fur tribe have been displaced from their homes and are trapped there. They are under enormous pressures and if they splinter the perpetrators of the crimes against them will have succeeded. Sheikh Ahmed dreams of going home and resuming the life he was leading before the Darfur conflict erupted. But to do that he must first keep his people united.
Pablo’s a father, working far from his family, who wants to get food to the people of Darfur that desperately need it. But to do that he faces threats to the security of his team and the massive convoys that deliver food to the Darfuris who need it. He works for the World Food Program in El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur and dreams of leaving the world a better place than he found it.
Hejewa’s son Nasareldeen was beaten to death as she fled an attack on her home. In her heart she needs to just be a mother. But because of what happened, she’s chosen to join the rebels and is fighting to defend her homeland. She dreams of a Sudan free from the current government but would, I think, be happiest if she could simply raise a child. Of the characters in the story, she goes through the fewest events on film, but she faces the most agonizing internal struggle.
The experience you’ve had is so vast. If you could articulate a few thoughts…
I returned from four months in Sudan filming Darfur Now with a transformed sense of what a story means. Before we started shooting, I traveled for a month throughout Darfur and listened as people told me of almost unimaginable atrocities that had happened to their families and villages. They ranged from men and women who said I could start filming on the spot, that they had nothing left to fear and were willing to die, to people who would only meet clandestinely in total darkness and made me promise to never reveal their identity for fear they would be killed. I’ve been hearing stories and working with them my entire professional life, but this was the first time I was with people for whom a story, their story, was a matter of life or death. I came home to the United States with an obligation to the Darfurians unlike any I’ve felt before.
I was also impressed by the human toll exacted upon the people of Darfur who were driven to rebel against their own government. The conversations I had with the rebels were heartbreaking. These people had their lives destroyed, were strong enough to survive and had decided the only way to continue was to sublimate their personal dreams and think of just the revolution. I’d ask them to describe their memories of the conflict and their hopes but they’d refuse, saying they could only speak of all people who died, and talk about the goals of the revolution. It was almost physically painful for them to recall individuals they’d lost or dreams they’d put aside. When they did talk it was heartbreaking. The simplicity of things they yearned for to be able to get married and travel with their spouse and children in Darfur and see their land as vacationers not fighters, to be able to go back to school and study transcended all differences and made me begin to understand what they must have suffered.
I was also struck by how many seemingly insurmountable obstacles in Sudan could be overcome by patience and a willingness to hear people out. My first day in Darfur I met with a government official who regarded me with a cauldron of rage and hatred in his eyes, for no reason that I could fathom other than that I was from the United States. He was in a position to thwart my efforts to find out about the crisis and make it impossible for us to travel in Darfur. He could have, quite simply, brought our production to a halt. And at that moment, on my first day in the region, I realized I had a responsibility to engage the world, particularly the Arab speaking, Muslim world in a way that we can hear and understand each other. It was my only way forward.
So rather than defend myself and argue, I decided to listen to him. It was a revelation. The crazy ideas, the misunderstandings, the fear all mirrored sentiments we hear projected against many parts of the Arab speaking world almost every day in the West. And the more I listened, the more he began to trust me and the more we found common ground - things we shared and could converse about. That encounter opened the doors to Darfur and may point a way to bridge the chasm that divides us, in what’s generally called The West, from the Arab speaking world and threatens peace across the globe. I think the first step, simple as it seems, was to listen. That’s the beginning of respect respect each of us deserve.
If someone wants to help, what would you suggest they do?
Follow your instincts and own curiosity. Take stock of who you are and what you have to offer, learn what you can about the conflict and come to your own conclusions. If you’re a talker talk to people about Darfur. If you’re a money person, do something with money. If you think of yourself as a parent and care about kids, look into the ways kids have been affected and how you can help. Rallies can be fun, but not everyone’s a rally person. Giving money is helpful, but not everyone has money to spare. I’ve heard Don say over and over, “When people ask what can I do, I turn the question around and ask them, ‘well, what can you do?’” I think back to Dean driving home depressed that night saying to himself, “I’m just an agent. What can I do?” Start small and realistic and just take one step. That alone can make a huge difference.
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