Hollywood puts spotlight on Darfur

Emerging horrors cause butterfly effect in industry

It may not be the Third Wave feminist revolution, but this year powerful women in Hollywood have rallied to turn the spotlight on genocide, famine and violence against women occurring in African hotspots, using films and nonprofit organizations to teach audiences that indifference is complicity.

Angelina Jolie might be one of the more conspicuous entertainment figures involved in humanitarian causes, but away from the public eye, Mia Farrow, Jewel, Pat Mitchell and Cathy Schulman have made a point to “speak louder and bite harder,” as Mitchell puts it, to shake people up who would otherwise turn a blind eye to the suffering.

Schulman experienced an epiphany when she won an Oscar for producing “Crash,” a passion project she thought was too controversial to achieve the critical and popular support that it did.

“There’s no medium that can reach more eyes and minds than the film medium,” says Schulman, who applied that commitment into producing the documentary “Darfur Now.”

Written and directed by Ted Braun, the documentary explores the Darfur conflict through the eyes of six activists — Don Cheadle, Hejewa Adam, Pablo Recalde, Ahmed Mohammed Abakar, Luis Moreno-Ocampo and Adam Sterling — who struggle to gather support to halt the genocide occurring in the region. The film conveys a message of empowerment as it shows that everyone, whether it’s the guy next door like UCLA grad Sterling or a movie star like Cheadle, can make an impact through grass-roots efforts.

The documentary’s message echoes Schulman’s own experience making the film, which she originally approached as “a great side job idea to do for free.” But instead, she says, “It’s turned into this incredibly all-encompassing thing … and it’s changed my life.”

For Farrow, the turning point was her trip to Darfur in 2004 as a UNICEF ambassador. The actress says it awakened her and pushed her to get out of her comfort zone, prompting her to write editorials, take pictures and visit campuses across the country.

“It changed the way I needed to live my life,” Farrow says. “With what I saw … came a responsibility for me to do my utmost to end the suffering that I had witnessed there, and I am discovering daily what my utmost is.”

Since then, Farrow has traveled to Darfur twice and taken pictures that were published in People magazine in July 2006. She was also published in the Chicago Tribune later that year and the Los Angeles Times in 2007.

However, women in Hollywood, particularly celebrities, face skepticism when going public about their humanitarian efforts, and they are often dismissed as self-serving, says Mitchell, president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media.

“But how much fun can it be to travel to Darfur?” Mitchell asks, rhetorically. “Obviously, they’re doing it because they care and they’re serious.”

Some women in Hollywood are even self-conscious about being publicly involved in non-profit organizations, including Jewel, who started “Project Clean Water,” which aims to bring drinking water to poor communities around the world.

“I always felt uncomfortable as a celebrity trying to raise money,” says the singer, who explains that she created the project because she was once homeless and could not afford to buy enough drinking water to treat her kidney problem. “It’s easy to question their motives when you see people up there rallying the flag about stuff they honestly don’t know much about.”

“I’m no one to tell (others) what to do,” Angelina Jolie tells Variety. “But I do believe that if they made the effort to go out there and see what I’ve seen, they’d want to know more and they’d be inspired to get involved.”

Mitchell, who is now on the board of V-Day and Human Rights Watch, says she was encouraged to avoid raising women’s issues when she started her career as a reporter and TV host and faced much resistance when she made a point to cover these issues anyway.

Back in 1989, she traveled to the Middle East for six months to produce a documentary, “Women in War: Voices from the Front Lines,” challenging her superiors at NBC who thought no one would care, and ended up selling the film to A&E.

“I quickly realized that the reason doors open,” she says, “is because someone has forced them open.”

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