Perhaps it will take a Michael Moore to ignite appropriate public outrage over the genocide in Darfur, but until then, docu helmer Paul Freedman’s “Sand and Sorrow” will help fill the bill. Narrated and co-exec produced by George Clooney, the pic may not organize its information especially well, but with subject matter like this, structure seems less important than getting the message across. Combining interviews with campaigners, commentators and people on the ground, the docu seems best pitched for small screens and the kinds of school groups that have taken up Darfur as their cause.
Freedman picked up the Inspiration Award at Monte Carlo’s new Intl. Emerging Talent Film Festival in May, a supportive nod to the film’s importance. It’s odd that it’s taken so long for someone to make a mainstream docu on Darfur, though, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof points out, the news media, and TV in particular, have been scandalously quiet.
The region’s problems began in 1956, when Sudan’s Arab population took the reins of power following independence. Exasperated by decades of institutionalized neglect and famine, black tribal leaders formed the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) in 2001 with the idea of finally fighting back.
Once the SLA organized, Sudan closed the area’s borders, banned the press and unleashed its infamous militias, the janjaweed. What followed was the systematic destruction of villages throughout the region, with rape, mutilation and murder on a massive scale. The government continues to deny involvement, though documented attacks by Antonov fighter planes make it clear sorties are directed from the capital.
In 2004, Kristof’s columns were the first to bring mainstream attention to the conflict, but little has been done so far, and the world inaction over Rwanda casts a pall over the current apathy. Freedman, whose docu “Rwanda: Do Scars Ever Fade?” won a Peabody award, is keen to place the Darfur displacement and slaughter in perspective with the Holocaust and other genocides of the late 20th century. As Elie Wiesel points out, “From knowledge to action, there’s an abyss.”
Action is hampered not just by international disregard for a distant people, but by the particular realpolitik of the post-9/11 era. When the U.S. declared war on terror, the Sudanese government responded as an ally, bedding down with the CIA in ways that practically guaranteed America would avert its eyes from problems in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. So a population is murdered, 2 million people are displaced, and the world debates whether the term “genocide” really applies.
Pulitzer Prize winner Samantha Power is particularly good at cutting through the rhetoric, explaining how the debate was merely a diversion from action. A small civilian peacekeeping force posted to the region is allowed merely to observe, not protect, reducing them to straightjacketed witnesses to the rampage. Pic could have devoted more screen time to one of these peacekeepers — a Ghanaian woman named Sabina Blay, who has organized a forum for rape victims at a refugee camp in Chad.
Several times Freedman returns to Batavia High School in Illinois and the student activists dedicated to getting the world to take notice. Oddly, he’s ignored the evangelical denominations that have also championed the cause.
“Sand and Sorrow” is punctuated with gruesome photos showing corpses horrifically disfigured and villages burned to the ground, meant to shock the viewer into action. As written, Clooney’s narration begins a bit portentously, but settles into an appropriately earnest explication of the situation, calibrating disbelief with a controlled sense of emotional indignation.