While the point of view of privileged, Anglo observers on African issues usually raises hackles, such is not the case with “The Devil Came on Horseback,” a tense account of former Marine Capt. Brian Steidle’s witnessing of the genocide in Sudan’s western province of Darfur. Since Steidle, armed only with his camera, became an unexpected recorder of ethnic cleansing, his work is uniquely suited to the purposes of documakers Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern. Pic is perfectly framed to appeal to its intended target — a wide American aud — and theatrical posts are certain before TV airings around the world.
Raised (with sister Gretchen Wallace) as a Navy brat in a family with a long military tradition, Steidle chose the Marines to suit his taste for action and danger. In the film’s early stages, it’s fair to start wondering if this is going to be all about Steidle, and why Africans are being backgrounded. But Sundberg and Stern (“The Trials of Darryl Hunt”) are patiently laying the groundwork for their study of the Darfur tragedy and its transformative impact on those who experienced it.
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With some years of infantry command under his belt and unwilling to accept a desk job, Steidle quits his beloved Corps and lands a post with the African Union, looking for neutral observers to track Sudan’s fragile cease-fire, declared in 2004 after a 20-year civil war. Originally stationed east and south of Darfur, Steidle and his group soon realize by the summer that things were going terribly wrong in the huge, remote province bordering Chad.
Maintaining neutrality proves immensely difficult for this all-American-looking guy, trained to hone in on an enemy and be the first to attack. His photographic documentation and evidence piles up to show that a real enemy is at hand in the form of the Janjaweed (or “devil on a horse”) militia, armed and funded by the Arab-dominant Sudanese government, with the mission of wiping out Darfur’s largely black, non-Arab residents. Though government troops had in the past battled two Darfur-based rebel groups, the fight had degenerated into mass slaughter.
Second half traces Steidle’s efforts to bring his video documentation to a Western (above all, American) public. That an ex-Marine peacekeeper had to do the job that was once the province of foreign correspondents is both an unspoken statement on Darfur’s extreme danger and remoteness, and also on the failure of Western — and American — journalism, and in particular, TV journalism to report on Africa.
Steidle contacts New York Times reporter/columnist Nicholas Kristof (at the time, the only significant Yank journo focused on Darfur), which publishes some of Steidle’s brutally frank photos of victims, and spurs a domestic media blitz.
While the images are sure to also keep many viewers awake at night, the lack of widespread public shock about the story leads Steidle to wonder what will wake people’s consciences. It’s at this point the film becomes too focused on Steidle, since a U.S.-based movement to stop Sudan’s atrocities did indeed spring up. Partial proof is a massive rally at which Steidle speaks, alongside an impassioned Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.
Steidle is seen travelling with his sister to Darfur refugee camps in eastern Chad. A visit to Rwanda during the 10th anniversary commemoration of its own genocide brings the former jarhead to tears, capping a remarkably emotional adventure.
Pic keeps visual dazzle to a minimum, and applies subtle techniques to provide a needed background to current events (for instance, Steidle reading aloud his various emails to sister Gretchen and mock-radio announcers reporting on the situation). The only glitch in the film’s design is Paul Brill’s too-polished score. Vid lensing by Sundberg’s and Stern’s team of cinematographers (including Sundberg herself) serves the story, and a lack of talking heads is a real blessing.