Darfur documentary stunning in its anguish
If you can get through Brian Steidle's poignant new documentary, "The Devil Came on Horseback," without being affected by the vivid images of genocide, you're probably not human.
After finishing his term as a Captain with the Marines, Steidle comes across a job as an observer for the African Union's (AU) mission monitoring the ceasefire between the Northern and Southern Sudanese. Little does he know that a far more terrifying conflict is going on to the west, in the Darfur region. The AU's mission has recently been extended into an oil-rich province bordering Darfur when Steidle noticed the steady disappearance of various firearms, which were believed to be being transported via the oil pipelines into Darfur. Armed with scant knowledge of the conflict in Darfur and with limited weapons and no mandate to shoot, Steidle and his AU comrades head toward Darfur. The first image that Steidle recalls is of the burnt bodies of schoolgirls who had been handcuffed to the ground as their schoolhouse erupted in flames. All villagers, many of them family members of the students, were similarly attacked. The photos, Steidle writes in a letter home to his sister, were confidential, and he can't send actual copies home ¾ nor does he want to. The images, the ex-Marine said, gave him nightmares.
The film follows Steidle, and the hundreds of photos he took as an AU observer, photos capturing the depths of human evil that Steidle himself could hardly put into words, and eventually his efforts to bring the atrocities to a close.
The horror only continues as the AU troops saw more of Darfur. They watch as the Janjaweed, a Sudanese government-trained and -armed Arab militia whose name literally translates to "devils on horseback," raid, loot and burn village after village ¾ expanding eventually even into camps of Internally Displaced Persons, who have already been forced off their lands by the horrors ¾ and commit atrocity after atrocity against countless innocent civilians.
If, by some miracle, "Devil" were not a documentary, Steidle would be an early pick for an Oscar. He and his devastating photos are without a doubt the film's greatest strengths. Steidle is a character and narrator whom any American can relate to and understand. He's not a polital guru, nor is he a gung-ho war-mongerer or a preachy humanitarian. He's a regular man, one who has already served his country and who is scarred the greatest levels of human indecency and inhumanity, which he witnesses and documents for months on end. He is shocked at the Janjaweed, whom he describes as true devils, for committing such crimes, but most of all, he is shocked by the world for not responding. He expected, he said, in one of his first sent letters home, that if only the world saw the atrocities against the villagers, there would be troops in Darfur within a week. He thought that when AU troops wrote their reports on the atrocities, that the reports would be sent up the ladder and result in some form of justice. He is sorely mistaken.
The film is, above all, an activist film. Steidle urges viewers to write their congressmen, and emphasizes again and again, often through interviews with policymakers including Barack Obama, that once there is a sizable pressure from constituents, the American government will act. The second part of the film follows Steidle's efforts in the US to raise awareness and activism around the issue, including visits to the Holocaust Museum, television appearances and meetings with various government officials, and concludes with a message to viewers to take action through the SaveDarfur coalition. Informational handouts were available at all locations where the film is showing and Steidle and his sister, Gretchen Wallace, were available for many of the later showings of the film.
One of the great tragedies of the affair, says Steidle, is that the AU is barred from protecting the Darfuris. He is left to take pictures and interview Janjaweed and Darfuri citizens alike, to stand by and watch as genocide took place and to wish that he was shooting not a camera, but a weapon, so that he could actually make the difference that he and the other approximately 7,000 AU troops so wanted to make.
"The Devil Came on Horseback" (85 minutes) is unrated, but contains graphic images and sexual references. It is playing at the Avalon Theatre.
If you can't come see the film during it's brief run in the DC area, make sure to check out Students for Global Responsibility's Dinner 4 Darfur coming up in mid-September.
Amanda Pollak. More »