“Darfur Now,” which opens Friday is one of the most powerful documentaries of the decade. But filmmaker Ted Braun still can’t wrap his mind around the horror he stepped into.
Over the last four years, more than 2.5 million Sudanese have been targeted by the government and government-backed militia (Janjaweed) because of their race. The result found hundreds of thousands of civilians either murdered or driven out of their villages and into the desert, where they now watch the thin thread of hope continue to slip off of their fingers.
The current death toll hovers just north of 250,000. The U.S. has dubbed the killings genocide. Word is still out from the United Nations.
“I am not a storm-the-barricades kind of guy,” says Braun, “but I am curious about human beings. I made this film out of the belief that one of the greatest things art and education can do is to imagine what it is to really be human.”
It’s the very thing that makes the director’s debut odyssey so compelling. By using a multi-pronged storytelling approach, he detours the effort from becoming “Darfur 101.”
Bland it’s not.
Instead, audiences are left to embrace a more humanized tale that revolves around the first-hand experiences of six people. There’s actor Don Cheadle’s passion for peace in Darfur, a UCLA student striving to get a bill passed that would keep California’s state funds out of the country and a Darfurian mother overcoming the brutal murder of her 3-month-old son, to note a few.
“I’ve heard peoples’ stories 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,” Braun says of the locals he met during the five-month shoot earlier this year. “I heard the most unimaginable atrocities about what people had been through, and what happened to their villages.
“Some men and women gave me permission to start filming on the spot because they had nothing left to fear and were willing to die,” he adds. “Others would only meet me clandestinely and made me promise to conceal their identities.”
He says he came home “with an obligation to the Darfurians unlike any I’ve felt before.”
Overall, filming in the region proved challenging. Braun and his crew were under constant scrutiny by the government, and treks through destroyed villages kept everybody on edge. It did, however, allow him to absorb all sides of the conflict.
“Like any government there are divisions, there are different ideas about how the country should be run,” he says. “There are members of the government who genuinely want peace in Darfur, and the people there to once again enjoy a way of life they’ve had for centuries.”
He particularly wanted to underscore in the film how important it was to engage the Muslim, Arab-speaking world in a way “that they feel respected, understood and included.”
But mostly, Braun was struck by how many seemingly insurmountable obstacles in Sudan could be overcome by two things: “Patience and a willingness to hear people out.”