Seldom do documentaries do their job as effectively and substantially as “The Devil Came on Horseback,” a potently informative and affecting look at the genocide occurring in Darfur. An American witness’ account of the horror serves as the film’s center. The picture it presents of this site-specific example of humanity at its ugliest is hard-hitting and indelible.
For anyone needing a background byte, more than 400,000 people have been killed and nearly 3 million have been displaced in Darfur, Sudan, where Arab militias known as the Janjaweed (“devil on horseback”) have systematically killed black Africans. The Sudanese government arms and funds the Janjaweed.
Filmmakers Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern present the situation largely through the eyes of Brian Steidle, a 30ish former U.S. Marine captain who, in 2004, became an African Union monitor of Sudan’s civil-war cease-fire. The job took him to the province of Darfur, and here, a place off-limits to journalists, he witnessed atrocities such as rape, mutilation and the burning of villages. Armed with just a camera, he took pictures.
After the African Union failed to act on his reports, Steidle left Sudan and smuggled more than 1,000 photos back to the United States. The New York Times’ publication of some of them sparked additional interest in Darfur, and Steidle — a refreshingly modest man as documentary subjects go — has since become an activist pushing for world intervention in Sudan.
Tonally, the movie can be shaky. Arty elements and the use of reenactments clash with the gritty content. At times, the film plays like a profile of Steidle. This takes away screen time from African commentary.
But the film is a significant and compelling portrayal of an ongoing crisis that no one seems to want to hear about. It also scores points as a call to action. It is almost ticket-worthy alone for the rock-solid evidence it provides of the genocide: Steidle’s graphic photos; Janjaweed members who admit that Khartoum sanctions their ethnic cleansing; Darfur survivors who tell horrific stories.
In another memorable passage, Steidle visits Rwanda. He breaks into tears from the knowledge that hell has repeated itself, and the moment stays with you.
But Steidle also puts forth a driving belief that individuals can, and must, make a difference. A sunshine fest this movie isn’t, but it’s an imperative viewing experience.
The Devil Came on Horseback ***
Starring Brian Steidle
Written and directed by Annie Sundberg, Ricki Stern
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes