Last week I got a chance to preview – The Devil Came on Horseback – a feature documentary about the genocide in Darfur.
Here’s a blurb - “THE DEVIL CAME ON HORSEBACK will expose the violence and tragedy of the genocide in Darfur as seen through the eyes of a lone American witness. Using thousands of uncompromising and exclusive photographs taken by former US Marine Captain Brian Steidle during his role as a military observer with the African Union, THE DEVIL CAME ON HORSEBACK leads you through the tragic impact of an Arab government bent on destroying its black African citizens.”
(Disclosure: The film is supported by Humanity Unity, a group that is closely associated with Omidyar Network, my employer.)
It’s a very powerful and well-made film. It would be so easy to really screw up a documentary dealing with genocide. This is why it works so well.
In many fictional character-driven plots, the hero faces a dilemma, a call to action, resists it at first and later makes a heroic choice. For Brian the choice was not whether or not to go to Sudan. He was compelled by the financial reward. Brian’s challenge came after he returned to the US: He had the photos and the first hand account but going public with the story would cut him off from the possibility of similar contract work. The State Department also urged him not to rock the diplomatic boat – not to mount a campaign to expose the genocide that he witnessed first hand.
Brian is not a slick speaker which is good. He comes across as an ordinary Jimmy Steward kind of character -- reluctantly drawn into a complicated, evil plot. But he really does find his voice when speaking at a rally in Washington last spring. It’s really fun to see someone who you feel like you know getting nervous about addressing the crowd. Then he did such a great job that it sent chills down my back.
It sounds like the filmmakers are planning a theatrical release and a grassroots organizing campaign in conjunction. I’m not sure how well the film will do commercially since you’d expect many will lean toward lighter entertainment when facing the choice at the multiplex or the channel changer. Perhaps Al Gore paved the way for some success. Like “An Inconvenient Truth” the filmmakers have made a smart choice to focus on a character. Brian works well as a vehicle for audience members to imagine themselves on the same journey. Hopefully the promotion of the film can focus on this angle, and attract a wide audience.
Keep your eyes open for a chance to see it later this year.
In the mean time – you can take a look at the anti-genocide organizing going on at omidyar.net.