"Glory" was about black soldiers fighting in the Civil War, "The Siege" about the threats of domestic terrorism, "Courage Under Fire" about the aftermath of the first Iraq War and "Last Samurai" about warrior societies. He first gained Hollywood status as the executive producer of the influential "thirtysomething" TV series about boomer rights-of-passage.
"Blood Diamond," among other subjects, focuses on how the worldwide demand for diamonds allowed violent, inhumane rebels in the West African nation of Sierra Leone to fund their atrocities through a smuggling scheme. "As a very young kid, at Passover my grandparents would bring in people from the world who needed a place to go," recalled the Chicago-born Zwick, during an interview at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. "It doesn't sound like a political act, but it turned out to be one - the idea you are part of something larger than yourself.
"Certainly, something central to what I understand about Judaism has to do with social conscience and being aware of the world one lives in," continued the 54-year-old director.
He has a quick, concise way of answering questions in a soft voice that does not waste time: "That is something very important to me, and to find a way to get it into my work has always been central.
"And I'm also a child of 1960s," he added. "To have gone to university in the late 1960s-early 1970s and be part of any number of moments of political history forged whatever consciousness I have."
The action in "Blood Diamond" -- which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly and Djimon Hounsou -- occurs during the late 1990s, when Sierra Leone rebels attack the capital city and slaughter and maim civilians on a massive scale.
There are many fictional elements to the plot, in which DiCaprio plays a South African-"Rhodesian" diamond smuggler-arms supplier, Connelly a crusading reporter and Hounsou an innocent Sierra Leonean forced by rebels to work a diamond field. Zwick developed the story with screenwriter Charles Leavitt.
But Zwick based his grueling, terrifying depictions of the war on research into what actually happened. Among other things, Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front rebels forced kidnapped children to become killers. Its soldiers also intimidated civilians by amputating their limbs.
The film, in one of its most controversial elements, depicts a British diamond company that knowingly purchases smuggled stones. Zwick acknowledged, without making accusations, that it is modeled on De Beers, the British-based worldwide leader in the mining and supply of rough diamonds.
Sierra Leone is now at peace, achieved with the help of international intervention, and trying to recover from its strife. But its recent history makes for many harrowing scenes in "Blood Diamond." The fact that the rebels sold diamonds to support their monstrous acts, relying on a worldwide "lust for bling," might make some moviegoers wonder about their own unwitting complicity in all this.
It is an issue directly tied to the Jewish community. The diamond industry has traditionally employed many Jews in all its manufacturing and sales aspects. Here in Los Angeles, Jews -- including many who are Orthodox -- are well-represented as merchants in the downtown Jewelry District.
On its Web site, the Israeli Diamond Industry claims to manufacture two-thirds of all gem-quality diamonds in the world, and the World Diamond Congress held its annual meeting in Israel this year. The German-Jewish Oppenheimer family led De Beers to become the worldwide leader in the mining and sales of rough diamonds, although its patriarch reportedly converted to the Anglican Church in the 1930s. De Beers also has a worldwide retail operation, including a store on Rodeo Drive.
According to author Edward Jay Epstein, who wrote "The Rise and Fall of Diamonds," Jews turned to diamonds as an asset during the Spanish Inquisition, because they could be easily concealed and instantly redeemed wherever they were forced to move. When they fled Lisbon and Antwerp, for instance, they moved to Amsterdam and established diamond-cutting factories.
"One of the great historical ironies is the fact Jews needed a currency for the Diaspora -- something small, something that can be taken with them -- and that led to roles within this industry," Zwick said. But he also added that the "conflict diamond" problem "is more about an industry than a religion."
Or is it?
"Yes, it's a Jewish issue because [so many] of the diamond dealers in the world are Jewish," said a Jewish Los Angeles diamond merchant, who asked not to be named for security reasons. "Think of how many people are employed in the diamond industry in Israel and how vital it is to that economy."
Well ahead of "Blood Diamond's" release, the diamond industry moved to address the problem of "blood diamonds" used by rebels in Sierra Leone, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other nations with insurgencies in the 1990s. The Congo still has problems. At the same time, it wants to protect the economies of African nations like Botswana, where legitimate trade in diamonds is an important means of jobs and growth.
The World Diamond Council was created in 2000, the same year that the diamond industry -- along with governments involved throughout the diamond-business pipeline -- set up a UN-mandated voluntary self-policing effort called the Kimberley Process to stop this trade. It was implemented in 2003. De Beers is a member of the council.
Among other Kimberley Process activities, African nations attest to warranties attesting that their exported rough diamonds are "conflict-free." This was implemented in 2003 and the World Diamond Council said the flow of such diamonds has declined from 4 percent of the world market in the late 1990s to less than 1 percent today.
"It's been now seven years since the Kimberley Process was created and the industry has made huge strides in this," said Carson Glover, the World Diamond Council's U.S. spokesperson. "We've gone from a small percent of world diamond supply to virtually no percent" [being of "conflict" origins].There are still problems. Amnesty International charged this year that $23 million worth of diamonds had been smuggled out of West Africa, especially from the politically unstable Ivory Coast through nearby Ghana. But the Kimberley Process at its November meeting moved to stop that.
Zwick hoped that "Blood Diamond" will educate consumers about all this, so they'll know to demand that the diamonds they buy in stores be certified "conflict-free." The Kimberley Process does not mandate that retailers provide customers with such warranty paperwork. Zwick is aiding Amnesty International and another human rights group, Global Witness, in publicizing the www.blooddiamondaction.org Web site. The council also has an informational Web site, www.diamondfacts.org.
Zwick wants consumers to learn to care.
"It's a very easy set of choices one can make," he said. "It's just about educating oneself and making responsible informed choices. The Kimberley Process can be strengthened through consumer pressure."
Glover said the World Diamond Council --which has financed a public relations campaign tied to the movie's release -- isn't worried that "Blood Diamond" will cause a drop in diamond sales. The retail side of the trade, from the polishing to the final sales, is a $65 billion annual worldwide business.
"Diamond jewelry sales have never been stronger," he said. "This will be the fourth consecutive year of growth. And if you take out 2001 -- and we all know what happened in 2001 -- there have been 11 years of growth. For a very long time, diamonds have been the perfect expression of emotion for men who have trouble saying what they feel."
Still, as the L.A. diamond merchant warily said: "Nobody needs a diamond. It's not a food."
Especially concerned is Partnership Africa Canada, a Kimberley Process supporter that in 2000 published a report, "The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security," calling attention to the rebels' trade in "blood diamonds." It's worried the film may hurt the nation's recovery efforts if people stop buying diamonds from Sierra Leone.
"Some of these films create an image of ongoing horror and suggest that nothing has changed," said its executive director, Bernard Taylor, in a press release.
If all this sounds like a lot of politics for a Hollywood action film to be concerned about, that's the way Zwick likes it.
"As an audience member, I'm always more interested if there's meat on the bone," he said. "Our first obligation is to entertain, because people need that in life. But one way to get there is to engage people's conscience by helping them understand their connection to the greater world.
"If you're a 19-year-old, and you want to see this cool movie about this guy and helicopters and action and explosions, you're coming to a movie to have a 'movie experience,'" Zwick explained. "But if along the way you ask yourself questions about what it is to be a consumer and buy things and where it comes from, you'll have had a richer experience.
"Blood Diamond" opens in theaters on Dec. 8.
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