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Jewish Journal

Six activists illuminate ‘Darfur Now’ documentary

by Robert David Jaffee

October 18, 2007 | 8:00 pm


'Darfur Now' trailer
While the Darfur crisis enters its fifth year, the American Jewish Committee and Warner Independent Pictures have taken a lead in raising awareness of and combating the genocide in the Western Sudan region, where an estimated 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced. For some time now, the AJC has had a national task force dedicated to Darfur, but in the past year and a half, members of the AJC's Los Angeles branch developed a film proposal that ultimately led to "Darfur Now," a documentary from Warner Independent that follows the efforts of six people to resolve the humanitarian disaster. The film will be released in theaters on Nov. 2.

The project began when Dean Schramm, a Hollywood agent, came back from an AJC meeting, feeling frustrated at his seeming inability to do anything about the genocide. It was then that he had a brainstorm that he could interest one of his clients in making a documentary on the subject. He immediately thought of director/writer Ted Braun, whose credits include "We're Here To Speak for Justice," a documentary about battling for the rights of the developmentally disabled.

Braun and Schramm approached AJC's then-Western Regional Director, Gary Greenebaum, who is now the organization's U.S. Director of Interreligious Affairs.

Greenebaum had never worked on a film before but he said that it involved many of the skills he has used over the years as a rabbi and political activist; as he says, "It's all about people, about communication."

Having a long-standing relationship with the Righteous Persons Foundation did not hurt either. Greenebaum was able to secure a grant of $100,000 from Steven Spielberg's nonprofit, more than the $80,000 that the foundation usually donates to causes.

As executive producer, Greenebaum also contacted Barry Meyer, head of Warner Brothers, and through Schramm got in touch with Cathy Schulman, Oscar-winning producer of "Crash," who coincidentally had also broached the idea of a Darfur film with Don Cheadle, one of her co-producers on "Crash."

"I felt that if there ever was a time to use my fame and that leveraging ability, the time was now," said Schulman, who added that she is "absolutely 100 percent committed to making movies with a socially conscious purpose alongside" the others that she makes.

Schulman said that the single-biggest issue for her was to convince insurers to pony up funds for Braun and the crew "to go to an embargoed country" and film in and out of "armed rebel territory." Otherwise, the costs of the film were low, she says, with many cast and crewmembers getting a stipend or donating their services.

While the genocide has been reportedly carried out against black Africans by the Sudanese government along with Arab terrorists known as janjaweed, "Darfur Now" makes clear that it is not of a religious nature. It typically involves Muslims killing Muslims, as opposed to some newspaper accounts indicating that the genocide pits Muslims against Christians and animists.

Another aspect of the conflict, as articulated in the documentary by the Sudanese Ambassador to the United Nations, is the struggle for natural resources and who will keep them: the herders or the farmers. Some might view the environmental issue as a red herring, sleight of hand by a corrupt government, but the Los Angeles Times recently published an article in which a U.N. humanitarian official indeed stated that "the real problems of Darfur ... come down to the environment."

Although the film leaves little doubt that the government is conducting a genocide, filmmaker Braun felt that it was imperative to show the point of view of all sides.

"I didn't want to dehumanize the perpetrators," he said over the phone. "I had to lay aside my outrage."

He got the approval of Khartoum after he demonstrated to the government that he was concerned with their perspective. But he still had to earn the trust of all the parties to gain the extraordinary access he had. With the help of a translator, he spoke to leaders of roughly 100 different tribes in Darfur. What he originally anticipated would be a two-week research trip turned into three months.

"I drank lots and lots and lots of tea," he said, in order to adhere to the region's culture of hospitality.

As opposed to other films on Darfur like "The Devil Came on Horseback," Braun says that his primary goal was not to educate moviegoers or to document the atrocities, but to "take audiences into the lives of people of Darfur now" and to "put you in the shoes of people trying to put an end to the crisis."

Among the six individuals tracked in the film are actor Don Cheadle, who is seen traveling to China and Egypt with George Clooney; lobbying U.S. political leaders, such as presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Clinton and John McCain; and even signing copies of a book he co-authored on the genocide. One of the film's most moving scenes is when Cheadle chats with his children and then talks to the filmmakers about the kids of Darfur, who are shown kicking an old bicycle tire. The juxtaposition points to the essential innocence of all children, some of whom live in peace while others face marauders on horseback.

Perhaps the most idealistic narrative is that of Adam Sterling, a 24-year-old Southlander and 2006 graduate of UCLA, who is partially of Jewish descent and grew up hearing stories about his grandmother's flight from Europe during the Holocaust. In the course of the documentary, Sterling goes from a political neophyte who is critiqued by an NAACP official for his naivete to an experienced activist who writes a piece of legislation calling for California's divestment from Sudan, lobbies on its behalf, and ends up securing the signature of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The film concludes stirringly with the legislation being signed and indictments being handed down against two Sudanese ministers, but as optimistic as moviegoers may feel after watching the documentary, there is no denying the difficulties of ending the turmoil in the region. Violence has escalated in recent weeks, jeopardizing upcoming peace talks.

In the film, Sterling stresses that the fight to end the genocide must go on even after passage of the divestment bill. Throughout "Darfur Now," some of the strongest support comes from Republican Sen. Sam Brownback. As Greenebaum says, "For any freedom-loving American, it's not about partisan politics."

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