A former Marine's unfiltered photography leads an American documentary crew into Darfur
Babies with their heads smashed in, run over by a truck. Men castrated and left to bleed to death. Charred corpses of people whose ears had been cut off and eyes gouged out. Villages of 20,000 burned to the ground. In 2005, former U.S. Marine Brian Steidle came back from Darfur having smuggled out these classified photos, which he had taken during his six-month post as an unarmed military observer for the African Union. Initially, there was some interest, sparked by a New York Times piece by Nicholas Kristof in which Steidle's photos were published. He even got to physically hand the photos to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who all but blew him off while thanking him for his dedication.
So, Steidle made the cable news rounds, his mouth set in the thin, grim line of someone who has in his words seen things that people shouldn't see. He had proof that the Sudanese government was not only funding the Janjaweed (roughly translated to "devil on a horse," the name for the Arab militia that does the killing and burning and raping of the non-Arab Sudanese) but that government agents were even, in some cases, riding alongside them. He had stories to go along with his photographs, names of children who had died in their mothers' arms. One particularly moved him: a toddler who died from a bullet hole in her side.
But Steidle was vying for the attention of the comfortable American masses in a territory so crowded with misery not only by our occupation of Iraq and the resulting violence but also by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and our government's inability to cope with it. Eventually, news people stopped calling, and the documented deaths of what are now more than 400,000 people fell away to make room for round-the-clock coverage of one blond girl, gone missing in Aruba.
It was around this time that Steidle met with Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, who were just wrapping up their last project, a documentary 11 years in the making called The Trials of Darryl Hunt. The filmmakers were initially contacted by Steidle's sister, Gretchen Wallace, who was looking for advice on how to make a documentary about her work in the AIDS crisis in South Africa. After learning what her brother had witnessed in Sudan, Wallace shifted her focus to Darfur, and she and her brother decided to return to the region, this time focusing on the refugee camps. "Annie and Ricki helped us see how compelling a story about Brian as an American witness would be," explains Wallace, who is one of the producers of the film and who has since founded Global Grassroots, the film's nonprofit fiscal sponsor. "They very quickly secured development support from HBO so that we could take a film crew with us."
And so armed with pens, paper, his sister, a translator, and cinematographer Jerry Risius (Our Brand Is Crisis) Steidle returned to the refugee camps in Chad to reconnect with the people he had met while working for the AU. There, they captured what turns out to be the most emotionally powerful footage of the film: a graceful, graying man named Adam Mussa eloquently explaining to Steidle and Wallace how thankful he is for the scant attention his people get from the Americans and asking where the Arab countries are, for he is a Muslim. As Mussa gets up and walks around the corner of a building, Steidle and his sister sit, helpless to do anything but offer their sincere promises they will get this message out to the world. Only then, once Mussa believes he is out of frame, does he allow himself to pause and cry, slumped shoulders shaking, before he continues to walk away, back to the camera.
It is by interspersing moments like this one with more than a thousand of Steidle's devastating photographs that Stern and Sundberg weave a tale that tells more about one guy's struggle with his country's indifference than it does about the conflict in Darfur. "Ultimately, I think that why the film works as an issue-based or educational film is because of Brian's perspective," Sundberg explains. "He's an American everyman to whom, hopefully, people can relate. The only way we could get American investors and audiences to give a shit about Africa was through Brian's eyes. He has no agenda; he went to the Sudan for a paycheck and was so horrified by what he found there that he has dedicated his life to the cause."
But in large part, the film's purpose is to engage and educate the American public enough so that people will do something as simple as writing a letter to their senators. "We're really excited to be coming to Texas, because there are incredible student organizations and interfaith groups who have been really behind this issue in Austin, like STAND [Students Taking Action Now: Darfur] and the Genocide Intervention Network," Sundberg says. "Texas is also great for us because one of the biggest things on the books right now is the Sudanese divestment legislation, a great example of an incredibly effective strategy that doesn't necessarily involve sending troops to Darfur."
To learn more about House Bill 667, the divestment legislation in the House of Texas Representatives, see www.sudandivestment.org/texas or come to the launch party of the Helping Other People Everywhere Campaign at Lucky Lounge on Saturday, 5-9:30pm, where Steidle, Wallace, and Sundberg will be in attendance.
The Devil Came on Horseback
Regional PremiereSunday, March 11, 9:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Tuesday, March 13, 1:45pm, Alamo South Lamar