Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Devil Came on Horseback

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Devil Came on Horseback

Above all, The Devil Came on Horseback is a portrait of impotence. Its subtitle could be "And There Was Nothing I Could Do About It," or more damningly "And Then We Didn't Do Anything." It documents the crusade of former Marine Brian Steadle who took a job as an observer in the Sudan in 2003. The brutal Islamic regime in Khartuom was winding down a civil war with Christians and animists in the south but something was beginning to happen in the western region of Darfur, where a rebel movement had sprung up to challenge the government. Arab mercenaries were riding into villages on horseback and slaughtering civilians - burning huts, raping women, killing children. These mercenaries, known as the janjaweed, often waited until government planes had finished bombing the villages, and according to their own testimony, Khartuom shared information and even directed them where to go. As hundreds of thousands were killed and millions displaced, it dawned on the world that systematic genocide was taking place in Darfur. And Steadle was there to observe.


That's the key word: "observe." Steadle, trained as a fighter, was restrained by African Union/UN/Sudanese government/U.S. military restrictions - and at any rate what could he have done? One man, perhaps with a gun...and no force behind him to back him up. When his contract ended, Steadle returned to the States, armed with photographs documenting the mutilation and destruction of the black Africans of Darfur. He was convinced that if the public could only see these photos, if the government could only be made aware of what was going on, than the genocide could be brought to a halt. That was 2004/2005, and needless to say, "never again" has become a broken promise once more.

But The Devil Came on Horseback does not really focus on what could be have been done, or on the details of international or U.S. forces taking on Khartuom and the janjaweed. Its focus is on describing the situation, relaying the history of the conflict and Steadle's own involvement, and then following Steadle's attempts to raise awareness about the genocide. Even in its depiction of the genocide, there is a sense of impotence. All the gruesome photographs were taken after the janjaweed had moved through the villages. There are interviews (not as many as I would have liked, but I believe there are other documentaries for that) with victims in displacement camps, after the fact. And the narration informs us of what occurs where the camera cannot go.

It would be too horrific to see these acts actually being committed but we don't even see much footage of janjaweed moving about in the villages. Almost everything in the film is relayed secondhand and I don't think this is unique to this particular production: I seem to recall a "Frontline" special on Darfur which focused almost exclusively on the UN response (or lack thereof) to the crisis. It seems that there simply isn't enough first-hand documentation, that to our own outside impotence we can add the impotence of the people of Darfur - their inability to express their story to the outside world. The most moving parts of the documentary occur in a refugee camp when a man weeps, thanking Steadle simply for being there, for asking what he can do to help.

What will the next president of the United States do about the genocide? I haven't heard much from McCain on the issue, but Obama himself appears in The Devil Came on Horseback, via a TV interview, in which he says, "we need greater pressure from the American public to tell their senators this is something we are paying attention to, and we want you to prioritize it." There is truth to this, but in an analysis of Darfur literature and cinema in the New Republic, Richard Just observes: "The circular nature of this logic is maddening, especially coming from Obama, who may soon be the most powerful man in the world. Such logic misunderstands the way a representative democracy works...Politicians have an obligation to do more than urge us to urge them to formulate solutions to problems."

With failures of nerve all around, only someone like Steadle, who agitates constantly for action, comes off well. It's uncertain if we would have the military capacity to act in this situation given our overextension right now, and how would the country fall behind it? Would the international community go along (by all evidence, the people of Darfur are themselves desperate for intervention - some welcomed Steadle's arrival in a village by crying, "We are so happy that America is here to save us like you have done for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq" - even Americans aren't that optimistic anymore). At any rate, to not even engage in this debate is embarrassing. As Steadle points out, we've seen the pictures, and still nothing has been done.

I can't say I have any easy answer to any of this. As a starting point, the end of the film suggests several websites to visit, and in closing I'll repeat them here:

savedarfur.org
globalgrassroots.org
threegenerations.org

If you know of any others, or have other information or suggestions to offer, please leave them in the comments sections.

No comments: