The Devil Came on Horseback had a special screening tonight as part of the Fourth Arab Film Festival at the Heights Theater. The film was finished just in time for Sundance a few weeks ago and is still being fine tuned for further release. What should have been a humanitarian rally cry against the atrocities in Sudan became a heated debate largely discrediting the film and the director, who was present. While lines were being drawn on who was an Arab and who was an African and who was a black person and who was a white person in the post-screening "discussion", our little microcosm could have stood for any conflict where blame becomes the focal point. I'm a white person who has never been to Africa, and I think The Devil Came on Horseback is an important film. Blame me.
The Devil Came on Horseback follows former US Marine Brian Steidle as he takes a job as a cease-fire monitor in Sudan and then takes the job as a African Union observer in the Darfur region. He photographs what he sees and files reports together with his team members. Brian could not be more of a flag waving American, but he does everything to break the uncompasionate racist stereotype that I have about young men in the Marines. In many ways, I think the power of the film is seeing GI Joe take the role of humanitarian. This film reminded me so much of Peter Raymont's Shake Hands with the Devil that followed Canadian Lt-General Romeo Dallaire, who led the pathetically unarmed UN peacekeeping mission to Rwanda in 1994. The guilt of helplessness that has haunted Mr. Dalliaire for years will no doubt haunt Mr. Steidle. Shouldn't it haunt us?
It is estimated that 450,000 have been killed and 2.5 million people have been displaced. Even assuming those numbers aren't totally accurate, I think we can all agree that this is not a good thing. But fixing it, means finding the cause, and that is not so easy. In the latter half of the film, Brian decides he can't go on in Darfur and leaves. He quickly realizes that what he has witnessed must be shared. After Nicholas Kristof printed Brian's story and some of his pictures in the New York Times, he was quickly pushed to the forefront of the issue. The film shows Brian in a talk at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, where, in the Q&A, Sudanese get up a start to discredit everything he has said. One man even uses the statement that he "does not trust this man 100%."
This scene was reenacted in the post-screening Q&A. Much of the passionate discussion stemmed from the simplification of Arabs vs. Blacks that demonized Arabs as conspirators with a corrupt government. It seemed as though many took this personally, especially audience members from Sudan, and in what is a very emotional and volatile topic, even for the uninvolved, I can't say that I blame them. The "moderator" denied the term genocide for the situation in Dafur and then furthermore accused some of the refugees in the film of acting. One of the most unfortunate comments came from a member of Mizna's film committee that discredited the film because it was narrated by a white person and directed by a white person. I can't believe how quickly people needed to point fingers. Director Annie Sundberg maintained diplomacy, but defended her film as an attempt to reach the American public. That is the point. The people who need to see this film are not people who would be attending an Arab film festival. The people who need to see this film are kids who can not find Iraq on a map (let alone Sudan), people who can identify with Brian Steidle, and the people who have ignored the news about Darfur. This film has the best chance of reaching those people.
Other opinions where certainly being offered up and occasionally a person would actually ask the director a question, but overall the conversation was very heated. On a positive note, many stuck around to hash out their differences.