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A 'Horse' With New Name
It all plays out on a battlefield of barbaric dimensions rather than on a football field of fun and games, however, as Team Darfur is very much on the losing end of the twilight zone marked off by man's inhumanity to man.
"The Devil Came on Horseback" needs no gallop poll to remind one of its importance as an eyewitness account of egregious genocide in Darfur, where its Arab government guns for its black African native sons and daughters.
There is no such thing, of course, as a gentle genocide, but the viciousness and vociferousness of the Arabs' attempt to wipe out its wounded people is staggering in its strike at the heart.
A 'Horse" with new name? "Devil" delves into the assault through the eyes of U.S. Marine Captain Brian Steidle, armed for an Armageddon using camera and confidence that hope will ultimately win out. Both are ultimately shattering and shattered.
As co-director with Annie Sundberg, Ricki Stern has steered her camera through the grit and the grime of gruesome reminders that the devil on horseback saddles all with his destructive romp. "What we hope," says Stern, "is that this experience of seeing the film will collectively move people to action."
It is certainly moving them to tears. The co-producer with Sundberg and director of PBS's "POV" entry of "In My Corner," Stern has cornered emotion here and withstood its attempt to escape the facts.
Fact is, she says, Darfur dares people to connect -- and many are taking up the challenge. Never again? Never underestimate the impact of history. "I'm not sure it can be said that the Jewish community has more of an obligation to help," reasons Stern of its Holocaust legacy, "but it has risen to the task and has embraced the issue. They have taken it under their wing."
If "Devil" flies at all, it is because it presents the genocide not in a vacuum but as a vicissitude, an outrageous outgrowth of mankind itself. On one level "such barbarity is shocking," says the filmmaker, albeit one that's not unexpected.
"If you look at mankind's history, you realize that, after all, we are barbarians."
But who is there to stop them at the gate? Filmmakers such as Stern and Sundberg. "The story of Brian" -- who captained his soul to serve others in delineating the story of Darfur and has since resigned his commission to concentrate on bringing the sad story to the screens of the world -- "inspired me to make this movie. On one level it's his personal story, and we also look at it as a documentation of genocide."
Movie -- or movement -- of the weak? Didn't the public abandon Biafra, and weren't they so out of Africa once it played out its hipness factor of helping?
"There is a danger of what is called 'Darfur fatigue,' " concedes the documentarian of docility setting in after passion plays out.
"Some people question, 'Are we really making a difference?' The answer is yes."
Tears of despair to tears of joy? The topic tears at many, but "there is a quietly growing outcry that [action] has made a difference."
How different it all was six months ago, when "we showed the film at Sundance [Film Festival], and people didn't even know what Darfur was."
They do now, taking the treacherous trip not because of reading a treatise about it but by seeing a treasure of a work such as Steidle's sad and significant film.
"When you put an interesting person in extraordinary circumstances, something important can happen," says Stern of the marine on a mission.
Hellbent hero or humble historian? "He thinks of himself as just a guy out there to bear witness."
Witness his predecessors and see how important it all is to history. The filmmaker puts it all in focus by comparing Steidle with another statesman of history, Elie Wiesel, whose decades of bearing witness as a Holocaust survivor have served to keep that horrid era in the world's mind's eye.
"I don't think Brian would compare himself [to Wiesel], but I do. Anybody who has lived through a genocide is in the same situation."
Stern and Sundberg, Sundance darlings, sit at the top of the world now, unearthing topics to take on through their Break Thru Films. But taking a break from the gloom and doom of genocide is going to be a short one for Stern, whose next projected film -- "one for hire" -- is on teen suicide, where the killing fields prove to be at times in one's own backyard.
And if Brian's song is one that plays out thousands of miles away on the dark and damaged corners of Darfur, it is quite obvious, notes this accomplished filmmaker, that its echoes resonate in the real world, where hope and horrors are thrown together in a death match buffeted by the brutality of the past.