“BLOOD DIAMOND,” Ed Zwick’s film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly, doesn’t open until Dec. 15, but it’s already getting more free publicity than Warner Bros. could have dreamed of. Set in the late ‘90s when rebel militias seized control of Sierra Leone’s diamond mines, selling rough gems to buy weapons they used to slaughter and mutilate many thousands of innocent people, “Blood Diamond” tells a fictional tale of two South Africans, a white mercenary and a black fisherman, who find a rare pink diamond. But even two months before its release the film has spurred talk that it could turn consumers off to buying diamonds for fear their money would be supporting murderers.
De Beers, the international diamond cartel that controls the majority of the world’s diamonds, has gone on the offensive to try to distance the industry from the history depicted in the film. But according to Ken Sunshine, Leonardo DiCaprio’s publicist, those connected with the movie feel the stepped-up public relations efforts have backfired for De Beers. “I hope they keep on publicizing the controversies and our ‘Blood Diamond’ movie,” Sunshine said.
For his part, Zwick says he’s been pleased with the attention. “The changes that have come about in regard to the conflict diamond trade ... came about because of increased attention on the issue. If the film can continue to increase awareness, it will have surpassed my expectations.”
Indeed, as Bonnie Abaunza, Los Angeles-based director of Amnesty International’s celebrity outreach program, points out, the media is covering so-called “conflict diamonds” more now than when Sierra Leone’s bloody civil wars were actually taking place. “It’s amazing that all this attention is on conflict diamonds when no one has even seen the film yet,” she said. Amnesty International is steadily recruiting celebrities in an effort to use the film to focus attention on human rights questions that still surround the diamond industry. For example, Abaunza said, she recently screened “Blood Diamond” for hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons, who works with De Beers on his line of diamond jewelry.
As early as last fall, De Beers head Jonathan Oppenheimer expressed concern that the film might hurt Christmas and Valentine’s Day sales. He asked the filmmakers to add a disclaimer stating that the events in the film are fictional and in the past and that, thanks to the Kimberley Process, which the industry put in place to document where diamonds come from, conflict diamonds end up on the market only very rarely. The filmmakers declined to add it.
De Beers then hired PR big-guns Sitrick and Co., which specializes in Hollywood scandals, while the diamond industry also mounted a PR campaign -- full-page ads in newspapers and online -- to explain the industry’s efforts to control the supply and sale of blood diamonds. “The PR campaign was never designed to fight the film,” said a member of the World Diamond Council publicity team, who asked not to be identified but added that the industry was happy that the issues were being discussed. The publicity campaign, he said, “was designed to educate consumers about a story we should have told years ago.”
In September, unbeknown to Warners, another player entered the diamond PR war: the Kalahari Bushmen of Botswana, who were evicted by the government of Botswana from their land, where De Beers is exploring for diamonds.
The Bushmen, whose advocates say that De Beers’ Botswana diamonds should be considered conflict diamonds, took out a full-page ad in Variety, asking for help from DiCaprio. It read, in part: “Friends have told us that you are in a film, ‘Blood Diamond,’ which shows how badly diamonds can hurt. We know this. When we were chased off our land, officials told us it was because of the diamond finds. Please help us, Sir.”
More international headlines were made when, after the Bushmen ad ran in Variety, Survival International, on behalf of the Bushmen, asked model Linda Evangelista to step down as the new face of De Beers, and asked Mohammed Fayed not to let De Beers open a concession in Harrod’s in London.
Warner Bros., meanwhile, has done no publicity for the film, save releasing the trailer last week. It was a tightly closed set while shooting in Africa, which only finished a few months ago. Only a few critics have seen the still-unfinished film, and studio reps are tight-lipped on details of their publicity plans. In September 2005, De Beers’ Oppenheimer expressed concerns about the film to diamond dealers and retailers at an industry convention in Cape Town, South Africa.
“Can you imagine its impact on the Christmas-buying audience in America if the message is not carried through that this is something of the past?” Oppenheimer asked. “That this is something that has been managed and taken care of?”
In February 2006, Kago G. Moshashane, the deputy secretary of Botswana’s Ministry of Minerals, Energy and Water Resources, and Eli Izhakoff, chairman of the World Diamond Council, sent a joint letter to Zwick asking the filmmaker to show how mine owners have reduced the Sierra Leone conflict diamond trade. But on June 27, Zwick told Eonline, “We’re all aware of the Kimberley Process. The movie details the events of 1999 and our facts are in order. And we’re not negotiating with anyone as to the content of our movie and we’ll make the movie as we see fit.”
Public relations effort
In September, the diamond industry began its multimillion-dollar campaign to “educate consumers” about the Kimberley Process. But to some observers, the very scale of the costly campaign has raised suspicion. “The multimillion-dollar PR campaigns, full-page ads in major newspapers, outreaches to consumers and journalists with their new website [www.diamondfacts.org].... Oddly, none of this is working in their favor. Everyone is asking, ‘Why are they doing this? What do they fear?’ ” Abaunza said.
The Kimberley Process, which the diamond industry insists has reduced blood diamonds to 1% of stones sold, has been criticized by Amnesty International and Global Witness for being ineffective and corrupted. Amy O’Meara of Amnesty International’s Business and Human Rights Program described it as fundamentally flawed. “There is no effective way to track the stones from point of origin to point of sale,” she said. “They need an auditable tracking system. The diamond industry is asking us to take them at their word. That’s not good enough. There is so much money at stake and so many hands in the pot. It’s easy for the system to be corrupted.”
The Kimberley Process came under attack last week when the Government Accounting Office (GAO) recommended that the diamond industry and the U.S. government do more to stop conflict diamonds from entering the U.S. The GAO report acknowledged that the legitimate trade of rough diamonds can help African economies, but it added that rough diamonds remain a major cause for concern. Even the Department of Homeland Security is getting into the act. According to a Reuters report last week, the department released a response to the GAO report, pledging to work with the State Department to record detailed information about diamonds entering this country, as well as conducting periodic random examinations of diamond shipments.
Casualties of war
Those who have seen the film say that the industry has good reason to be nervous. A dozen real child amputees are seen in the film, victims of the civil wars fueled by the conflict diamond trade. And the film also focuses on other casualties of the wars: millions of refugees and thousands of child soldiers, young boys stolen from their families and trained to kill and perform atrocities. The ending of the film states that there are still 200,000 child soldiers in Africa.
The film also depicts an international diamond cartel named Van Der Kaap that knowingly buys conflict stones from rebels and mercenaries and stockpiles the gems in their European vaults to stop them from flooding the gem market and causing a drop in diamond prices.
De Beers has long been criticized for being a monopoly and has been banned for a decade from operating in the U.S. for violating antitrust laws. The company settled a 2005 U.S. class action lawsuit for $250 million. The suit accused the company of illegally restraining trade, limiting diamond inventories and falsely advertising the scarcity of diamonds to boost prices.
Those who support strengthening the Kimberley Process are encouraged by the “Blood Diamond” buzz. “There’s been a lot of progress this year since the media has stepped up their coverage of the issue,” O’Meara said.
The issues surrounding conflict diamonds will get strong support from the film’s stars at the Dec. 12 premiere, which may involve Amnesty International and Global Witness. “We’re still in the process of working out details,” a company spokesperson said. “But it’s safe to say that they will be involved in some way.” Amnesty and Global Witness will also co-host an event in Los Angeles on Nov. 14, where they expect representatives from the Diamond Council as well. And AIUSA will be hosting special screenings on 10 campuses around the country to mobilize youthful activists.
“ ‘Blood Diamond’ is real entertainment but it’s also a Trojan horse,” Abaunza said. “Our hope is that after people see this powerful film, they will want to find out more about these issues and what they can do to help.”