'Darfur Now,' and not later

IT'S not clear whether Washington ever really learned the lesson of Rwanda, but it's quite evident that Hollywood got it with "Hotel Rwanda." Those touched by that 2004 film, which powerfully dramatized the ethnically motivated mass killings there in the mid-'90s that were all but ignored by the world, are determined not to let another African genocide occur unopposed.

This week, Hollywood's campaign to raise awareness about the civilian slaughter continuing in the Darfur region of Sudan was put in full view at the Directors Guild of America premiere of "Darfur Now," a comprehensive and pointed documentary on the war raging between tribes in the East African country. (Relief organizations estimate that between 200,000 and 400,000 people have been killed, while more than 2.5 million have been displaced.)

The film, which opens today in Los Angeles and New York, was written and directed by documentarian Ted Braun and shepherded through industry and governmental red tape by Cathy Schulman, who won the best-picture Oscar in 2006 for co-producing "Crash."

The 1 hour, 39-minute "Darfur Now," which is reviewed on Page E6, features the struggles of six people: a UCLA graduate trying to raise awareness in the United States about the conflict; a Darfurian woman rallying rebels to protect their village; a prosecutor seeking indictments in The Hague; a United Nations humanitarian delivering food; a refugee camp leader seeking calm; and "Hotel Rwanda" actor Don Cheadle lobbying foreign heads of state (along with George Clooney) to help end the crisis. (Bono and Stevie Wonder teamed up to sing Wonder's "Love's in Need of Love Today" over the documentary's closing credits.)

"When I first started working on the film," said Braun, "I was struck by two things: the nature of the autocracies happening to the people of Darfur and the world's indifference to them. We're letting this recurrent nightmare unfold again and again. We wanted to make a film that shows what's happening but also emphasizes that people can work to make a difference."

The conflict in Darfur erupted nearly five years ago when the struggle for water and other limited resources in the drought-stricken region made it difficult for the country's ethnic groups -- with their long-simmering tribal tensions -- to live harmoniously. Rebels seeking relief attacked government buildings and personnel in 2003. Officials in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum allegedly responded by urging horseback-riding Arab militias, known as janjaweed, to attack farming villages loyal to the rebels with the promise that they could keep the land.

Those displaced by the conflict are living in refugee camps in the most wretched conditions imaginable. Many are maimed, sick and dying. Food, water and medical supplies are becoming scarce.

Braun was approached by his agent, Dean Schramm, who is married to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, last year about the prospect of doing a documentary about the crisis. Braun contacted Schulman, who had learned about Darfur in conversations with Cheadle during the making of "Crash," to see if she would help.

"It's the first time I've ever been told yes in the room," Braun said.

Schulman said: "If there is ever a time to do something, it's now."

They obtained seed money for the project from another Darfur advocate, Steven Spielberg, through his Righteous Persons Foundation. Then they went to Participant Productions, the group that helped finance Al Gore's global warming documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," for more financial backing.

The potential was obvious: They had an opportunity to do for Darfur what "An Inconvenient Truth" had done for global warming and the green movement: make it a mainstream concern.

The studios got into a bidding war for distribution rights even before filming began on "Darfur Now." It was eventually sold to Warner Independent.

Then trouble: Production was delayed for months while the crew sought government permits to film from both the U.S. and Sudanese governments. Warner's Washington, D.C., gurus, meanwhile, flew to Los Angeles to deliver a strong warning: Sudan is not only dangerous but it's also under a U.S. trade embargo. If the crew spent any money in the country -- even to buy a pack of gum or secure a hotel room -- they could be jailed for breaking the law. (To make the point with a bit of humor, they gave Schulman a spoof picture depicting her behind bars.)

"How often does a low-budget documentary wake up the people in the lobbying office of Time Warner in Washington, D.C.?" Schulman asked.

And if that wasn't enough, they came up against another obstacle: Insurance companies that back Hollywood productions were worried about getting involved. Finally, one did -- for a hefty sum. "It became the largest line in the budget," Schulman said.

In January, Braun took his crew of five into Darfur. They spent four months there as a roving band of camera-toting campers, bringing their own supplies into the country.

There have been several other Hollywood documentaries made on the conflict, but "Darfur Now" marks the first time an American film crew was given largely unrestricted access by the Sudanese government. In the coming weeks, participants plan to launch a public service campaign -- featuring NBA star Tracy McGrady, who also has traveled to the region -- to raise awareness and urge people to see the film.

"I didn't want the audience stuck in a closet with people talking about what's going on," Braun said. "We wanted to take them there so they could feel it for themselves."


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