Crisis of conscience

Gripping doc follows one man's crusade to stop Darfur killings

Anne Sundberg and Ricki Stern's scorching but heartfelt documentary The Devil Came on Horseback not only inspires me to upload my review copy to the Web (I wouldn't) but to also burn thousands of copies and hand them out at shopping malls and grocery stores. I want to send the film to anyone who's complained that Darfur — like the conflicts in Rwanda or Bosnia — is just too complicated to understand and say, "Here, now you have no excuse."

As the Bush administration twists itself into knots over what constitutes genocide — much as it has redefined "torture" — the facts remain the same: The Muslim-led government of Sudan has trained, sponsored and directed a nomadic militia group known as the Janjaweed (which translates to "devils on horses") to rape, murder and drive out black Africans in the region of Darfur. With nearly 400,000 dead and another 1.5 million displaced, the inaction of the West is as maddening as it is shocking.

No one knows this better than Brian Steidle, a former U.S. Marine captain who served as an official observer in Sudan after its 20-year civil war came to an end. Assigned for six months in 2004 to accompany an African Union peacekeeping force during the country's ceasefire, Steidle uncovered a Khartoum-sanctioned campaign by the Janjaweed to slaughter black Africans in the oil-rich territory of Darfur. Armed only with his camera, Steidle documented a seemingly endless string of brutal massacres, photographing murdered children and burnt-out villages.

Sundberg and Stern catch up with Steidle in 2006 as he turns what he's seen and photographed into a one-man mission to prod U.S. intervention. Coming from a long line of military men, the former Marine is a straight-talking activist who passionately takes his case to the media and Bush administration and finds shockingly little success. Even after The New York Times runs his photographs —including pictures of villagers chained together and burned alive — government officials (Condoleezza Rice et al.) display a sickening level of indifference. Worse, the U.S. State Department actually requests that Steidle stop circulating his photos. From impotent politicians to quickly fading celebrity events to creepy pro-Khartoum Arabs who stalk his lectures like Holocaust deniers, the former Marine encounters apathy, ignorance and inaction.

There is no disguising the film's agenda. It urgently seeks to provoke more than just empathy, it demands action. And though the filmmakers can be accused of juicing things up with showy camera angles, quick edits, computer-generated maps and cheesy sound effects, their sins are nothing compared to the nations that allow these atrocities to continue.

In a particularly moving moment near the end, the usually stoic Steidle is caught off guard during a car ride. As he struggles to keep from breaking down, the weary advocate rejects the compliments and thanks he's received for his photography. "Watching is nothing," he says, tearing up. "It's just watching." Steidle's comment could equally apply to audiences who attend movies like these and do nothing afterward. Spectatorship, no matter how empathetic and well-meaning, is wholly inadequate. The violence in Darfur continues unabated.

When asked what the biggest regret of his presidency was, Bill Clinton answered that he wished he had done more to prevent the flashflood of genocide that engulfed Rwanda. Well, Sudan is his chance to make up for it. Yours too. If watching Hotel Rwanda elicited pangs of guilt that you didn't pay more attention or write a letter to your congressman or donate something to someone somewhere, The Devil Came on Horseback is a devastating slap to the face that history, indeed, repeats and "never again" has been trumped by "ignorance is bliss."


Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre inside the DIA (5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237) at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 12-13 and at 4 and 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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