they didn't know much about Darfur before they began work on "The Devil Came on Horseback."
In early 2005, they were finishing "The Trials of Darryl Hunt," a documentary about a black man wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of a white woman. But in March, The New York Times published an editorial by Nicholas Kristof on the genocide in Darfur, with horrifying photographs of men, women and children who had been slaughtered by militias controlled by the Sudanese government. An American ex-Marine named Brian Steidle, who had spent six months working as a peacekeeper for the African Union, had taken the photos.
2Both Sundberg and Stern recognized the germ of a potentially powerful film. "To her credit, Annie jumped on it," recalls Stern.
The result is "The Devil Came On Horseback," which opened in New York
this week and will open in more cities around the country in the next
With Steidle as guide, the film takes audiences on a journey that is at times almost unbearable. Villages are burned; the bodies of girls raped and murdered are strewn about a hot, dry schoolyard. Steidle, a trained Marine, feels impotent. Focusing his binoculars on militias burning a village, he says in the film that he wishes he had "a scope instead of a camera" so that he might protect people. But his mandate as a peacekeeper does not allow that.
The film inter-cuts news footage and photographs taken during Steidle's return trip to Africa, camera crew in tow, where he interviews Darfur refugees living in camps in eastern Chad, along the Sudanese border. The refugees are personable, open and willing to talk despite the personal danger if the government learns of their candidness about the killings. (Steidle was not only unable to obtain a visa to enter Sudan, he was on a government watch list and feared for his safety.)
"The Devil Came on Horseback" (a rough translation of "Janjaweed," the name given the Arab militias terrorizing and slaughtering the people of Darfur, many of them black Africans) is the first feature to be released about Darfur in the U.S.
Like the spate of films about the Rwandan genocide ("Hotel Rwanda," "God Sleeps In Rwanda," "Sometimes in April," "Gacaca: Living Together in Rwanda?"), it promises to be one of several. This fall, "Darfur Now," narrated by Don Cheadle, is scheduled for release; it focuses on six individuals (including a refugee woman, a lawyer from The Hague, and a United Nations worker) struggling to help in Darfur. A documentary by Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker Edet Belzberg is still in production.
3"The more people will be engaged in this issue, the better," said Sundberg. "Brian's perspective is part one in understanding Darfur, the next films are about activists. Brian was there during the worst of it. His story is very personal and very emotional."
Sundberg and Stern did not accompany Steidle to Chad for "Devil": they sent a director of photography and field producer named Jerry Risius.
"I have to say I'm a veteran DP, and I've been all over the world," said Risius, "and this is the grimmest place I've ever been. There were teenage gangs running rampant, truckloads of eight to 12 kids dressed in fatigues, holding what looked like a quiver of arrows, like William Tell. Except they weren't arrows, they were RPGs, rocket-propelled grenades."
Steidle and Risius visited sprawling refugee camps in eastern Chad, some with 80,000 people living in one camp, and found "complete and utter feelings of hopelessness," said Risius. "There was not one person we met who had not been directly affected by the violence." (Estimates of the number of people killed in Darfur range from 200,000 to 400,000, while some 2.5 million have been displaced.)
But for Risius, it was not the fear or the harsh living conditions that were the most difficult aspects of working on "The Devil Came on Horseback."
The people we interviewed, said Risius, "had so little, but they gave so much. They opened up their lives and shared their stories. Everybody would be invited in for tea, for whatever they had. It was never very much, and maybe the next day they wouldn't be able to eat. But they would serve us, a group of three or four."
"The hardest part," he said, "was leaving--leaving a place you know is in dire straits, hoping that the movie will raise consciousness."
By Nancy Ramsey for CBSNews.com