Darfur (2009)

Rating: B

Dir: Uwe Boll
Star: David O’Hara, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Noah Danby, Sammy Sheik

This is an extraordinarily fucked-up film, but then, it is about an extraordinarily fucked-up situation. While you’ve probably heard about the situation in Darfur, it’s something that is vaguely “over there”. The harsh reality is that it’s one of the nastiest civil conflicts of recent times, with the Sudanese government supporting, covertly and otherwise, militias who operate against the local independence groups. Both groups are Muslim, but the conflict is loosely between ‘Arab’ and ‘African’ factions, and has lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, both directly through fighting, and of disease, starvation, etc. It’s an unholy mess, which I knew little about, until the film provoked me to look into the background – managing that is a rarity, and gives you an idea of its impact.

A group of Western journalists join an African Union patrol of “observers” as they head off to a remote village; on the way, they stumble across a mass grave, evidence of the ethnic cleansing carried out by the Janjaweed militia. While the village inhabitants are poor, and some have horrific tales to tell, they don’t seem in danger – but when the convoy is leaving, a cloud of dust in the distance alerts them to the Janjaweed forces, making a bee-line for the locals. Hoping the presence of cameras and the press will dissuade the militiamen from further atrocities, they head back to the village for a face-off. It doesn’t go as well as they hope.

The DVD sleeve – which also re-titles the film Attack on Darfur, since obviously no-one in America knows what a “Darfur” might be – does the film a massive disservice. Where in the movie are the helicopters it shows? In this case, an accurate depiction would be a massive turn-off, and I can forgive the deception, if it fools a few people into getting their eyes opened. For this is grim viewing, that has a sense of impending tragedy from the opening, and delivers it in full, to the point of being tough to watch. Rape, cold-blooded murder, babies on spikes… No, seriously: babies on spikes. I refer you to my previous, “extraordinarily fucked-up” comment. Kudos to the leads, who handle the largely improvised dialogue with aplomb, and also regular Boll collaborator Jessica de Rooij, who produces a fine, haunting score.

What doesn’t work? Most obviously, the hand-held camera. Yes, it’s done to create a documentary “feel,” even if  most actual documentaries these days are much less wobbly. Here, it does more to take the viewer out of the moment, as they’re thinking “Why is the camera shaking so much?” Or, in Chris’s case, have to leave the room entirely due to motion sickness [Dear Uwe; please make a good film with a static camera, so my wife can watch it. KTHXBAI]. The ‘celebrity’ presence as the journos is also somewhat distracting, as you’re forever seeing Max Headroom, Bloodrayne or the kid from T2 in the background.

I am also somewhat uneasy about Boll’s use of genuine Sudanese refugees to play the villagers, who consequently get to relive situations similar to those that drove them out of their country to begin with. At best, it can’t have been much fun, and at worst, it’s exploitation. I’m assuming they weren’t paid standard SAG rates, though the simple retelling of their stories is part of what creates the looming sense of doom. Overall, however, even if the “entertainment” value here is low, there’s no denying this packs an immense wallop, and it should be Exhibit A for those who still associate Boll with nothing more than video-game spin-offs.