Review: The Devil Came on Horseback

Eyewitness account of the genocide in Darfur. Passionate documentary makes a methodical and persuasive case for international action.

After leaving the service, former Marine Captain Brian Steidle signed up as an unarmed military observer for the African Union. Starting in 2004, he led a three-man patrol to investigate claims of genocide in Sudan. A cease-fire there had supposedly stopped fighting after two decades of war. But a rebel attack on an airport in Al Fashir led to the expulsion of foreigners and a strict clampdown on the western regions of Sudan.

As Steidle explains, the earlier war was between the Arab and Muslim north and the black and largely Christian south. The new hostilities were directed against “African” tribes in the western provinces of Darfur and Lagowa. The people there tried to defend themselves through two rebel organizations, the Sudanese Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement.

The Sudanese government in Khartoum retaliated with a campaign to completely eradicate the western tribes. Helicopters and planes bombed villages. The government then unleashed “janjaweed” militias, financed in part by Chinese oil revenues, to brutalize the survivors. They were followed by government troops who helped burn villages to the ground. Refugees poured into neighboring Chad, severely taxing that country’s resources.

With no journalists allowed into the area, the Sudanese government could comfortably deny responsibility for the atrocities. But for six months, Steidle gathered incontrovertible proof that genocide was occurring. He photographed troops burning villages, janjaweed militias fleeing from massacre sites, and the detritus of government-issued munitions. Prevented by African Union officials from speaking out to the public, Steidle returned home to the United States.

Governments, including ours, had been arguing over whether the fighting in Darfur met the legal definitions for genocide. When Steidle released his evidence to New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, the resulting editorials and articles changed the terms of the debate. Now the concern was how to hold Sudan responsible for the atrocities.

But, as Steidle notes, the atrocities in Darfur continue unabated. Trapped in a war with Iraq, United States leaders are reluctant to antagonize Sudan, seen as an important military ally. China, which imports some eighty percent of Sudan’s oil, will not jeopardize its energy supply, even if it means financing a significant portion of the Sudanese budget. The only solution The Devil Came on Horseback can offer is the hope that a concerned citizenry forces governments to take action.

Directors Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern adopt a low-key tone, generally allowing Steidle’s work to speak for itself. They occasionally resort to trendy devices–overcranking, adjusting color balances, animating graphics–but for the most part focus on the facts. Steidle is a good public speaker but an ambivalent narrator, torn between exploiting and down-playing his work in Darfur. His personal life dominates portions of the film that could have been spent on the people of Darfur, who don’t get enough time to testify about themselves.

Still, it is difficult to fault a film that only asks for an end to an unfathomably evil campaign that has left some 400,000 dead, and another 2.5 million homeless.

Featuring: Brian Steidle, Gretchen Wallace, Nicholas Kristof, Luis Moreno Ocampo.

Credits: Written and directed by Annie Sundberg & Ricki Stern. Story consultant: Brian Steidle. Produced by Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg, Gretchen Wallace, Jane Wells, Ira Lechner & Eileen Haag, Cristina Ljungberg, The Fledgling Fund. Executive producer: Mette Hoffmann Meyer. Cinematography: Jerry Risius, Phil Cox, Tim Hetherington, William Rexer II, Annie Sundberg, John Keith Wasson. Editor: Joey Grossfield. Music: Paul Brill. Associate producers: Seth Keal, Jed Alpert, Ted Greenberg. Visual effects supervisor: Yorgo Alexopoulos. Sound supervisor: Tom Efinger. Sound design: Brad Bergbom, Rusty Dunn. A Break Thru Films production, in association with BBC, Global Grassroots, and Three Generations.

International Film Circuit/Color/1.85/Dolby Digital/85 mins./Not rated.

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