Darfur: Packaging a Tragedy

Unpredictably, the latest movie about Darfur is not a litany of broken corpses and burned villages. Instead, it focuses on moments of celebration, big and small. The delivery of a food convoy; guerrilla women breaking into praise songs; a father's tender pride at his son's work. Inevitably, the suffering is unavoidable ("My child is dead, my home is burned down and now I have nothing," says one rebel fighter), but for "Darfur Now" director Ted Braun, the goal is to focus on those doing something to end the crisis. "My object here is to move people on a human level," says Braun. "You have to balance graphic horrors with tales of hope."

Hope's an emotion in short supply in Sudan these days. "Darfur Now," released worldwide in November, comes as the situation in Sudan's troubled western province seems to unravel more by the day. Peace talks that began in Libya last month did not make major advances toward peace. Meanwhile, jockeying by the Sudanese government forces and their rivals ahead of the negotiations have led to fresh killings of civilians, police and even African Union soldiers. In this bleak landscape, Braun hopes that his movie will nudge his audience toward a new perspective on the desperation of Darfur. His upbeat premise—together with a fresh approach and rare footage from inside a rebel camp—could help make "Darfur Now" the next "Inconvenient Truth" in the stable of agenda-shaping documentaries. But perhaps what the movie's unlikely cast of characters says less about hope than about the future of advocacy.

The American movement to help Darfur did not become a political juggernaut by accident. It took a combination of smart strategy and packaging, to propel a remote human rights crisis in remote Africa firmly onto Washington's political agenda. And no, it wasn't all about the celebrities. The real story of the Darfur coalition began long before the likes of Angelina Jolie and George Clooney went to visit. Fewer than four years ago, few Americans had heard of Darfur. The mainstream media were largely ignoring reports of attacks by nomadic Khartoum-backed Arab militia on African farmers in this region of the Sudan. That changed in 2004, when both the U.S. Congress and the Bush administration—responding to pressure from Sudan-focused Christian groups and their allies on Capitol Hill—formally labeled events in Darfur a genocide. The invocation of so evocative a term unleashed a groundswell of well-organized Jewish groups and grassroots student activists who were to carry the movement into its next phase. "For the burgeoning Darfur movement, getting the U.S. government to use the 'G-word' was an unimaginable coup," write researchers Rebecca Hamilton and Chad Hazlett in a chapter in "War in Darfur and the Search for Peace." "Calling it genocide elevated Darfur above other atrocities with high death tolls, seemingly highlighting it as the crisis most deserving of attention."

With public attention growing, some of the newly emboldened organizations began working together to form what would become the Save Darfur Coalition—a movement that, according to its Web site, now represents 130 million people through its alliance of over 180 faith-based, advocacy and humanitarian organizations. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Jewish World Service were key players in the coalition building effort. It was, however, less the Jews than the Christian right who were the true vanguard of the movement in the United States.  Before Darfur, evangelical groups had worked hard to try to end the Sudanese civil war that pitted northern Muslims against southern Christians. This enabled them to put their legislative contacts to good use during the lobbying for the genocide resolution. "Without their leadership, legislative action on Darfur would have been much delayed-or may never have occurred at all," write Hazlett and Hamilton.

For various reasons, not all Christian groups climbed aboard the Darfur bandwagon. But the movement continued to be propelled by the Jewish groups and students who knew how to capitalize on the viral power of the Internet. It was boosted further by Darfur experts from the Clinton administration  and by catchy tactics like the Million Voices for Darfur postcard campaign and events like MTVu's competition offering a trip to Chad to meet Darfurian refugees (and star in a documentary recording the event). Another MTVu contest gave rise to a winning video game, "Darfur is Dying", in which players took on the role of a Darfurian teen trying to evade janjaweed attackers. By this time, too, the celebrities were stepping into the spotlight. Shortly before the nationwide Save Darfur rallies of April 2006, Oscar-winning Clooney was invited by Oprah Winfrey to show footage taken during a fact-finding trip to Darfur.  John Prendergast, a director of the Save Darfur Coalition, believes that Clooney's appearance on Oprah was enough to double the number of marchers-something Prendergast finds astounding "for a human rights issue halfway around the world".

The broad nexus of students, religious leaders, stars and politicians eventually attracted commercial interest too. When Prendergast and Oscar-nominated actor Don Cheadle ("Hotel Rwanda") initially tried to sell their Darfur book "Not On Our Watch" two major publishers turned it down because they thought it wouldn't make money. The book went on to become a New York Times bestseller. By contrast, subsequent fundraising for "Darfur Now" was far easier. Dean Schramm, a Los Angeles literary agent and member of the American Jewish Committee's Darfur Task Force, tapped into his movie and religious contacts to put together a deal including Warner Independent Pictures ("March of the Penguins"; "Good Night and Good Luck") and Participant Productions ("An Inconvenient Truth") in just a few months-"very fast" by Hollywood standards, he says. "The theatrical release of documentary films is a new phenomenon," says Schramm. "The commercial success of "An Inconvenient Truth" and Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9-11" has awakened the studios to the view that even if a documentary is not commercially successful, at least they won't lose money on it."

Yet for all the Darfur movement's success in raising public awareness, the reality on the ground is that there has been no improvement. Indeed, the activists' power to dictate priorities may even have made the crisis worse. While few in Washington will go on record to criticize it, some officials complain privately that the coalition has hampered aid, gotten in the way of American diplomacy and hurt efforts to find a political solution for Sudan. Analysts also say the activists are wrongly treating the tragedy as a humanitarian crisis rather than a political one. "You can't have a solution for Darfur without finding a solution for Sudan," says Harvard University's Alex de Waal, a leading scholar on the country. "At the moment [Save Darfur's involvement] is not a help; the simplicity of their message is getting in the way of a response."

De Waal believes the focus on Darfur has been "disastrous" for southern Sudan. The North-South peace treaty has faltered as deadlines are missed, tensions between soldiers and rebels rise and preparations for a 2009 election are at risk. Another common complaint is Save Darfur's simplistic presentation of the conflict. Typically, the violence is presented as a clash pitting Arabs against African. The truth, obviously, is more complex.  Few Americans realize that both sides are Muslim and that the trouble is at least partly rooted in scarce resources: a convergence of drought and an influx of land-hungry Arab tribes from Chad and North Darfur. Nor is the fighting solely between the two ethnic groups: an upsurge in violence among Arab tribes has left an estimated 600 dead in intra-Arab fighting this year alone. Framing it as a clash pitting Arabs against Africans may have helped the activists groups get their genocide rating (a classification former U.S. President Jimmy Carter recently questioned), but some analysts fear that incorrect usage merely devalues the word. Save Darfur's Prendergast dismisses these arguments as a "diversion"—and has now started a group called "The Enough Project" to widen public focus. Using Save Darfur's organizational blueprint, the organization plans to draw attention to problems in other desperate regions like Somalia, Northern Uganda and Congo. "These kinds of atrocities have common roots and have common solutions," says Prendergast. That may be so-but the danger for the activists is that questions about their strategic tools may blunt their edge next crisis around.

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