Q&A: ‘Darfur Now’ Director Braun

Ted Braun's documentary "Darfur Now" tells the story of the crisis through the eyes of six vastly different individuals around the world. There's American Don Cheadle, the Oscar-nominated actor who learned about the troubled Sudanese region while working on the movie "Hotel Rwanda." There's American Adam Sterling, a Jewish student activist who lobbies Congress on divestment from Sudan—and succeeds in getting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign a bill keeping California's state funds out of the African country. There's Argentine Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court who painstakingly gathers the evidence of atrocities needed to get arrest warrants for some of those believed responsible. There's Ecuadorean-born Pablo Recalde, leader of the World Food Program Team in Darfur. And then there are the Sudanese thrust into the conflict: Hejewa Adam, a rebel fighter who took up arms after her baby was beaten to death on her back, and Ahmed Mohammed Abakar, a Darfur farmer trying to help bring order and dignity to the 47,000 people with him in the Hamadea displacement camp.

To be released in November, "Darfur Now" will hit theaters as diplomats and government leaders renew faltering efforts to bring a United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force to Darfur. Braun hopes the film will change the way people feel about Darfur—and inspire them to do something that might make a difference. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Arlene Getz about the movie, whether documentaries should be used for political advocacy and some hair-raising moments while filming in Sudan. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You wanted "Darfur Now" to give people hope. Why did you decide to adopt a positive approach to tell of such a tragedy?
Ted Braun:
I wanted to bring the audience into the subject through the lives of the people who believed they could bring an end to the suffering of Darfur. And I did so with an understanding of how cinema works best. Cinema reaches the most people and has the most lasting effect when it engages people in the humanity of others, allowing them to share in their dreams and hopes.

The film has been previewed by some extremely high-profile audiences: last month to invited guests at the opening session of the United Nations, this week before a range of influential organizations in Washington. What kind of reaction are you getting?
The audience reaction thus far has been very encouraging. At the U.N. there was a standing ovation that went on and on … I was very concerned about screening the movie in front of them, because I figured this was the most knowledgeable group I was likely to get in one room, and the film was meant for generalists, not experts. [So I was pleased] it struck that deep an emotional chord with them.

You have some fascinating footage of [Sudanese Liberation Army] rebel fighters, like Hejewa Adam, training to fight in the bush. How did you get that?
We spent about three weeks with them up in the mountains. It was very, very hot, about 108 degrees, and we were living among them. [Before we went] we didn't know exactly who we were going to meet or exactly where we were going. We had one death-defying moment [on our way to them] when our vehicle was nearly flipped off the edge of a cliff, and all our equipment came tumbling off the back of our truck. As we were starting to turn around, this group of armed men with AK-47s came up, pissed off, and wondered what it was we were doing there … Then up came a really pissed-off guy in shorts and a wifebeater T-shirt, brandishing a pistol. That turned out to be Commander Musa, who was the guy who was expecting us.

Was that your scariest moment?
That moment was fairly tense. We knew we were in rebel territory with the permission of the rebels, and by that time I had been working in Sudan long enough to know that with patience and respect you can resolve most of these complicated situations, but it was certainly disquieting, because there seemed to be a lot of confusion about who we were.

Did you see any violence during the months you were there?
No. [But] there were some dangerous situations. There was [one] moment when a group of nomads in a town were angry that we were filming, and they got into quite a fight with our translator, who's not a nomad. One never knows who's what, but they looked an awful lot like what people call janjaweed. Eventually it got resolved, but my translator told me afterward that it had been really close—that they had accused us of being with the rebels. That's the kind of place where someone could just shoot you and walk away and no one would ever know.

Some analysts believe the media have oversimplified a very complex conflict. Did you come away with any sense of the rebels being the good guys and the Khartoum government the bad guys?
I came away deeply touched by the people who had been affected by atrocities. The other thing that I came away with is that while the government of Sudan is frequently portrayed in the media as monolithic, it is not monolithic at all.

One of the most unlikely—and endearing—stars of your movie is Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). I've already had e-mail from a publicist confessing to a crush on him.
When I read about the work of the prosecutor, he seemed like a natural choice [for the film]. By choosing [him] I was able to explore the justice aspect as well as the humanitarian crisis. I didn't have any introduction to [him] at all, so finally I just made a plain cold call to the ICC. Someone picked up the phone, and they spoke English, and I explained to them why I was calling …

How do you feel about documentaries being used as a tool of political advocacy?
Documentaries have for almost their entire tradition been used as part of activist agendas and agents of social change. While I wanted to help provoke a change in the world's attention to the Darfur situation, my agenda as a filmmaker was to invite my audiences to understand and experience my subjects as human beings first. Once I decided I was outraged by indifference and wanted to make an audience share that and respond to it, my principal purpose was humanist. [And] I think it's important to stress when discussing this film in the context of advocacy: we were completely independent of any organization, of any institution, any governmental body when we made this film.

Do you see "Darfur Now" as part of the packaging that seems to have become necessary to attract global attention to humanitarian causes?
I had seen films about crises in Africa that left me numb and that made me want to turn off the television and walk away. I'd also sat in meetings where the grim statistics and the stark analyses had laid out things in very startling ways, but it left me feeling either impotent or overwhelmed. I know enough about cinema to know that you have options about the way in which you're going to tell a story, so I used the options and tools that were available to me as a documentarian to try and bring home to the world a global problem in a way that would pierce the kind of numbness that I'd experienced myself. It wasn't a calculated strategy concocted by a team of marketers or corporate executives. It was just me trying to come up with a three-page proposal that I thought would interest people enough that they'd want to make a documentary with me.

Do you know what's happened to the two main Sudanese in your movie?
We recently learned that the Hamadea camp had come under attack and that there had been casualties, but I don't have any details about what may have happened to Ahmed Mohammed Abakar.