Behind The Scenes

Actor who starred in `Hotel Rwanda' explains how he got involved in another movie about genocide: `Darfur Now,' a documentary about Sudan

Q&a -- Don Cheadle

November 18, 2007|By MICHAEL SRAGOW

They range from Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the Hague-based International Criminal Court, to Adam Sterling, a grass-roots organizer first seen hawking leaflets to apathetic strollers in Santa Monica, Calif.

Success and failure in Darfur's life-or-death context generate excruciating tension. In this movie, the attempt of a World Food Program director, Pablo Recalde, to run delivery trucks through volatile territory sparks more nail-biting anxiety than any starship battle in a space opera.

Cheadle's participation in Darfur Now was not casual or accidental. Making Hotel Rwanda in 2004 awakened the actor to atrocities occurring in Africa and around the world. He and his activist partner, John Prendergast, a senior adviser to the International Crisis Group, began calling Darfur "Rwanda in slow motion."

When this movie's co-producer, Cathy Schulman, who had worked with Cheadle on Crash, called the actor to participate in the film (initially just as a producer), he and Prendergast had already begun collaborating on a book called Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond. Its publication triggered educational and international-assistance projects across the U.S. A portion of the book's proceeds go to ENOUGH, the project to abolish genocide and mass atrocities (

The film's opening crisply lays out how, to consolidate his own power, Sudan's military dictator, Omar Bashir, exploited the antagonism between Arab nomad tribes and non-Arab farmers, and "allegedly unleashed" and armed the Arabs' merciless Janjaweed militia ("the devils on horseback").

But then the director, Ted Braun, follows half a dozen people in Africa, America and Europe who hope to save the lives of civilians and stop the ethnic cleansing of African tribes by the Arab Janjaweed. (Both sides, by the way, are Muslim.)

A few weeks ago, Cheadle spoke with The Sun about his hopes for Darfur Now, which is due to open Dec. 7. Did the movie come about simultaneously with your book?

I didn't want this film to be like my book. I didn't want to wait a year and a half for the movie to come out. But that's the nature of the business. And because of the way he wanted to tell this story, it had to take as long as it did. We decided to tell a story about activism, but we never wanted to make some sort of polemic about Darfur, or some dry overview of the area. We wanted to do something that would energize people, hopefully, and show how we had been energized by events.

Isn't one of the movie's themes how to combat hopelessness?

We're embroiled in a very complicated, difficult situation that didn't happen overnight and is not going to get fixed overnight. It requires consistent, committed, continuing effort to undo - the only way conflicts like this do get fixed is with that sort of a commitment level. And this is going to take a multilateral, multinational effort; it's not going to be solved militarily. Is that why you made sure everyone in the film represents a different mode of attack?

Absolutely; that's the most interesting thing about the way Ted wanted to tell the movie. I had first met Adam at a rally at UCLA when he was trying to get the university regents to consider divesting, not even to divest, but to consider putting that on their initiative. And we end with Governor Schwarzenegger signing legislation to stop California state investments in Sudan. The beautiful thing about a documentary, sometimes you can just turn your lens on and capture what's happening. What did Shakespeare say? "There are more things that happen on earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy"? There really are. How important was it to have the Congress pass and Bush sign the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act, which does deem the slaughter of non-Arab tribes a genocide?

We've had a lot of rhetoric from the West and especially from the United States; when we say things are happening on that level and even have the president say it - there's supposed to be all these things that we do, and we're not doing them. People get into this debate on is it genocide, is it crimes against humanity - all that starts to ring really hollow when the international community then doesn't take on all the actions it's supposed to do, to directly combat it. The word "genocide" has no teeth at that point. We know that we're talking about between 200 [thousand] and 500,000 people killed and 2.5 million displaced; whatever you want to call that, it's a humanitarian crisis that deserves worldwide attention and recognition. How important was the victory in California symbolically?

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