Posted: 12/02/2007


Sand and Sorrow


by Ed Moore

HBO Premiere Thursday, December 6 at 8pm ET/PT

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The story of the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan—where the government allows their armed thugs, the Janjaweed, to gang-rape women and execute anyone who isn’t Arab—is one that not only should be told, but needs to be told, if only so we could understand how such atrocities could occur while the world stood around and watched (or, more accurately, averted its eyes).

Sand and Sorrow—written and directed by Paul Freedman, and co-executive produced and narrated by George Clooney—provides a good deal of information about the political turmoil in Sudan that lead to the slaughter in Darfur while also frequently showing the bodies of murder victims as well as the drawings children have made of the horrors they have witnessed, effectively underscoring the fact that the scars of genocide aren’t just physical, but emotional and psychological as well.

Freedman makes a clear differentiation between “normal” casualties of war and victims of genocide, who die for no other reason than because they’re not exactly the same as the people in power. One military observer notes, “That’s not war type of things. That’s wickedness, I think.” Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel is also on hand to remind viewers that this isn’t the first time genocide has happen in full view of the world: “From knowledge to action, there is an abyss,” he says. Opinions and observations are also heard from activists like Samantha Power and John Prendergast, and from journalists like Nicholas Kristof.

Just as often as Freedman provokes thought or stokes emotion, though, he goes out of his way to bash George W. Bush and his administration for providing only humanitarian aid and hot air when America’s military muscle was needed.

It’s not that Bush and his administration don’t deserve grief for their inaction on Darfur; they certainly do, as does the United Nations (which Freedman points the finger at as well) and Congress (both sides of the aisle).

Freedman lays blame at the feet of Bush in particular so often, though, that you begin to wonder what his real purpose of Sand and Sorrow is: To educate people about the Darfur genocide, or to take gratuitous slaps at a president he clearly doesn’t like? If the former is the case, then Freedman provides an unwanted distraction from this horrific story and his own arguments for action. If the latter is the case, he does a disservice to the victims and their families, reducing them to no more than pawns in yet another political game.

Even if you agree that Bush could have done a lot more for the people of Darfur—and I definitely do—it’s disheartening and irritating to see the victims of Darfur used as something to slap this President over the nose with over and over again, even when some of the talking heads in Sand and Sorrow (like Power and Weisel) point out that the United States government, regardless of the specific administration or political party in power, has long ignored genocides, or, at the very least, done little to nothing about them—from the Holocaust to Bosnia, from Rwanda to Darfur.

Worst of all is footage of a rally in Washington, D.C., featuring many of the film’s participants, including Clooney, Weisel, Power and Prendergast, with Power noting how this issue has brought together so many from different walks of life, even people “with crushes on George Clooney.” Instead of demonstrating compassion for the suffering in Darfur and the desire to generate outrage, the scene only comes off as self-congratulatory, further diminishing and undercutting Freedman’s arguments; it shouldn’t have made it out of the cutting room.

It’s sad and frustrating when a political agenda gets in the way of telling an important, compelling story. There’s a great documentary to be made about the tragedy in Darfur. Sand and Sorrow isn’t it.

Ed Moore is a freelance writer and film critic living in Chicago.

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