Attack on Darfur (2010)
The idea of a filmmaker of Uwe Boll’s caliber tackling a subject like contemporary genocide seems like an artistic stretch. The man is mostly known for the poorly made, poorly received video game adaptations. It would be like the Wayans brothers making a stirring expose on supply side economics. The topic just seems far beyond their purview. I mean, maybe if somebody created some Darfur video game I might start thinking of Boll circling the project. Apparently, the despised German filmmaker had something Important to Say About Society. Attack on Darfur (or Darfur in some listings) is a well-intentioned cry for justice for a conflict often ignored by Western media. It’s a disturbing and grueling experience; however, the shortcomings of the script hinder the impact of the film and its crusading message. It ends up being a message movie subsumed by its message.
The Darfur region in southern Sudan has been the site of great atrocities. Thousands of people have been injured, raped, killed, and displaced. It is an ongoing civil war pitting Arabs against black Africans. The Sudanese government has been accused of working with death squads and militias, particularly the Janjaweed group. The Sudan government and the rebel groups formed a ceasefire after intense international pressure. But those in the Darfur region still report violent raids. The United Nations has dispatched a group of journalists to investigate a village for evidence that the ceasefire has been breached. Along the way are reporters (Billy Zane, Kristanna Loken, David O’Hara), a photographer (Edward Furlong), a cameraman (Matt Frewer), and others. Shortly after departing the village they can see the Janjaweed approaching in the distance. If they continue to leave then the village will most certainly be slaughtered. If they stay, perhaps they can avoid a bloodbath due to the presence of Western media. Some will go back to help fight for the condemned village and lay their lives on the line.
Attack on Darfur is Boll’s attempt to be a serious filmmaker. He’s targeted a serious issue and he’s going to give it serious attention. And he does, mostly. The first half of the movie is almost entirely expository, attempting to educate an audience ignorant to the depths of the genocide. The film even ends on a post-script lecturing us that because action has not taken place that the world has learned nothing. It’s easy to see Boll had some very good intentions with his film, and it follows an Edward Zwick path of preaching. Except while Zwick buries his lessons in easily digestible action. Boll doesn’t bury his message. His message is all you will get for 90 minutes. The opening focuses on many establishing shots of village life, and it’s truly amazing that the film doesn’t condescend or pander. Attack on Darfur feels authentic without having to ratchet up the differences with Western culture. Well, it tips into that territory when Loken hands out deflated balloons to the village kids as a treat. The problem is that all those horror stories end up blurring together, which is a horrible statement. This is because during this 40-minute chunk of exposition, Boll doesn’t fully educate about the conflict. All we know is that one group is getting treated really really badly. We don’t know about the people’s history, about the intricacies of the conflict, or the particulars of who belongs to what.
When the massacre is unleashed Boll doesn’t hold anything back. We witness mass murder, rape, baby smashing, baby impaling, baby slicing, child burning, and, oh, more rape. It’s a harrowing montage of death and destruction and dehumanization. It’s hard to watch, and that’s exactly the point. Boll overwhelms with the emotional appeals, trying to raise people’s collective sense of outrage. People are lined up and executed. Kids are locked into a hut and then the hut is burned to the ground. Nobody escapes this hellish nightmare. At last, Boll is utilizing commentary with his displays of exploitative violence. However, because of the lengths of degradation, it’s hard to even the scales from a storytelling standpoint. The leader of the Janjaweed militia (Sammy Sheik, Charlie Wilson’s War) is a way to put a manageable face to a problem too difficult to fix. It introduces a villain that can be vanquished so there’s some small sense of satisfaction by the time the movie draws to a close. We yearn for somebody to right these egregious wrongs, and that’s who our white journalist characters are supposed to be. I don’t exactly know what their plan is considering three head back to save the village and two of them have minimal to no experience with firearms. Three guys with guns vs. much more than three guys with guns? It’s even more confusing when our journalists-turned-gunmen stick with their handguns. They fail to grab the automatic weapons from the bad guys they kill, and naturally they run out of ammo when they need it most. While the third act produces some minor level of satisfaction as the bad guys are picked off here and there, we all know where this is headed; there will be no happy ending because that would disrupt the Message.
In the end, despite all the good intentions and horrific displays of violence, I’m left wondering why this story needed to be told? I’m not talking about the backdrop of the Darfur genocide, which clearly needs more attention. But what about this story did Boll and co-writer Chris Roland deem worthy of being their vehicle to garner attention to a worthy cause? The structure follows a very Edward Zwick approach; we’re introduced to the moral atrocity and then expected to stand up and make a difference. The first 40 minutes of Attack on Darfur is nothing but characters holding a microphone. That is the only purpose for the majority of our above-the-title recognizable faces. They are mic holders, and perhaps that’s a metaphor for the film as a whole but I doubt Boll has thought that deeply. We’re treated to extensive montages of village life and the testimonials from actual survivors of genocide (a nice touch by Boll). But what purpose do all of these characters serve if only THREE go back to fight against the Janjaweed? Billy Zane (Titanic, Bloodrayne), Edward Furlong (T2, Stoic), Matt Frewer (Dawn of the Dead, Rampage), and Kristanna Loken (Terminator 3, In the Name of the King)? They all stay in the car.
Completely ignore the poster/DVD cover art. Judging from that artwork, you would think very differently about where the story will head. With Zane front and center, sporting sunglasses and an automatic weapon, you’d naturally think Zane is going to lead a team to defend the victimized. And the bottom half of the artwork contains men in combat armor and attack helicopters looming overhead. But then would you ever guess that those same steely looks and explosions add up to… the advertised thespians sitting in a car looking glum? Their role is to serve as the shocked white faces of anguished reaction so we can truly know how bad things are, because otherwise how would we even know?
Boll is definitely trending upwards in his directing abilities. It’s not leaps and bounds but progress is unquestionably being made from the days of House of the Dead. He seems to be aping the visual aesthetic of a different artist with every film. Due to the true-life nature of the genocide it’s no surprise that Boll makes use of the Paul Greengrass docu-drama approach: quick edits, swishy camerawork, and extreme close-ups angling to keep the actors faces inside the frame. This visual aesthetic works effectively during the chaos of the massacre, but it proves to be a distraction beforehand. There’s no reason that the edits have to be so choppy and the camerawork so self-consciously handheld when characters are just standing around talking. It also somehow manages to minimize the visual urgency of the ensuing massacre. The concluding shootouts are efficiently entertaining without packing any thrills. Boll’s command with actors has improved, though this might owe up to the fact that his last couple of his movies have been devoted entirely to improvised dialogue. Reportedly the actors created exhaustive research to study the habits of journalists and create elaborate back-stories for their characters. That’s nice. It’s also a gigantic waste of time considering the actors have little to do.
Attack on Darfur is a hard film to watch and a difficult one to justify beyond raising awareness. What’s the point of the movie’s story? Why introduce characters to only have them turn away when danger mounts? I understand Boll wants to communicate the frustration of the inaction to the Darfur genocide. He wants us to get angry when our U.N. peacekeepers keep to the line that they can do no more than observe. Boll wants to compel us to make sure what happens in Darfur will never happen again. Never forget. But this intent to shock and horrify overwhelms his narrative. The message becomes the movie and the characters just get pushed to the edges to make room for more atrocities. Boll would have served his message and his movie better by building a better story.
Nate’s Grade: C+