Documenting the new century's first genocide

Jerusalem Film Festival guest Paul Freedman says his new movie has a "different meaning" in Israel.

clooney freedman 298 (photo credit: Courtesy  Photo)
clooney freedman 298
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
Sand and Sorrow, a new film about Darfur created by Peabody Award-winning director Paul Freedman, arrived in Israel at a particularly volatile time. Screened last week at the Jerusalem Film Festival, the documentary's audience was made up largely of activists assisting the 850 Sudanese refugees currently seeking asylum in Israel. "More than anywhere else we are going, this film will resonate with viewers here," Freedman said. "Playing it here has a whole different effect, a different meaning. During the Holocaust, the rest of the world turned its back. Since then, we have said, 'Never again,' but it is happening again in Darfur. This has special significance for the Jewish people." The film offers exclusive footage of the situation in western Sudan's Darfur region, as well as in the refugee camps that have been established across the border in Chad. Following African Union peacekeeping forces working in the camps and US-based activists trying to change their government's policy on the crisis, the film highlights the work being done to help the refugees while criticizing the international community's legacy of failure in confronting genocides as they unfold. "This is here. This is happening now, and there are real, concrete steps that can be taken," Freedman said. "The international community should have and still can take diplomatic steps to save the lives of people who are suffering." Israel, Freedman noted, is on the verge of establishing its own refugee policy as it negotiates with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak over the possible deportation to Egypt of hundreds of Sudanese refugees. "I understand that Israel has also become active in the story of these people," Freedman said. "I believe that Israel, with its history and special connection to this issue, will do the right thing." The United Nations and Amnesty International estimate that the Darfur crisis has sent more than two million refugees to Egypt and Chad. Freedman's film spends much of its time in the impoverished refugee camps hastily assembled in the barren deserts of those countries. "The biggest problems are still awaiting the refugees," say several of the film's participants, who include New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Samantha Power and Academy Award winner George Clooney as narrator. U.S. presidential hopeful Barack Obama and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel also make brief appearances in the movie, which features interviews with activists, aid workers and others on the ground. Particularly moving is the story of Sabine Blay, a Ghanaian worker with the African Union peacekeeping force who organizes a health clinic for women at a refugee camp in Chad. Footage of Blay encouraging women to talk about their fears offers some of the most poignant moments of the movie, with the viewer shown the constant threats the women face even once they've made it to a refugee camp. "It is better that the women go" to collect brush for fires, says one camp resident. "Not the men. They do not kill the women." Left unsaid is the fact that female refugees, though they don't typically face death inside the camps, are often gang-raped and beaten if they venture outside. Freedman, whose documentary Rwanda: Do Scars Ever Fade? won a Peabody Award, clearly aims to place Darfur alongside the Holocaust, Rwanda and other genocides of the 20th century. "I remember in 1994, sitting at my kitchen table - the same table I have today - and reading on page eight of the Los Angeles Times that two presidents had been killed in Rwanda. Over the next few days I read more about Rwanda. I read with fascination and then I turned the page. When, years later, the truth about the genocide was revealed, I felt such shame that I had turned the page," he said. "This time, when I read about Darfur, I knew what I had to do." He doesn't shy away from showing his audience graphic footage taken during Sudan's civil war and the ongoing genocide, and the film is punctuated by gruesome photos that document the famine, disease and violence that have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands. But between images of bloated corpses and blood-soaked earth, Freedman employs another slideshow of images - crayon drawings done by children in the refugee camps - that creates a sense of hope for the refugees' future. "I wanted to show them as survivors, not just as victims of the first genocide of the 21st century," said Freedman. "Hollywood makes 150 million movies. If that kind of money [were] going to the African Union, it could create a huge force of people that could make a real change. We could, if we wanted to, make a significant change in the lives of the refugees." The movie, which counts Clooney among its producers, has been picked up for U.S. distribution and will begin showing in American theaters in the fall.