Arts and Culture

'Darfur'

This time, with his clear depiction of massacre, director Uwe Boll is no joke.

By Steve Burgess 29 Jan 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about film for The Tyee every other Friday.

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Scene from 'Darfur': This is no videogame

On World Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, a special movie screening was held at the ScotiaBank Theatre on Burrard Street in Vancouver. The movie was Darfur, a dramatic depiction of atrocities perpetrated against Sudanese villagers by the Janjaweed militias. A polished-looking crowd turned out to dine on Ethiopian food and watch the film, which co-stars Titanic's Billy Zane and a pair of Terminator alumni, Edward Furlong and Kristanna Loken. A representative of Amnesty International spoke, as did an aide to Senator Mobina Jaffer. The director was in attendance to introduce the film and answer questions.

That director is Uwe Boll.

A brief recap of Boll's career to date: His films include video game adaptations Alone in the Dark, House of the Dead, Postal, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, and Bloodrayne, as well as Bloodrayne II. Currently in production: Bloodrayne III: Warhammer.

Websites devoted to his work include StopUweBoll.com and UweBollisAntichrist.com. A petition at PetitionOnline.com is currently attempting to collect one million signatures to convince Boll to retire from filmmaking. The makers of Stride Gum offered free gum to all signees if the petition reached its goal by May 2008. No luck, but the total does stand close to 350,000 signatures. At last February's Golden Raspberry Awards, Boll was dishonoured with a Worst Career Achievement award.

Boll famously challenged his critics to meet him in a series of boxing matches, instantly dubbed "Raging Boll." One of them was held at the Plaza of Nations Sept. 23, 2006. Boll, a former amateur boxer, proceeded to beat the stuffing out of a series of detractors. It hasn't discouraged others.

Now comes Darfur. Already, the imdb.com page for the film features a discussion thread titled: "Which video game is this based on?"

Genocide cinema

It seems only natural then to approach Darfur with fear and trepidation. Good advice for any film on this topic, for that matter. Not that there are many out there -- Boll is not exactly following the Hollywood herd here. That alone makes Darfur a potentially worthy project. Happily, the credit doesn't stop there. Darfur is a drama that tries to do what documentaries cannot do in this case -- to provide a visceral depiction of an ongoing genocidal campaign. It does so with a brutal simplicity.

The storyline could hardly be more basic. A group of reporters is escorted by a Nigerian African Union officer (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) to a Sudanese village where they interview residents. On their way out of town they spot approaching Arab Janjaweed militiamen and return to the village, hoping to prevent a massacre. Instead they are forced to leave by the Janjaweed. Later several members of the group decide to go back in an attempt to halt the ensuing massacre.

Darfur is an odd film, particularly in its first half. To say the movie is hard to watch would seem self-evident, but Darfur is hard to watch even before anything bad happens. Boll seems enamored of extreme close-ups -- pore-examining, three-foot-tall eyeball close-ups. I frequently found myself looking away from the screen even when nothing much was going on, simply because I was afraid of staring up somebody's nostril. As well, most of the film is shot in a shaky hand-held style, which wears thin when there's not much action to justify it.

Most of the dialogue is improvised. According to Boll, the villagers are played by actual Sudanese refugees (filming took place in South Africa) and the on-camera responses are simply descriptions of their experiences. As for the actor's improvised dialogue, it is rather desultory stuff. Most entertaining is the attempt by freelance cameraman Ted (Matt Frewer) to hit on the lovely reporter Malin (Loken), but that’s about all.

Making us look

Perverse as it may seem, the film comes alive when the killing starts. It's still tough to watch, but for different reasons -- this time, reasons that are appropriate to the subject matter.

I have never seen another Boll epic and don't know exactly why he is so hated. Perhaps he does those extreme close-ups in all his movies. But when this film moves into the Janjaweed attack and the foolhardy attempt to stop it, Boll's filmmaking style works just fine, thank you. The shaky-cam work is no longer annoying. The visual narrative is immediate and uncompromising. Idiosyncrasies aside, Boll is quite capable of making compelling cinema.

No one has ever caught a Janjaweed atrocity on film, so we can't say for certain that Boll is simply truth-telling here. The Janjaweed are presented as murderous fanatics on an ethnic-cleansing mission. Their leader is played by Egyptian actor Sammy Sheik in what is probably the film's best (and certainly best-written) performance. You'll hate him. You'll want him dead, and every other Janjaweed thug along with him. Some viewers might find it uncomfortable to contemplate that similar-looking dramatic fictions have been used to justify hatred and murderous responses against other demonized ethnic groups. And yet everything we know about the situation in Darfur suggests that Boll has the facts on his side. Virtually every international observer in Sudan has reported evidence of atrocities just like the ones shown here.

If you've read a newspaper article or two, Darfur will not tell you anything you don't already know about the genocide. Boll simply wants to show it. After a career spent making movies about video games -- home to the most gleefully debased depictions of slaughter to be found in any medium -- Boll has made a movie intended to spread word about horrors that are very real. Personally, I'm not planning to sign that online petition anytime soon. And not just because I value the shape of my nose.

Darfur has not yet found a distributor. The next Vancouver screening will be Feb. 4 at Silver City Metrotown. There are screenings the same day in Montreal, Ottawa, Edmonton; a Toronto screening is set for Feb. 1.  [Tyee]

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