BEHIND THE SCENES

The Baltimore Sun

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 (www.enoughproject.com).

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?

You just have to put one foot in front of the other; things happen as fast as they happen; and that's why that small victory of getting that bill passed is substantive. Because it allows people who do get up and look in the mirror and say, "Wow, I've got to do this again today" - it gives you that little breath to go on, to say we can move the ball incrementally but at least we're moving toward a first down. Just keep moving the ball. One thing that bolsters your argument that this issue transcends politics is the amount of bipartisan support you muster on Capitol Hill. Was that an intentional and integral part of your strategy?

I had called John [Predergast] when we were working on the book, really when we were just gestating all of that, and said, "If we wanted to go to Washington and talk to five or six people, who would that be?" And we said actually, Senator [Hillary Rodham] Clinton has already spoken about this, and Senator [Sam] Brownback and Senator [Barack] Obama had already been there and talked about it, and [Gov. Bill] Richardson and [Sen. John] McCain, and it just so happened that all these people are vying for the spot of the leader of the free world. Let's go talk to them. Great synergy. It wasn't any sort of direction to be bipartisan, it just so happened that all of these people, and Biden as well, had already staked a claim as far as this goes. So I said now let's go up there and hold their feet to the fire. Let's put them on camera saying that. Except for Senator Clinton they Said, "Come in, bring your cameras, and let's talk about it. We all want to discuss it." [Laughing] It turns out nobody was actually for genocide, you know. Did you have qualms about putting your own life on film?

Well, I really resisted all of it, I didn't want to be one of the subject matters of the film. I really didn't want to. Then Ted and Cathy and I started talking about the criteria for the people we wanted to include, and they said, "You actually qualify." We wanted to look at people who from different ways and in different walks were involved in some level of trying to see the end of this genocide. And we wanted them to be diverse and we wanted them to be professional as well as laymen; just a good cross-section of people from all over, from whatever their position was and whatever ability they had to do it. And people who would allow us to bring a camera into their lives for a year. Some people fell out, and some people we tried to go to, it didn't work out with them; after a while, you try to settle on people you could get, and they knew they could get me. Some celebrities get embarrassing when they speak out in public about politics, but you and Clooney, like Robert Redford, do it without blowback. Is the secret to that just ignoring negativity, staying focused on the issue at hand and not letting the political bleed into the personal?

I think you said it. If I respond to cynics, then they're right - I truly am doing it for some other reason. My response to people that doubt [my motivation] is to try to say nothing and continue to do what I'm doing. And hopefully the truth will bear out.I know before anyone was talking about this at all I was trying to do stuff. So it's not like it became a popular thing to do and I said, "Let me jump on that too. Would you say the closest parallel to Rwanda is a dictator securing his own power by playing off regional and tribal factions?

Sure, but if you go back through history you can find 20 more examples of that. This is Warmaking 101; this is how governments who want to hold power by any means necessary do it. (The way our country started out wasn't so great, if you think about it!) This is how you do it if you want to control a large land mass and keep people under your thumb. You got to make moves like this. It's not as if this is unique to this region. It's that it's at a place where people don't think it has any bearing on them. So there's not a public outcry to do something about it. "It's in Africa, they're black people" - that always helps. They're over there or under a rock, or under Iraq, if that's the way you want to look at it. This isn't new, and that's what we're trying to say. I don't necessarily say human beings are ever going to stop doing this, especially those who want to wield power at all costs. But in the reaction to it, the response to it, we hope can be consistent. And we hope we can be part of a positive movement, and not be apathetic.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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