In the new documentary Darfur Now, USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Ted Braun brings to life what the United Nations has described as “the world’s greatest humanitarian and human rights catastrophe.”
“I want this film to affect people as well as to look at why the world is standing by this crisis as it unfolds,” said Braun, an assistant professor in the writing division. Earlier this year Braun traveled throughout Darfur, where he was granted unlimited access to the camps, Sudanese government officials, nomadic communities and rebels.
“The clearest way to bring an audience into a house of horrors like this was to choose to document people who had hope. For me, the entire journey was life-changing.”
Opening in Los Angeles and New York on Nov. 2, the Warner Independent Pictures and Participant Productions film reflects the ravages of the four-year conflict between government forces and rebels in the Sudan’s western-most region.
To date, the struggle has killed between 200,000 and 400,000 people and displaced upwards of two million men, women and children.
Braun’s first theatrical documentary focuses on the firsthand experiences of five men and one woman from around the world, including actor Don Cheadle, who also is one of the film’s producers. All six individuals are committed to ending the tragedy in the region and together, the group shows that when people are united by a belief, anything is possible.
Darfur Now has received recognition from the International Documentary Association, which will give its 2007 Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award to Braun during a Dec. 7 gala at the Directors Guild of America.
“It’s easy to think that this genocide is a world away, yet it’s much closer, and we are far more connected that we can ever imagine,” said Mark Jonathan Harris, one of the film’s producers and a USC Distinguished Professor of film and TV production. “Ted did a remarkable job of gaining the trust of the Sudanese government. He had incredible access in Darfur.”
In fact, during most of the time Braun and his small crew were shooting the film, they were the only members of western media allowed in Darfur, which had been closed to the press since mid-November 2006.
Braun attributed his success at gaining that access to the time and effort he spent pursuing the seemingly endless authorizations for travel to the country.
He also had to secure approvals from several U.S. agencies, including the Treasury Department and its Office of Foreign Asset Control, which in turn consulted with the State Department.
“I met a National Public Radio reporter who had been waiting 18 months for travel permission � just to get into Sudan,” Braun noted, saying that although his approvals from Sudan came quickly, the U.S. government took three months to get on board. “It was all about navigating a bureaucracy. You start with an obstacle, which in all likelihood is ‘no,’ and then you use whomever you have in your range of contacts to help you.”
While up to six agencies of the Sudanese government kept track of Braun and his crew at all times, the director said that “the overt physical danger” was something he became accustomed to over time.
However, he “never quite adjusted to being monitored and living in a constant state of surveillance.” And although many in the country were happy to see the crew and willingly risked their lives to have their story told, others “threatened to stomp our cameras and grind the glass to dust.”
“This film helps you understand that individuals are not powerless,” said Harris, who was a sounding board for Braun throughout the film’s elaborate journey. “We want audiences to leave the theatres feeling empowered and realize that you can affect social policy.”
“We’ve become a stimulus to help resolve the conflict, which is one of the things we hoped for in making this documentary,” said Braun, relating the pride he felt at a United Nations screening in September, where the film received a standing ovation.
“I’ve witnessed people who are changing the world,” he added. “Bringing these stories to the screen is a great feeling.”