Thursday, September 2, 2010

Sand and Sorrow (2007)

Sand and Sorrow is a documentary detailing the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. Like many crises, we tend to hear about the key events in small chunks via the daily news. But such explanations are often hard to comprehend because we don’t have enough context. We are given such small bits of information at a time that it is hard to process the big picture and make sense of what is happening. Like many documentaries, Sand and Sorrow rectifies this situation by telling the story in a more comprehensive manner, detailing events over many years.

Although this approach is helpful, as with many documentaries, the viewer becomes numb after a while due to the shear scale of the problems and the scope of the human suffering. This numbness is exacerbated in some sense because—unlike Hotel Rwanda and NightSand and Sorrow doesn’t focus for any length of time on the plight of particular individuals. The human suffering is less impactful in some respects because it is relayed in generalities. That is not to mean that Sand and Sorrow is a light film. It certainly is not. It is a deeply upsetting film that documents an immense human tragedy.

Several aspects of the film were particularly noteworthy in my opinion. Sand and Sorrow documents the complete collapse of the stability and former social order of the local population. The film describes the Darfur region as an area that had been self-sufficient; it was an agrarian economy founded on a number of small villages. When the genocide began, that economy and social order collapsed. People that had been able to provide for their families were no longer able to do so.

The effects on families were particularly evident in the film. In genocide, even children are not spared. The film describes children being murdered by the Janjaweed and children witnessing the rape and/or murder of their parents and other family members. Families and remnants of families were run off their homes to live in squalid camps where they are lucky to get food and water, but have no opportunity to build a life. The film profiles the art work of children that shows violent images including killings, rapes and bleeding bodies.

The film also describes the systematic rape of women and girls as a tool of the Janjaweed. Brutal gang rapes are terrifying and humiliating in any context. But the film explains that in the culture of Darfur there is a particular devastating effects. Due to previous female genital mutilation rituals, rape is particularly painful. And there is a deep local social stigma to rape. As one interviewee explained, rape was simply unacceptable and it was better for a rape victim to die.

The film interviews a number of high profile individuals. The footage of Elie Wiesel was particularly depressing. He noted honestly that we always vow “never again” when we hear after the fact of genocide, but in truth genocide does happen again over and over. Sand and Sorrow at times explores why this happens.

The film focuses on the failure of the American media (particularly television) to pay attention to genocide, and to instead focus on celebrities. Because of media inattention to genocide, there is little public outcry and little resulting political pressure for governmental action. Sand and Sorrow focuses on Nicolas Kristoff of the New York Times, who broke the story of the Darfur genocide. The film emphasizes the importance of investigative journalists in leaving studios to speak to regular people rather than media pundits.

Sand and Sorrow also focuses on international political realities that contributed to the suffering in Darfur. China and Russia have protected the Sudanese government at the UN, and other member states frankly have not wanted to do anything. Moreover, the film spotlights the ties between the Sudanese government and the CIA in the post-9/11 era. The film charges that the United States has not wanted to get involved because of the intelligence benefits it has received from the Sudanese government. As a result, President Bush declared the situation in Darfur to be “genocide,” but then consistently failed to speak publicly about the tragedy.

The film tries to provide some hope for a seemingly hopeless situation. It spotlights grassroots movements in high schools, colleges and churches where concerned Americans protest passionately and try to call attention to the suffering. The film encourages more such outcries as the only way to prompt politicians to act.

Proverbs 31:8-9 (The Message)

"Speak up for the people who have no voice,
for the rights of all the down-and-outers.
Speak out for justice!
Stand up for the poor and destitute!"

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