Phase 4 Films // 2009 // 104 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Roman Martel (Retired) // November 11th, 2010
"We'll make sure the world knows your story."
I've watched Dr. Boll's films before. They were his video game based work, and I agree with most critics, they were pretty bad. A little research shows that Boll has started making serious dramatic films about the Vietnam war, prison and rampaging gunmen. Now we have a movie with Darfur in the title. I think Dr. Boll wants to be taken seriously. Will Attack on Darfur do the trick?
A group of journalists and a trio of African Union peacekeepers travels from a military base in Sudan into a small village in the Darfur region. In the village they take pictures, interview folks and film documentary footage. They are troubled and disturbed by the stories they hear dealing with the Janjaweed marauders decimating whole villages. The journalists are determined to make a difference with the information they have.
As they leave they see a convoy of Janjaweed raiders heading toward the village. They know that those people will suffer, but there might be a slim chance that the Janjaweed will not harm the people if they know Western journalists are present. They decide to go back to the village and do their best to prevent a massacre. This sets in motion a series of gruesome events that will change their lives forever.
Subtlety thy name isn't Uwe Boll.
As I watched Attack on Darfur, I marveled how a toning down of certain elements would have made this a really good and affecting movie. But time and again Uwe refuses to guide the viewer and instead grabs their head, wrenches it in the direction he wants them to look and shouts at the top of his lungs -- THIS IS IMPORTANT!
Let's start with basic story construction. The idea is to play up the contrasts between the peaceful happy life of the villagers to the absolute terror of the marauder's raid. To do this we get montages, lots of them. Montages of happy smiling villagers living so simply, so peacefully, the lovely score by Jessica de Rooij carries us along. It just keeps going and going, until you want have your teeth checked because all the sweetness and love might cause a cavity.
When the horrors come, Boll does the same thing: montages of death, rape, shooting, infanticide, more rape, dismemberment, more shooting, more children getting murdered and more rape. Its all very graphic and disturbing, as it was meant to be. But it is also so manipulative and obvious that it made me angry at the movie.
A note about the violence: it's brutal stuff. I know that Boll wanted to shock his audience into action, he wanted to show it like it is. But violence can be just as effective or more effective if you leave things to the imagination. This type of violence is so harsh it borders on exploitative, and that's going to turn viewers against the film.
To put the viewer into the action, Boll decided to film everything with hand held cameras. This could have been an effective choice, one that would work wonderfully during the onslaught on the village. There's just one small problem. Not content to allow the handheld footage to be organic, Boll makes sure you know its hand held by non-stop shaking, vibrating and flailing during the entire film! Dialogue scene, driving scene, vicious death scene or touching scene of despair...the cameraman is having convulsions. This does not draw the viewer in. It makes them motion sick or painfully aware that someone is shooting this way on purpose.
Finally, there is the lightening quick editing. Regardless of the type of scene we are watching, no shot lasts much longer than 40 seconds. Maybe this was done to tone down the handheld motion sickness, maybe it was to create the feel of an action film. Maybe it was just for kicks. Who knows. But it does more harm than good. Long steady shots during the first half of the film could have provided a startling contrast to a more brutal and choppy second half of the film. In fact the fast editing works well during the massacre, but to have it during driving and dialogue scenes was distracting.
Dr. Boll provides a commentary that is a double edged sword. On the positive side, he describes the shooting process of the film and it actually gave me a greater appreciation of the set construction and the acting. On the negative side, he spends a huge amount of time talking about politics, comparing his film to Hotel Rwanda, and stroking his ego.
The DVD cover is hilarious. This looks like an action packed thriller with Billy Zane blowing away bad guys in helicopters. The back of the case even labels the film genre as "action." Um, no. The violence here is ugly and disturbing, not thrilling and fun. This is violent drama about the horrors in Darfur. I feel bad for the poor renter who picks this up thinking he's getting a fun straight to video action flick.
The location shooting in South Africa is gorgeous, and when the camera isn't shaking around like a kid hopped up on sugar cubes, you get some great shots of the surrounding countryside. The fact the entire village was actually constructed out of real mud bricks and using materials actually found in the area added to the authenticity of the set.
The cast was uniformly good. The actors playing the journalists don't have too much to work with. They were improvising a lot of their dialogue, but they did a good job. Hakeem Kae-Kazim as the African Union Captain assigned to accompany the journalists is the best of the professionals. He has a world weariness to his performance that is perfect for his character, and when he makes the decision to do what he can to help the villagers his eyes tell you he believes he's a dead man.
The cast playing the villagers are actual Sudanese refugees who escaped to South Africa. Boll asked them to play themselves and it was a great idea. These people have been through hell and you can see it in their faces and eyes. When they are telling their stories to the journalists it feels real, because it is.
I also want to throw in another set of kudos to composer Jessica de Rooij. Her score is excellent and really helps the movie. This gal needs to score a high profile project, because she's got talent.
The DVD itself is a good product. The picture was clear and sharp. The 5.1 Surround was utilized well. The only extra is the commentary.
This is such an important topic that I feel bad for coming down hard on it. But Attack on Darfur did not meet its goals. I was angry at the movie -- not at the situation in Sudan. I don't like feeling like I'm being manipulated, made motion sick and annoyed all at the same time. I understand the what Dr. Boll was trying to do. But he needed to trust the stories the people were telling, trust the audience to feel compassion, and trust his crew to capture these elements.
Guilty of trying too hard.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Phase 4 Films
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Wikipedia: Darfur