Docurama // 2007 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Franck Tabouring (Retired) // March 13th, 2008
A witness to evil. A force for peace. An unbelievable true story.
The conflict in Darfur has claimed more than 400,000 lives so far, and although some countries now officially call it genocide, not much is being done on an international level. Everybody seems to be watching and condemning, but no action has been taken yet. In The Devil Came on Horseback, a former U.S. Marine invites his audience on a shocking journey straight into the heart of the Darfur region in Sudan, where innocent people are raped, shot, and burned on a daily basis.
In 2004, U.S. Marine Captain Brian Steidle traveled to Sudan to monitor the ceasefire between the Islamic government in the north and separatist forces in the south. But he wasn't prepared for what he saw. The ceasefire negotiations between the North and South did not include the region of Darfur, but Darfur wanted a piece of what the South was promised, including crucial resources. People from the Darfur region sought economic development for their lands, but Khartoum, Sudan's capital, stood firmly against this.
The conflict in Darfur started shortly after with the SLA (Sudan Liberation Army) and the JEM (Justice Equality Movement), two rebel groups fighting against the Janjaweed, an unscrupulous militia supported and trained by the government. Known as the "devils on horseback," these violent gunmen burn villages, rape women, and eradicate the people living in the Darfur region on a daily basis. Steidle's work during his mission in Sudan bears witness to these horrific crimes against humanity. Instead of taking action and intervene, he explains, all he could do back then was stand there and watch the violence happen.
Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, The Devil Came on Horseback is an excellent source for more information about the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Captain Brian Steidle delivers astonishing accounts of his mission, telling viewers exactly what he saw, what he desired to do, and what he could or couldn't do. Steidle also provides extensive details in his voiceover about the origins of the conflict, and recounts select specific Janjaweed attacks he witnessed.
On a more different note, the filmmakers also gave people in Darfur the opportunity to speak about the misery brought on by the bloody conflict. They have no water, no beds, and hardly any food. They have no possessions and are devastated to see their own country falling to pieces so quickly. Most of these interviews are hard to watch because people recount how they suffered from attacks and how many family members they lost in brutal acts of murder and rape. Steidle closely explains how those daily attacks would go down. "Leave nothing. You don't want any surprises" is what government officials tell their armed gunmen before sending them on the next killing spree.
Steidle also explains how hard it is not to be able to do something about the violence. Because he had no mandate to intervene, Steidle was limited to following militiamen and literally watching them destroy village after village. Most of his reports, he says, were suppressed, and the world just kept on watching. His engrossing narration is extremely insightful. In the second half of the film, directors Stern and Sundberg follow Steidle to New York, where he supplies his shocking pictures to The New York Times to spread the word about what is really going on in Sudan. Interestingly enough, shortly after he went public with his findings, the State Department asked him to be quiet and not release his images.
The Devil Came on Horseback easily qualifies as a fascinating documentary on many levels. The movie includes animated maps of Sudan, compelling footage from Steidle's trip, and a vast selection of his shocking photographs, which depict burned victims and villages lying in ashes. Also featured are archived audio clips of news reports on the conflict, Steidle's field recordings and passages from e-mails about his observations and feelings. All this mixed together boosts the sense of realism of the film and brings the horror of the ongoing genocide in Darfur closer to the audience. The original footage adds credibility, proving that the filmmakers actually show the truth as it happens and continues to happen. Unfortunately, this truth is quite horrific, which is why some of the material in the film is extremely graphic. Those of you with weak stomachs, please beware.
The DVD arrives with a clean video transfer and mostly sharp picture quality. Steidle's original footage from his trip seems a bit grainy at times, but his high-res photographs make up for that. The audio transfer works just as fine, offering a clear voiceover balanced well with the sound of old news reports and the interviews conducted with Darfur locals.
The disc lacks a solid special features section, and the bonus material only includes a 12-minute short film entitled "Supporting Survivors." Directed by Steidle's sister Gretchen, this little documentary focuses on the issues of rape in the Darfur region. This piece is particularly interesting because Gretchen Steidle carefully explains what impact rape has on women. It's not only a crime the Janjaweed commit to get satisfaction, but they do so to dehumanize the women and separate them from their husbands. The film is sponsored by Global Grassroots, an organization that tries to unite underprivileged and distressed women worldwide. What surprised me is that the disc didn't include more information on Save Darfur.
The Devil Came on Horseback is a fascinating, though incredibly shocking, experience. The film's 85 minutes pass swiftly, and it totally captivates everybody interested in learning more about the terrifying conflict in Darfur. The numerous pictures and authentic footage from the region are at once instructive and unsettling, doing justice to Steidle's efforts. Early on in the movie he explains how devastated he felt for not being able to intervene in the monstrous violence he witnessed. Watching this film will help you understand why.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Short Film: Supporting Survivors
* Official Site