HBO // 2007 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // February 28th, 2008
Imagine the gods of history looking down on us all, after our abysmal failures at protecting millions of innocent human lives from their own governments -- failures of the first order. And imagine them saying to us, "We'll give you another chance. But this time, so as to be sure you get it right, we'll do it in slow motion, and we'll call it Darfur."
The ongoing genocide in Darfur is an important issue for many enlightened celebrities these days, with stars such as George Clooney (Michael Clayton), Matt Damon (The Bourne Ultimatum), Mia Farrow (Rosemary's Baby), and Steven Spielberg (War of the Worlds) using their clout to bring attention to the 2.5 million displaced citizens. But what can be hard to explain in a sound bite is that this large-scale tragedy that continues to unfold is the product of key events taking place in Sudan over the past fifty years, and the new HBO documentary Sand and Sorrow does well to educate viewers on what happened, and why we need to act.
Writer/director Paul Freedman (Time Machine: Rwanda -- Do Scars Ever Fade?) pulls no punches in illustrating just how desperate and horrible the situation is in some Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps, bluntly presenting images of dead bodies and crying children within the first five minutes. It's shocking and affecting, but that's the point. "This is what we are talking about," the photography screams. "This is real and it is happening right now." It's impossible not to sit up and take notice.
Sand and Sorrow quickly moves from its brief survey of current atrocities to an engaging and well-considered history lesson. As narrated by Clooney, we learn about the internal divisions within Sudan that developed after the country became independent of Britain, the civil war that followed, and how that led to state-sponsored killings of non-Arab people of Darfur. Maps and charts help make the dense information much more easily digestible than it otherwise would be.
Making the issue more accessible, Sand and Sorrow follows a few individuals who are working to end this series of atrocities. Through the actions and commentary of Harvard professor Samantha Power, human rights activist John Prendergast, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, and high school students Hannah and Riley MacDonald, a comprehensive picture develops of what is being done, why it is or isn't working, and what more must happen to save the people of Darfur.
Sand and Sorrow is a harrowing and provocative film, spurring an array of emotions throughout its 94-minute running time: anger, sorrow, confusion, inspiration, desperation, and even hope. While the rhetoric is dire, Sand and Sorrow doesn't exist solely to depress or guilt the audience -- its intention is to encourage further investigation, and most importantly, action. In what I found to be the most profoundly moving element of the picture, members of Human Rights Watch, while interviewing IDPs, give their children crayons and paper on which to draw. The images they get back -- of bombings, bloody murder, dismemberment, and destruction -- reveal so much about the everyday pain and horror in the lives of these kids.
While the current United States government is certainly taken to task for conspicuously using the word "genocide" to describe the Darfur conflict seemingly to mask a lack of real action, Sand and Sorrow is not targeting any particular political stripe, with the exception of the Sudanese government itself. The aid that has been provided by the United States, Britain, and Rwanda is discussed and praised, but is also dissected for its shortcomings in providing a real solution. North American media is found to be apathetic in the face of this human disaster, since it devoted ten times more coverage to Martha Stewart's trial than to Darfur in 2006.
Although released in non-anamorphic widescreen, the video quality of Sand and Sorrow is surprisingly good. Some of the older footage suffers from predictable distortion, graininess, and lack of detail, but the contemporary video is clean, free of artifacts, and has good color accuracy. Some edge enhancement and haloing is present but not distracting. The two-channel stereo sound is serviceable, with speech coming across clear and well-balanced.
This is a very well-done documentary. Simplified enough to be comprehensible in an hour and a half, yet with more than enough detail to grasp just how difficult a situation this is to solve, Sand and Sorrow is a valuable and important piece of work.
Not guilty; I highly recommend this one.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site