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The personal and the political also mingle in The Devil Came on Horseback, but that’s purely for logistical reasons. A vivid if frustrating documentary, Annie Sundberg’s and Ricki Stern’s film is as much about Brian Steidle—a retired Marine who served in the Darfur region of Sudan as one of three U.S. military observers for the African Union—as it is about the genocide there. That’s principally because Steidle has been to Darfur, and they haven’t. Taking a video crew into the blood-soaked region isn’t feasible, so the filmmakers rely heavily on the photographs Steidle took during his six-month stint there in 2004n05.
Steidle unflinchingly documented the butchery of the government-backed militia known as the Janjaweed, whose loosely translated name is referenced by the movie’s title. The soldiers have reportedly murdered some 400,000 men, women, and children, and sent more than 2 million into exile. Late in the film, Sundberg and Stern accompany Steidle and his closest confidante, his sister Gretchen Steidle Wallace, to Chad to meet Darfur refugees. But the resulting video footage is upstaged by Steidle’s harrowing photos, even when the filmmakers overcompensate by furiously panning and zooming around the stark depictions of burned villages, brutalized animals, and mutilated corpses.
Upon his return from Sudan, Steidle became an advocate for the Janjaweed’s victims, who are considered “black” and disparaged as “slaves” by the Arabs of northern Sudan. (Based purely on appearance, the difference seems slight and, like all such distinctions, quite meaningless.) Following his military man’s instincts, Steidle was at first reluctant to speak up. But as it became clear that the United States and the United Nations were not going to intervene—even after the Bush administration formally classified the Sudanese government’s actions as genocide—Steidle was moved to act. He did TV interviews, undertook a lecture tour, appeared at rallies, and debated Sudanese officials at the Holocaust Museum in D.C. Much of the film depicts these activities, which culminate with the trip to Chad and Steidle’s offscreen testimony at the World Criminal Court at the Hague.
These sequences shift the movie toward being a portrait of Brian Steidle, which is surely not what the directors intended. The former captain’s crusade is noteworthy, but Sundberg and Stern concentrate on it simply because it was the closest they could get to Sudan. The Devil Came on Horseback would be better if the directors had widened their focus and explored more deeply the global forces that further the killing. (The role of Chinese oil drilling in Sudan is mentioned but not pursued very far.) The film is a reasonable introduction to the subject for anyone who’s tuned out news about Darfur, but it adds little to Steidle’s photos, which can be seen at ushmm.org, the Holocaust Museum’s Web site. These images say “never again” as loudly as any film can—and yet they’ve been answered with nothing more than throat-clearing by the people and institutions that could end the horror.