There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
This film’s beautiful title becomes less beautiful upon closer inspection. “Devil on a horse” is the English translation of “Janjaweed,” the government-sponsored militia tasked with cleansing Sudan’s Darfur region of its rebels and, indeed, its Africans. The ensuing carnage has been well documented by numerous outlets, but The Devil Came on Horseback comes at the story through the eyes of American Brian Steidle, an ex-Marine who volunteered in 2004 to monitor a cease-fire between Sudan’s northern and southern regions. In a matter of weeks, he was drawn into an entirely different conflict that pitted Arabs against Africans and left behind a scorched-earth trail of burned villages and maimed bodies. Steidle had his camera shutter open the whole time, and those images, already familiar to many Americans, still have a haunting, incantatory power. But Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern’s film loses its force the moment it leaves behind the particularities of Darfur. We watch Steidle sounding the alarm from D.C. to the Hague, and we are meant to register the pain in his limpid blue eyes as each new sheriff (Condoleezza Rice, the United Nations) turns a deaf ear. “I knew that bad things happen,” he confesses. “I didn’t know that the world would stand by and allow them to happen.” In fact, the world has done just that, from time immemorial, as Steidle himself acknowledges when he pays a belated visit to Rwanda. It is no disservice to Darfur’s 400,000 dead or to its 2.5 million displaced to suggest that Steidle’s story might have been optimally told in a 60 Minutes segment—and that the passage from innocence to disillusionment might have been handled more evocatively through fiction.