Brian, welcome to hell."
Brian Steidle is a retired Marine who has volunteered to be an official observer in the Darfur region of Sudan. It is, indeed, hell.
The Devil Came on Horseback is a documentary about the genocide in that part of Africa, and the film's strength is that it shows us the horror, rather than tells us about it. It's painful to watch.
Steidle is the key to the film, in several ways.
The young man from a military family left the Marines as a captain and went to Sudan in 2004 to monitor the cease-fire between the Islamic government in the north and the largely Christian rebels in the south. Officially, he's neutral.
After several months of hearing about violence in the west - the Darfur region - he changed responsibilities and became an observer to the ongoing genocide. He sent in official reports and ...view middle of the document...
We hear so often about the violence in Darfur, and the statistics - 400,000 murdered and starved, more than 3 million made homeless - but reading such things in print are oddly disembodied. We can act shocked and shake our heads and tsk-tsk all we want.
But seeing the black smoke rising from the mud-hut villages, and seeing the jeep-loads of thugs speeding away from the carnage, laughing and yelling, and seeing the children with their brains smashed out is not something you can passively or theoretically condemn. You feel it viscerally. It is immediate.
In the face of this evil - for there is no other word for it - it may seem trivial to comment on the esthetics of the filmmaking. But, in fact, the esthetics make the film more effective.
There are many films out there describing outrages. The world is never short of outrages. But too often those films use a conventional vocabulary and syntax of propaganda to make their point. It hardly matters whether you are right-wing or left-wing, the conventions are the same. Use a low camera angle to make your side seem noble and visionary; show your opponent picking his teeth to trivialize him.
But The Devil Came on Horseback uses Steidle's quiet, corn-fed Middle-American demeanor to downplay the hysteria. He never harangues, never buttonholes us: Instead, he maintains a superhuman objectivity. We can see his sympathies, but he doesn't play on ours. The pictures do well enough by themselves.
It is only later in the film, after Steidle has come home, after he has revisited the tragedy by going to the refugee camps in neighboring Chad, after he has taken his photos to Congress and - ultimately the New York Times - that we see Steidle break down, feeling guilty that he couldn't stop the carnage, that maybe he hasn't done enough.
Of course, it is we who haven't done enough.
"It is as if history is giving us a chance to redeem ourselves for our failure in Rwanda," he says at one point, "and we're failing again."