Q&A: 'Darfur Now' Star Adam Sterling Talks the Cost of Genocide

Usually, when a critic receives a screener for a film prior to theatrical release, the DVD comes with a long list of restrictions. The distribution company maintains an extensive database of who's received it and when, often by serial number, just so someone's legally liable in case pirated copies makes it onto the black market. The DVDs themselves are usually imprinted with warnings that the company has the right to request its return at any whim. Being the responsible reviewers that we are, we keep boxes of expended videos just in case they ever make good on their promises.

But right after I reviewed Darfur Now, I, for the first time, broke that informal contract. I sent it to a friend working with the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian non-profit, just before she returned to Sudan to work with the displaced Darfurians who escaped the ongoing genocide in the East African nation. The government in the capital Khartoum may not have officially banned the film, but I'm sure they didn't want it in circulation and fomenting dissent in their already precarious political climate.

That's probably the second thing I'm most proud of in my involvement in bringing about global awareness of the Darfur crisis. The first is the work I did with Adam Sterling, executive director of the Sudan Divestment Task Force and one of six stars of Darfur Now, to help convince the state of New Mexico to divest nearly $60 million from foreign companies that help support the Sudanese regime through oil and gas operations. The message of the film rings true: individuals can make a difference.

This week's DVD release of Darfur Now not only includes extended footage of Sterling's campaign to convince the state of California to drop its investments in these corporations, but has a special introduction by director Theodore Braun in which he explains his editing decisions and the anthropological footage that shows how Darfurians on the ground deal with moral conflicts on the refugee camps in Darfur and in neighboring Chad.

I caught up with Sterling over the phone on Memorial Day as his organization, Genocide Intervention Network, prepares for a new surge of support due to the release of the DVD, which is retailing for a modest $5 through most stores, including Amazon.com.

DM: You're kind of an expert at this now. Looking back and watching when you were in California doing this for the first time, is it a bit strange?

AS: Yeah, it is. After our success in California, we were contacted by a few foundations that basically said, "OK, you've been doing this on your own, now let us help you." So, I guess we're a bit more sophisticated. We've got a few staff members. We just put our first staff member in Europe, so we're getting a lot of European campaigns. But that was definitely where we basically it was trial by fire. California was our test case where we learned everything.

So, what's happened since 2006, other than getting picked up by a larger group? What progress has been made?

On the divestment level, we've been quite successful. Not just raising awareness for Darfur and pressuring businesses, but also I think [in] creating an environment in Sudan that is going to be more stable and help prevent conflict in the future. We've passed the law in California now and [in] many other states, a number of international pension funds around the world. Since California, at least 11 major business have either taken our recommendations about being better actors in Sudan or have left the country. So, really, creating a more stable, sustainable business environment in the country.

From where you guys are sitting, is there any noticeable impact on the government in Khartoum?

They've definitely been responsive to the divestment campaign. Toward the end of '06, they took a six-page ad in The New York Times to counteract the divestment movement. They definitely don't like it. I know they're aware of it. A number of the companies that we've pressured have, in turn, pressured the Sudanese government. It's tough, though. They're very much entrenched and we've still got a long way to go.

What about China? Has China reacted at all to your work? I know they're one of the main targets.

I think two big things have happened since the film, or at least, my part of the film and the birth of the divestment campaign. Two major moves from China. Again, I think we've got a long way to go, but I wouldn't underestimate the significance of these two developments. First, the Chinese actually voted for UN Security Council Resolution 1769, and I know it's been criticized because that's yet to deploy, but there is no way we'll ever have a deployment of peace keepers without the actual authorization. So, the blueprint is there for peace keepers. The second thing is since that time they've appointed a full-time special envoy for Darfur, which is pretty significant. They've been very hands-off politically and to have a full-time, high-level government envoy is a big step. That's something we pushed the US to have for a long time and still don't have. We have a part-time envoy here in the US. So, I think that's also significant. I wouldn't undervalue it. Really, it's been two things that have pressured China in this campaign: divestment and connecting the Olympics to China and Darfur.

Does the Olympics give you the opportunity to step up efforts with divestment?

It's been difficult. We struggle with that. I think that the biggest perspective for the Olympics have been the corporate sponsors and we've really shied away from using divestment as a tool for that. There are a few that overlap -- PetroChina and Sinopec are both Olympic sponsors -- but I think it all adds up. We're really able to make the case that whoever it is -- investors, businesses ... -- it's not only in their moral self-interest to act but it's in their financial self-interest. We're actually releasing a new study that shows that companies targeted for divestment have severely underperformed their peer groups over the last three years and [in] their forecasts over the next year.

Yours is one of six stories in this film. How much you were aware of the other five as they were making this film?

Really, I was aware of Don Cheadle, because before the film he came to UCLA to support one of our first divestment events. I was aware of Luis Moreno-Ocampo through the news, because he was so high-profile. But beyond that I wasn't aware of any of the characters.

You got to meet a lot of stars in the course of this. How's Arnold Schwarzenegger?

It was strange; it was surreal. That scene in the film was a trip. I got to meet, within 20 minutes, George Clooney, then Arnold Schwarzenegger while I was standing next to Don Cheadle, and then I got to meet George Shultz, the former Secretary of State who was also at that bill-signing. The whole thing feels like a blur. It's weird watching it in the film because I really don't remember it happening.

Also on the Hollywood note: Steven Spielberg dropped out as art director for the Olympics because of Darfur. Did you see that as significant?

Yeah, I think that was big. It was huge. He had a major role in the Olympics and when he made his decision, he connected it specifically to Darfur. This is China's coming-out party and movies like this, actions like Steven Spielberg's, whoever it is, whether it's the Chinese government, whether it's President Bush, by raising the political will I think we'll find more solutions. If we have foreign policy meetings with 10-minute discussions and one minute is about Darfur, if we can start making that four minutes, five minutes ... where there's a will there's a way. We just don't have enough political capital yet.

Last question: Of the six stories in this film, yours is the only one that the average person can get involved with. What can the average person do?

A lot. Shortly after the film, my organization (Genocide Intervention Network) set up a hotline: 1-800-GENOCIDE. Anywhere in the US or Canada, you dial that number, you enter in your postal code, and it updates you on the situation in Darfur. We've got celebrity recordings that'll walk you through it: Mia Farrow and Zach Braff will connect you to your elected officials. Anywhere in the country you can be updated on what's happening now, learn about the current legislation in the US government and in your state. It's really a phenomenal tool.