With the weighty mission of spotlighting a modern-day genocide, filmmaker Ted Braun traveled to Sudan's troubled Darfur region, where he gained exclusive access to one of the world's deadliest hot spots. The result is the documentary "Darfur Now," which follows a group of individuals — ranging from locals to activists to United Nations representatives — as they attempt to bring justice to the people of Darfur who have been victimized by a government-backed militia. The movie is getting a limited release on November 2.
One of the subjects of the documentary (and one of its producers) is actor Don Cheadle, who became heavily involved in bringing attention to Darfur after wrapping "Hotel Rwanda," his acclaimed 2004 film about yet another African genocide. In an exclusive interview with MTV News, Cheadle discussed the current state of the conflict, why it has remained under the media's radar and what young people can do to help save the Darfurian population.
MTV: How would you describe the current state of the Darfur crisis?
Don Cheadle: It's a mess. We're seeing rebel groups fighting with other rebel groups, the government fighting with one of the rebel [groups]. The only rebel group that signed the treaty [was the one that the government was] using as a de facto paramilitary wing of their own military. Now they're fighting against one another. The head of that organization has disappeared. Now that all these people have been pushed off their land, the estimates are somewhere between 20 [thousand] to 40,000 new immigrants have taken over that land. Rebels are fighting against the government because they haven't been paid what they were promised.
I mean, it really is chaos. But fortunately the peace talks are scheduled to happen at the end of this month. And there are going to be 30,000 troops that have already been approved by the government of Sudan to come in and protect the people and try to find peace and, eventually, hopefully, justice for them. But that's why we need to move now, because we're at this confluence of events that hasn't happened before.
MTV: As we saw in "Hotel Rwanda," the presence of troops doesn't necessarily save the population unless they're given the ability to use force.
Cheadle: That's what we're talking about: the presence of troops with a mandate that actually allows them to do more than observe what's happening or defend themselves. ... Not just there to observe, but to actually protect.
MTV: What's driving this conflict? Is it a racial situation? It's obviously not religious. Is it tribal?
Cheadle: I think now it's sort of been fractured. There are many different factions attempting to ... amass some sort of power base before these troops move. But really, it's kind of Country Building 101. It's what leaders do when they want to maintain power. They fuel divisions that were already sort of nascent between peoples that identify with one group or another. They foster these conflicts and then they divide [the people] and point them against each other so they [can] pick them off one by one. And that's clearly what happened here. There was a direct and very pointed, targeted movement to destroy villages, thereby destroying any sort of rebel force that could come from these villages. They called it "draining the pond to catch the fish."
This has happened with time, and more and more, we've seen it go on. So we're saying we have an opportunity now — if the international community comes together and forces our leaders to do the right thing — to stop this one.
MTV: Why do you think this can't take hold in the media? There will be months when Darfur bumps up, but then it slips off the front page.
Cheadle: I think that we can look at the media as a force that is somehow outside of us and is something we have nothing to do with or affect. Or we can think that all of these tools — television, movies, the media, the news, print — are taking their direction from what people want. So if people demand different things, then you'll see a course correction. But unless that happens, we will get the status quo. So the media has often preoccupied itself with the most salacious [stories,] but I don't hear a great outcry for more insightful, introspective reporting on certain issues. So I guess we're kind of going to get what we get.
MTV: By the same token, there are a lot of activist groups out there. Thousands of people are taking to the streets for a variety of causes, but it seems that Darfur is not one of those issues that has taken root within the activist community.
Cheadle: I think it's still flying beneath the radar of some other things that are getting more print and more cameras pointed at them, but we've had marches with hundreds of thousands of people in the last two years for what's happening in Darfur to try and raise awareness. We've seen a big tick in the grassroots movement. When I used to go talk to people about this three years ago, there'd be seven people, and now when we're doing press there are 2,000 or 3,000 people. There's definitely been a groundswell that has happened. Has it happened fast enough? Not for us, and certainly not for the people in Darfur. But there has absolutely been a shift, and it's absolutely moving forward. [Otherwise] we would never see a mainstream movie coming out in theaters that's about this subject matter.
MTV: In terms of the MTV audience, what would you recommend for those who wish to get involved?
Cheadle: I think if they're students, they can join the chapters of STAND, Students Taking Action Now for Darfur. They can go online and find that out. They can dial 1-800-GENOCIDE and punch in their ZIP code, and they will be sent directly to their elected representatives and officials and leaders and be given talking points and told how to address the issue. They can network. Young people do it much better than people of my generation with MySpace and YouTube, by just being in the blogosphere and being aware of how to interface on the Internet.
There's a huge groundswell in activism going on for Darfur on the Internet, and it's just a click away. So ask yourself, "What can I do?" Then start digging. You won't have to dig that deep to find avenues where you can throw your hat into the ring.
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