NEW YORK (JTA) – After listening to a presentation about genocidal killing in the Darfur region of Sudan, Dean Schramm and other members of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Jewish Committee decided that they had to do something.
A few of the group’s initial suggestions were old hat – contact legislators, participate in a march on Washington, form interreligious groups. But Schramm, a Hollywood agent who represents mostly writers and directors, had a different pitch: a documentary film.
The result was “Darfur Now,” a $2 million film that premiered Friday, starring Oscar-nominated actor Don Cheadle. It was produced by Academy Award-winner Cathy Schulman and backed in part by Steven Spielberg.
An estimated 200,000 to 400,000 people have been killed in Darfur since 2003, by militias enlisted by the Sudanese government to rout out rebel groups. The situation has turned into a tribal war between Arab and African Muslims in which some 2.5 million people have been driven from their homes.
Yet the film eschews extensive footage of violence and horrifying shots of what genocide looks like, instead focusing on the efforts of six activists attempting to help stop the killings.
“We decided to focus on hope versus atrocities,” Schulman, who won the best picture Oscar for “Crash,” told JTA. “And I think people are becoming increasingly desensitized by images of a tragic consequence. We can watch news all day and see dead bodies, and yet cook dinner at the same time. I also wanted people to be able to bear to sit in a movie theater for 90 minutes.”
The film chronicles the efforts of student activist Adam Sterling, who started the Sudan Divestment Task Force; Cheadle; the star of the film “Hotel Rwanda” about the 1994 genocide in that African nation, who later wrote a book, “Not On Our Watch,” about Darfur; the International Criminal Court attorney who will eventually prosecute war criminals in Darfur; a truck driver who convoys food for the World Food Program, and a Darfurian mother who became a rebel after she saw her 3-month-old son beaten to death as she was driven from her village by Janjaweed.
The film, distributed by Warner Independent films, premiered in Los Angeles and New York on Friday and will hit another 13 cities this week, playing mostly in smaller, art-house theaters as opposed to mega-plexes. Those behind the film hope that it will inspire those who see it to get involved in any way they can. Realizing that most do not have the means or resources to turn a good intention into a Hollywood film, they have started a Web site, (participate.net) which has suggestions for how anyone can get involved.
“The ultimate goal of this film is to move people to action and to stand up and say, ‘I have to be able to do something,’ ” said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, who was director of the Los Angeles chapter of the AJC when the film was set in motion.
The idea for making a documentary was inspired by a presentation from Ruth Messinger, the executive director of the American Jewish World Service, which has been at the forefront of the Save Darfur movement.
Schramm quickly signed up one of his clients, award-winning documentary filmmaker, Theodore Braun, who in turn enlisted another critically acclaimed documentarian, Mark Jonathan Harris.
The group tapped Greenebaum, who has since become the AJC’s national director of interreligious affairs, to explain the situation to potential financial backers. He first approached Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, which gave the producers a $100,000 grant for seed money.
At about the same time, Schramm and company approached Schulman, who was just coming off her Academy Award win for “Crash.” As it turned out, Schulman had been turned on to the Save Darfur movement by Cheadle, one of the stars of the ensemble drama. In turn, she brought Cheadle into the AJC project.
“This was a little unusual because all of the pieces that were necessary to bring this film to fruition really fell into place relatively quickly by Hollywood standards,” Schramm said. “It took about three months, when a difficult project like this could take several years to get off the ground.”
“That is the point,” he added. “To get something done, you have to first look at yourself and ask, ‘What can I do?’ “