Oasis in a Desert Of News Coverage

One of the Darfur refugees in tonight's HBO documentary
One of the Darfur refugees in tonight's HBO documentary "Sand and Sorrow." (Hbo)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 6, 2007

"Sand and Sorrow," the new HBO documentary about the ongoing tragedy in Darfur, is prefaced with a quotation from Albert Camus: "When there is no hope, one must invent hope." Easy for him to have said, perhaps; what is shown in the powerful and important film that follows might lead many viewers to ask whether they could invent even a hint of hope in such a manifestly desperate situation.

Narrated and executive-produced by activist actor George Clooney, this is decidedly a report with a point of view. It operates first from the supposition that what is happening to millions of men, women and children in Darfur is genocide, the kind of mass atrocity that was supposed to happen "never again" after the Nazi Holocaust. Elie Wiesel, the prevailing expert and scholar on that subject, laments late in the film that "the world has not learned from the lessons of the past," with Darfur the most prominently painful example.

But merely labeling it genocide proved not so simple. The United States government took its own sweet time in doing that, Clooney says, even though the evidence shown and discussed in the film is overwhelming -- and includes very graphic footage of horribly mutilated bodies left rotting in the sun by the Janjaweed, "devils on horseback" who ride through villages slaying, burning and raping.

The film wisely offers a condensed history of the conflict that has produced millions of refugees and untold thousands of dead and injured. Essentially, the Arab government of Sudan, based in Khartoum, is waging war on the non-Arab part of the population in a region where people previously felt neglected.

In the narration -- written by producer-director-editor Paul Freedman -- Clooney criticizes not only what he sees as the quixotic foreign policy of the Bush administration but also the sleepy American media, especially network TV news. The networks have outrageously under-reported the situation in Darfur -- perhaps seeing it as "just another" bloody African conflict, perhaps because it isn't considered sexy enough. According to one study cited by Clooney, NBC devoted 130 minutes to the subject of Martha Stewart on its evening newscast in 2004 but only a scandalous three minutes to the horror in Darfur. The other networks did little better.

By contrast, the film includes among its heroes and on-screen commentators the New York Times reporter Nicholas D. Kristof, who visited Darfur early in the crisis and was aghast at what he saw there, especially when traveling along the border Sudan shares with Chad, where many Darfur refugees now cling to a barren existence. He found himself "overwhelmed by the scale of the atrocities going on," he says, but he was nearly as appalled by global reaction to the horror stories:

"And the world yawned," he says.

Despite all the inducement to discouragement that is present in the facts, "Sand and Sorrow" didn't have to invent hope but instead found it in an unlikely place. In Batavia, Ill., high school students, welcoming two Rwandan refugees as guests, started a campaign to raise the community's consciousness about the plight of non-Arabs in Sudan. Their efforts are shown near the beginning and end of the film, with Clooney noting that these young citizens showed a greater willingness to act than did the federal government.

Activists visiting Washington are shown meeting with Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). They appear to have done what they could, or at least investigated what can be done, but the Bush administration remains obdurate. Clooney says that after 9/11, President Bush even ordered an alliance between the CIA and the Sudanese government. Only humanitarian aid has been sent to the victims of Darfur, not protection against the continuing attacks.

One of the film's experts on Sudan notes the "cruel beauty" of Darfur's bleak landscape. There is beauty, too, in the faces of refugees even as they speak of the cruelty to which they've been subjected. One is struck by the bright colors of the women's garments, all the brighter against the dry hues of the desert -- cheerful, almost, in a bitterly ironic way.

We shouldn't hold our breath waiting for any of the broadcast networks to do a 90-minute documentary on the situation in Darfur. Not going to happen. "Sand and Sorrow" is another example of HBO picking up slack from the networks and showing them up.

HBO's documentary division, run by the courageous Sheila Nevins, has been having another outstanding season thanks to such reports as "Alive Day Memories," James Gandolfini's intensely moving film about the rehabilitation of U.S. soldiers who sustained major injuries in Iraq; and, earlier, "White Light, Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," a stunning, invaluable addition to the film literature on the first use of the atomic bomb.

Nobody subscribes to HBO, it seems fair to say, to get the documentaries. The network's impetus to fund and present them seems like a simple case of doing the right thing, although examples of doing that in television get fewer all the time. "Sand and Sorrow" might draw a relatively small audience, but it is likely to be a profoundly grateful one.

Sand and Sorrow (1 hour 45 minutes) premieres tonight at 8 on HBO.

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