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December 2006/January 2007
A Message from Home
Book and Film Review by Sangamithra Iyer

 

Darfur Diaries: A Message from Home
Directed by Aisha Bain, Jen Marlowe and Adam Shapiro. 57 min.
Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival by Jen Marlowe with Aisha Bain and Adam Shapiro (New York: Nation Books 2006). $15.95 paperback. 259 pages.

This fall, in a workshop at the Brooklyn Peace Fair, Jen Marlowe, co-director of the film Darfur Diaries: A Message from Home, showed a short clip presenting stories from displaced women and children from Darfur. Following the screening, Motassim Adam, president of Darfur People’s Association of NY attempted to deliver a speech. Only he couldn’t. His eyes welled up with tears and he took a few moments to collect himself.

He later offered an explanation, “I cried because I remember Darfur before the violence. I cried because my sister, like so many young girls, was raped. I cried, because members of my community were killed.”

The film for him was a message from home.

Heeding the Call
In the fall of 2003, Aisha Bain, then a graduate student at American University and intern at the Center for Prevention of Genocide, was hearing reports from Darfurians in exile about what was happening to their people back home—aerial bombings, villages burning to the ground, government-backed Janjaweed militias raping and killing civilians.

At that time there was little to no media coverage of the crisis. She made endless calls to national media, but the response was weak. “We just did a story on Uganda” or “Well, if it’s not already in the news, it must not be a big enough story.”

Months went by, and she described the situation to her classmate Adam Shapiro who proposed they go and film what was going on. They teamed up with Adam’s friend Jen Marlowe, planned their journey to neighboring country Chad, and figured out a way to sneak into Darfur to bring back the stories of survivors.

By the fall of 2004, Darfur started making the headlines, the U.S. referred to the atrocities as a genocide, and Aisha, Jen and Adam, three young human rights activists, were on their way to document the situation themselves.

Two years after their return, despite increased international attention, the violence persists and the situation continues to be dire. Darfur Diaries plays a valuable role in bringing humanity and urgency to this issue.

Through the Eyes of Children
The film captures voices of children, the most marginalized in conflict situations. Children recall Antanovs, Russian warplanes, bombing their villages. They draw pictures of the planes dropping bombs and Janjaweed militia with guns on horseback. Mothers and older siblings in the refugee camps reveal the children have nightmares and often wake up screaming.

The team interviews rebels from the Sudan Liberation Army. Though not necessarily directly participating in combat, many young boys, orphaned with nowhere else to go, have joined the rebel movements. The filmmakers carry messages of fighters back to their families in Chadian refugee camps.

The film also documents Darfurian villages destroyed. The filmmakers insisted the only voices in the film would be of the Darfurians. While text narration gives additional context, the stories of the survivors give tremendous insight to what has been ravaging these lands for the past few years.

According to Bain, “The film is what we set out to do in its truest form. This book portrays our journey along the way.”

Stories of Survival
The book Darfur Diaries is a great compliment to the film, providing further details about the filmmakers’ journey: Navigating through refugee camps, desert night rides in the back of an SLA truck, breaking the daily Ramadan fast and singing songs—from traditional Darfurian to Bob Marley—to returning back home where they spent endless hours editing and translating with Darfurians in exile in Brooklyn. It’s a compelling narrative from the perspective of three young, concerned Americans who have had experience living and working in conflict zones. Jen Marlowe weaves in the history of Sudan, the complexity of the conflict, as she attempts to make sense of what they observe. The book poses questions for all of us to ponder. What will become of these children? How do we address their fear and anger? How do they heal?

In the face of atrocity, Darfur Diaries manages to present humanity, dignity, resilience, and at times, even humor.

The situation in Darfur is often over-simplified and both the film and the book provide a deeper understanding of the conflict. But as Adam Shapiro concludes, “The politics of power in Darfur and Sudan as a whole cannot be rendered comprehensible by simple, ahistorical notions of Arab and African. Understanding the conflict in Darfur requires acceptance of complexity. That complexity, however, must not undermine calls for protection of human life.”

For more information visit www.darfurdiaries.org. A portion of funds raised from the film and book will go toward funding education projects for the children of Darfur.


 

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