View from afar: Darfur and other genocides

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2007, 12:00am

When this year's jury for the Cannes Film Festival met the press last month, an African journalist bluntly stated his anger about the content and emphasis of the festival. 'Why have there been no films from African countries for the past few years?'

Well, he wasn't totally correct. At this year's festival, Algerian director Mehdi Charef's Cartouches Gauloises was an out-of-competition entry. Last year, there was Bamako by Abderrahmane Sissako. And the year before that, there was the Egyptian film The Gate of the Sun, directed by Yousry Nasrallah. But the fact that there are so few African movies at Cannes - and you really have to trawl the archives to find them - suggested that he had a good point. Has Cannes turned its back on the continent?

The answer this year was a resounding 'no'.

Although African filmmakers were largely absent this year, the continent probably got more attention than at any time since 1975, when Chronicle of the Years of Fire, Mohamed Lakhdar-Hamina's ode to the Algerian struggle for independence, won the top prize.

The reason for all the attention this year was due to one issue: Darfur. The humanitarian crisis in western Sudan prompted a flurry of activity and was featured in several films - albeit none made by Africans.

Leading the way in awareness-raising was George Clooney. Early last year, he travelled to Darfur and made a documentary with his journalist father, Nick. The pair - together with fellow Ocean's Thirteen stars Brad Pitt and Don Cheadle and producer Jerry Weintraub - established a Darfur aid foundation called Not on Our Watch. At Cannes this year, they held two charity events that raised more than US$9 million. Clooney also contributed the voiceover for Sand and Sorrow, Paul Freedman's documentary about the bloody conflict which screened at the festival's film market. And there's more to come: seen at the market were the producers of Beyond the Sun, a US$15 million Darfur documentary due to be shot in South Africa early next year with Mennan Yapo as director.

Adding to the political element at the festival was Screamers, the latest work from US documentary-maker Carla Garapedian. It explores the subject of genocide and traces the appalling history of a number of minority groups who have been slaughtered by tyrannical regimes during the past century.

Much of the focus is on the Armenian genocide that took place before the first world war, but the film also covers Rwanda, Darfur and other tragedies. The provocative title was taken from the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and human rights activist Samantha Power. She applies the term 'screamers' to those who keep struggling to draw attention to the atrocities 'until the world knows what has happened'.

'When politicians don't want to talk about it,' says Garapedian, who is of Armenian ancestry, 'whether they be Democrat or Republican, when there's a silence at a political level, when people are embarrassed to talk about it because that would mean we have to do something about it, who's going to prompt the media discussions? Unless you have people protesting, or movie stars actually going to a place, it's not going to get covered.'

Underpinning the powerful statements in Screamers is the music of the politically aggressive heavy metal band System of a Down. All members of the band are Armenian-Americans who, being aware of the persecution of their forebears, have always infused their music with doses of hard-edged rhetoric and historical episodes.

Garapedian realised the power of popular culture for promoting social issues when she went to a System of a Down concert. Many human rights organisations had stalls outside the venue, so she went along to hand out pamphlets about the Armenian genocide.

'The fans came along and said, 'Actually, we already know about this.' I've spent my whole adult life waiting for that moment - when someone comes along and I don't have to explain it all to them. And they knew about it because of this rock band.'

Having at last found some like-minded people to work with, Garapedian took advantage of the growing interest in Turkey's poor human rights record, fuelled by its application to join the European Union. She secured backing from the BBC and went to work on the documentary. Although muddled and lacking depth in parts, the film provides some thought-provoking moments.

'The movie business - even the mainstream movie business that has produced films such as The Killing Fields and Hotel Rwanda - has helped raise awareness of these human tragedies,' she says. 'Film can be very powerful when dealing with this kind of subject matter because it can have an impact on people's emotions that's not possible with other media.

'If a film like Screamers makes the audience feel angry at the end, if it rattles the cage and shakes them up, that's good. But it shouldn't just be the movie-makers blowing the whistle - there should be plenty more on the TV news.'