I've always thought the toughest reviews to write are for movies that are merely okay — I'm not enthusiastic enough to praise them, but there isn't anything grievously wrong enough with them to pan them. It turns out there's an even more difficult review to write — for well-intentioned documentaries on important subjects that are merely okay.
It's tough to critique the film without sounding like you're critiquing the film's subject, which is ill-advised when you're dealing with a documentary on the subject of the ongoing genocide in Darfur, and what people are doing to rally against it. Darfur Now is about as well-intentioned a documentary as you're going to see, detailing the stories of six people working to resolve the conflict.
Their stories are a mixture of harrowing and inspirational, ranging from the activism of UCLA student Adam Sterling and actor Don Cheadle, the UN work of World Food Program leader Pablo Recalde and International Criminal Court Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, and the first-person accounts of Darfurians Hejewa Adam and Sheikh Ahmed Mohamad Abakar, each of whom have been personally affected by the Janjaweed attacks that the United States government has defined as genocide.
It's an important story that needs all the attention that it can get, and watching the film, you get the impression that everyone involved with the project is in it for the right reasons. Unfortunately, that passion and those good intentions are not enough to create a compelling documentary. Which brings me to the other difficult part in reviewing an average-quality documentary: critique it for being dull, and it sounds like you miss the entire point of a film whose main goals are to inform rather than to entertain (which is why I use euphemisms like "compelling").
It's true, a documentary about the ongoing genocide in Darfur need not be entertaining, but it does need to connect with viewers. Darfur Now does manage to connect at times, particularly with the stories of Abakar and Adam, which give the movie its emotional core, but too often it keeps us at an arm's reach. Much of the film is composed of interviews with the subjects (a notable exception being when Cheadle filmed his and friend George Clooney's trips to China and Egypt to discuss Darfur with government officials with a camcorder), giving the 98 minute film a visual repetitiveness that does not serve it well.
The film clearly strives for an inspirational tone, and as a result, doesn't quite manage to bring the horror of its subject home. It's good to not completely dwell on the horrors, and instead show some of the positive actions people are taking to combat those horrors. It gives viewers a sense that the situation is not hopeless, hopefully spurring them into action. But the film's decision to err on the side of caution when it comes to any hint of sensationalism leads to a film that at times feels oddly antiseptic given its harrowing subject matter.
But the film isn't without its merits. These are good stories, even if they aren't presented as well as they could be. I think it would be ideal viewing for a high school social studies course, as it doesn't shy away from the reality of the situation, but doesn't graphically portray it either. It would be a great way to introduce the subject to students, allowing teachers to structure lectures around the film and maybe have group projects where students come up with their own ways to help the cause. The film's crusader tone would work well in such a setting. The low SRP of $4.99 caused by the packaging's use of recycled post-consumer materials also wouldn't hurt a high school's ability to purchase a copy.
But for the rest of us, particularly those who watch a lot of documentaries, there just isn't enough to Darfur Now to recommend, unless you're looking for a brief overview on the subject. It's an important subject, one certainly worthy of a documentary, but those looking for greater depth on the subject in a more engaging fashion will have to look elsewhere.
Directed by: Ted Braun
Starring: Don Cheadle, Adam Sterling, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Hejewa Adam, Sheikh Ahmed Mohamad Abakar, Pablo Recalde, George Clooney