The documentary film, Darfur Diaries: Message from Home, begins with an animated sequence taken from pictures drawn by the refugee children of burned-out villages in Darfur, the warring western region in the African country of Sudan.
The pictures of men on horseback with machetes and bombs being dropped from planes are the vivid memories of children whose country has been ravaged by Sudanese, government-sponsored militias.
The roughly hour-long film was screened Tuesday at the DuSable Museum of African-American History, the third Chicago area screening of the film, which is being shown across the country.
More than 2 million Darfur inhabitants have been displaced since the start of the conflict in 2003. Nearly 400,000 have died, with thousands of villages burned or destroyed. Most American news accounts have portrayed the conflict as one between Africans and Arabs.
Jen Marlowe, one of the filmmakers of Darfur Diaries, said those accounts are based on false information from the Darfur government, which has provided weapons to the Arab Janjaweed militia to wipe out the Africans.
“This is a genocidal campaign by the government against its own people,” said Marlowe.
Marlowe, along with fellow filmmakers Aisha Bain and Adam Shapiro, filmed in the Darfur regions in October and November 2004. They interviewed dozens of refugees, including children. The film’s opening animated sequence was taken from the pictures drawn by children.
The filmmakers allowed the victims of the conflict to speak for themselves, telling accounts of their homes being burned, and of Janjaweed soldiers on horseback killing men, women and children. Many refugees talked about losing family members. In an early scene, some of the refugees on camera began running when they heard planes flying from above. The government planes, called “Antonov” by the Darfurians, have dropped bombs on many villages in the region, killing thousands. The Darfur victims pointed out shrapnel and still visible holes in the ground where the bombs hit. Most fled their villages after the attacks, some refugees said. Some returned or set up makeshift villages nearby their original homes.
With thousands of children?”many homeless and parentless?”to care for, the adults established makeshift schools. The film showed children huddled in front of their teachers, sometimes using just a large piece of plywood as a blackboard.
Along with the threat of continued and often unpredictable violence, the region is also beset with hunger and scarce resources. What little possessions the villagers had were either taken or destroyed by the Janjaweed. One mother shown in the film painfully describes the effects of a blast on her infant son, who suffered nerve damage in his neck and now has trouble keeping his head upright.
The filmmakers also talked to many volunteers and experts though none of them appeared in the film. Marlowe said the filmmakers wanted to focus on the people of Darfur and their personal stories.
“We wanted the Darfurians to speak for themselves, about themselves,” she said. “We felt a tremendous responsibility to share the stories the people told us, and we wanted to preserve the dignity of the people.”
The film is shot in a simple documentary style. The refugees were the only ones to appear on camera as the filmmakers employed subtitles to translate the language. They also avoided using tricks and techniques like slow motion or rapid quick camera cuts to dramatize events. Though used to varying degrees of effectiveness in other films, the Darfur filmmakers relied mainly on close-ups of the refugees when interviewed.
The film does have a few light moments, including one refugee singing a Bob Marley song, and another saying, “We are the children of Bob Marley.”
In all, the filmmakers shot more than 45 hours of footage. Marlowe said it took nearly a year to complete the final film, which has been shown at film festivals nationwide. A book based on the film is also in the works, said Marlowe.
“We created this film to be a piece of activism, and to inspire people to do something,” she said.