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Arts and Entertainment

Movie Review: The Devil Came on Horseback

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Photo Credit: Leo Buurman

By now most Americans understand that something awful is happening to the people of Darfur. Relatively few, though, could clearly explain exactly what that is. With an artful simplicity, The Devil Came on Horseback reveals the true scope and horror of the continuing genocide in Darfur. Widely lauded since its debut at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, this fantastic documentary deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.

The story is largely told through hundreds of photographs taken by former Marine captain Brian Steidle who worked in Darfur for six months observing a cease-fire for the African Union. While there he witnessed the targeted ethnic cleansing of many thousands of “African” Sudanese at the hands of their Arab government and its proxy militia, the Janjaweed (an Arab colloquialism, “the man with a gun on a horse”).

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The photographs Steidle returned with are unsparing in their revelation of brutality. In one, a charred, contorted corpse is all that remains of a man who had been handcuffed and burned alive. In another, a man lies in a pool of his own blood, castrated and left to bleed to death. Others—many—show children with crushed skulls, their skin rotting off or partially burned away. Torture and rape are commonplace. Whole villages are incinerated following an attack to prevent anyone from returning. The violence is spectacular in its totality and ruthlessness. And through all of this, Steidle and his fellow observers can do nothing. They can neither protect nor evacuate anyone. They are unarmed. They are not allowed to intercede.

Guilt-ridden at his inability to act, Steidle returns to America and begins his advocacy on behalf of the people of Darfur. He shows Nicholas Kristof his photographs, which the New York Times subsequently publish. Steidle becomes a fixture on the media circuit. His message is constant: genocide is taking place in Darfur and no one will do anything about it. Sadly, these clips are from 2005. Two years later, the carnage continues relatively unabated. The United Nations has passed 17 resolutions condemning the genocide but enforced none because of the certainty of a Chinese veto (China buys 80% of Sudan’s oil, manages its oil industry and sells the government its weaponry). Likewise, the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into the atrocities, but it also has no ability to enforce its will upon Sudan. As Steidle remarks, through tears, during a trip to Rwanda to visit its own genocide memorial, “It feels hopeless.”

The Devil Came on Horseback does not necessarily shy away from that bleak viewpoint. A palpable sense of frustration invades virtually every moment of the film, and there are several interviews with Sudanese that are heartbreaking in their plaintive pleas for peace in their country and help from the West. The film’s directors, Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, intersperse Steidle’s photographs with grainy video footage from Darfur and news footage from America, but wisely keep Steidle as the central presence. He is an easy man to admire and it is through him and his (ultimately) life-changing reaction to the genocide that the suffering of the people in Darfur becomes personal to us as an audience. The film is both difficult and riveting to watch.

Steidle, Sundberg and producer Jane Wells were on hand after the screening for a short Q&A moderated by Alfre Woodard. Since his experiences in Sudan, Steidle has become one of the most prominent Darfur activists in the country. Much of the Q&A was devoted to providing the audience with information on Darfur-advocacy groups such as Save Darfur, Global Grassroots, Three Generations and the HOPE Music Campaign. It is estimated that 450,000 people have been killed in Darfur since 2003 and there appears to be no end in sight. The Devil Came on Horseback is a stirring call to action and should not be missed.


The Devil Came on Horseback opens June 1st at the Laemmle Music Hall Theater
9036 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills.

More information on this film can be found at

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