The Reeler

Sundance Features

January 21, 2007

Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, The Devil Came on Horseback

"It’s not a history lesson; it's about a man who found himself a witness to something he never anticipated."

One of the scores of Darfur atrocities documented in Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg's The Devil Came on Horseback

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

I've been talking to a bunch of people this week and it sounds like a lot are up against the clock to get their films done. Where are you on your own?

STERN: We're up against it. Every day in the news, there's more bout Darfur and what's happened. So much of this film has happened quickly over the last year. So we're at our sound mix, and we're going to be hand-delivering our print to Sundance.

In a nutshell, can you tell me what The Devil Came on Horseback is about?

SUNDBERG: The film itself is a very personal story; it's a look at the Darfur genocide as seen through the eyes of Brian Steidle, who's a former Marine who became an African Union monitor in Darfur. He was there during some of the worst of the atrocities in 2004 and 2005.

You were in Sundance last year with The Trials of Darryl Hunt. Two selections with two feature docs in as many years is pretty phenomenal, isn't it?

SUNDBERG: I have to say that we're really lucky, and I think that having a film that's about such an urgent issue -- we were even talking about it last year: We really wanted to have an early festival start in 2007 to get the film out, but it was risky because we weren't totally done with the film when we started sending it for festival consideration. So we basically feel really lucky that Sundance had faith, because as you've heard, we're still finishing it.

As filmmakers who have been such close observers of the happenings there, what has been your impression of it finally gaining traction and visibility in the States as the crisis it is?

SUNDBERG: For me it's been really interesting, because when we first met Brian, it was just at the start of a very calculated and growing American campaign. In an article that had just come out in The New York Times, he had started doing a whole circle of press. I think a lot of people had been aware of the north-south conflict, but they didn't realize that Darfur was a totally separate conflict and that the destruction was taking place faster -- at a more horrific rate. For us, it was really just seeing the ups and downs in Brian's story. He was really sort of a voice crying in the wilderness; he had 15 minutes where he could command attention and then it would all fall away again. We would see how the issue couldn't gain traction, and then finally in the spring of 2006, I really do think that the rally had an impact on the American and international media -- the big event that happened in D.C. I think for the first time it was literally an en masse showing of support, and that was when I started to think that people were really getting it in America.

STERN: I would just say that the way we understand it as Americans and even as we're perceived by the rest of the world, the focus has just been so much on Iraq. I mean, you'd be shocked if you picked up The New York Times and the front-page story at some point didn’t have something on Iraq. I really think that just drove away attention form any other issues that were happening. There was the brief thing with Israel, but it's very hard, I think, for another issue -- even as important and as devastating and as massive as the genocide in Darfur -- to steal the attention from American children going over to Iraq.

SUNDBERG: And I also remember when Brian was trying to get traction, we had Katrina. All the things that happened... I mean, attention spans are short, especially with news like this. They're not pretty stories, and when the repeated news is about sort of all the things that are going wrong, I don't know. After Katrina, I think Brian was really down, because he just couldn't compete with raising national media attention. And all the news was about taking care of our problems here at home, and we were very insular; we weren't looking at the world, basically.

My only other question is about the documentary class. It goes without syaing that the last five to 10 years have been something of a golden age for documentaries, but this year in particular, I'm looking down the list and there are films like yours, Rory Kennedy's Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, Dan Karslake's For the Bible Tells Me So, Marco Williams' Banished -- all films that have the potential to have enormous political and cultural influence in a way. What are your impressions of this movement and your place in it?

STERN: I think that the film has so much potential to be very powerful, because we had access to more that 1,000 exclusive photographs of the killings. We had footage from the renegade young filmmakers who were in Darfur when everything was happening; now the American press have a much more difficult time getting it -- if they have access to it at all. The documentary in its longer format had taken over a year to put together -- I wouldn't call it leisure, but we did it in a leisurely way -- we put together a strong story and exposed something that really hasn't been exposed in this way before. Not to compare it to other documentaries that are out there, or even a trend, because I don't know how trends go, but just individually with this film, I think it's really a rare opportunity, and it's providing a picture of what's happening in Darfur that we haven't seen.

SUNDBERG; And I think in terms of zeitgeist moments, it's a film about a contemporary and unfolding conflict. But at the same time, it will have sticking power because it's grounded in a very, very personal narrative. It’s not a history lesson; it's about a man who found himself a witness to something he never anticipated, and once you've sort of been thrown in the face of this, how do you go on with your life? You never planned for this to happen, and yet how can you move forward knowing what you know? That, to me, is a really compelling story. It's what Elie Wiesel writes about in Night; it's about how people basically decide to rise to the challenges of expecting something as large as Darfur. And I think our goal and our hope is that we shock and move the audiences at Sundance and that it then IS used as a tool to provoke political action. We hope to show it to people in Washington.

STERN: And we're talking about doing a screening at the UN and at the Nobel Center in Oslo. The idea is to engage people internationally on this issue.



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