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Cinema Junkie by Beth Accomando

San Diego Film Festival

Cinema Junkie by Beth Accomando

Brian Steidle in The Devil Came on Horseback (International Film Circuit)

The San Diego Film Festival starts today (Sept. 27 and runs through Sept. 30) with films starting to screen at mid-day with the indie feature The Box getting things going. But the flashier kick off event is the opening night feature, Kabluey, screening at 7:30 p.m. at the Pacific Gaslamp Theaters . Listen to my Film Chat with Dwane and Maureen about the documentary The Devil Came on Horseback, which screens as part of the women's filmmaker program.


The San Diego Film Festival is one of the younger film festivals in town. It celebrates its sixth anniversary this year and it's held downtown in the Gaslamp Quarter. It tends to focus on American and independent films with sidebars on short films, student, Native American and local work, and this year highlights women filmmakers. On its Web site, it also brags that it was voted "Best Party Festival" by the Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide. But I generally don't look to festivals to find a good place to party. I tend to go just for the films, but then I'm a film geek.

But if you're interested in films, the festival kicks opens with Scott Prendergast's indie feature Kabluey starring Lisa Kudrow as a military wife overwhelmed by her Iraq-deployed husbands absence. The film mixes humor with desperation as Kudrow tries to find a way to deal with her kids, concern for her husband's safety and the stress of everyday life with no one to help. When her husband's brother is sent to help, her problems seem to multiply.

But a conflict of a different kind is the subject of a documentary that failed to open here earlier in the year, The Devil Came on Horseback made by two women Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern. It serves up a tense account of former Marine Capt. Brian Steidle who takes on a job as an unarmed military observer with the African Union, monitoring Sudan's fragile cease-fire declared in 2004 after a 20-year civil war. Armed with only a camera, pen and paper, Steidle became a witness to ethnic cleansing and genocide in Sudan's western province of Darfur. Some 400,000 have been killed and millions of refugees displaced from their homes, yet the international community has not been able or willing to mount any substantial efforts to stop the killing. Steidle provides photographic documentation to show that the real enemy is the Janjaweed or "devil on a horse" militia, armed and funded by the Arab-dominant Sudanese government, with the apparent mission of wiping out Darfur's largely black, non-Arab residents.

In the past, Hollywood has used white protagonists to tell stories of black Africa, most recently Blood Diamond . The point of view of a privileged white on African issues can be problematic but here it works well. We witness Steidles transformation from a military man to a dedicated activist. His personal journey becomes a persuasive argument for action. His photographs testify to the tragedy, yet what may anger Steidle the most is the apathy of the international community and especially the United States to what's going on. He had his photos published in the New York Times and there was a flurry of media activity and then nothing. This film, as with the recent documentary No End in Sight about Iraq, focuses on the frustration of good people who see what needs to be done and can't make it happen.

Steidle: "They're in the process of looting and we followed them and I was taking pictures and thinking, "We could end this right now if we had a mandate, if I was looking through the scope of a gun rather than a camera," but I was taking pictures."


Steidle is the main voice we hear from, but it is not the only one. We hear from Sudanese officials and citizens at a presentation Steidle gives at which they challenge his claims and deny that genocide is happening. We also hear from some of the refugees. One man surprises Steidle by offering thanks to the United States even though Steidle feels the United States has not done nearly enough.

Refugee: "I want to send my warm and great thanks to American people, many support we get. We pray for American people. We receive nothing from Arab countries. We are Muslim but where are Arab people here. They want us to hate, this is our problem."

The Devil Came on Horseback is not only a well crafted and compelling documentary but it also focuses attention on important issues and urges action.

The San Diego Film Festival starts today at the Pacific Gaslamp Theater. The Devil Came on Horseback screens Friday at 5:15 p.m. and Sunday at 2:45 p.m. For more information and a complete schedule of events go to .

Filmmakers and cast members from many of the films are scheduled to be in attendance. There will also be a Women's Filmmaker panel that's free to the puiblic on Sat., Sept. 29 at 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the Hotel Solamar .

Roger Baillargeon
September 30, 2007 at 01:35 AM
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