It's been nearly four years since an attack on a military airport by a non-Arab rebel group in Darfur—a gesture intended to bring more wealth and autonomy to the region—sparked a government-sponsored genocide that has led to 400,000 deaths, with millions of refugees displaced from their homes. And yet, remarkably, no substantial efforts have been made to stop the killing: Sudan has rebuffed U.N. intervention, China's heavy investment in the country's oil pipeline has annulled its conscience, and the ongoing quagmire in Iraq has collected the bulk of headlines and resources. The persuasive documentary The Devil Came On Horseback contains dozens of photographs that testify to this tragedy, yet the apathy pierces hardest of all. These images and reports have stirred consciences without quite stirring decisive action, and an earnest indie doc like this one seems like another cry in the wilderness.
Operating as an official military observer for the African Union, former U.S. Marine Captain Brian Steidle expected the cavalry to come mere days after his photographs of Darfur were revealed in 2004. Six months later, Steidle concluded his service without so much as acknowledgement from the African Union, much less support from parties that might intervene to stop the genocide. Upon returning to the U.S., Steidle worked with New York Times op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof to publish his photographs in a powerful six-part series on Darfur titled "The American Witness." The piece earned Steidle a whirlwind of TV appearances, meetings with high-level officials, and an appearance on the Hill, but soon enough, it was yesterday's news.
By following Steidle's journey from archetypal military man to out-and-out activist for the Save Darfur cause, The Devil Came On Horseback finds a solid through-line for its drum-beating agitprop. Here's a man whose military roots stretch all the way back to the Revolutionary War, but who can't abide his country's failure to protect Sudan's African citizenry. Though his photographs have more range than a gun could, Steidle's status as a witness rather than a participant frustrates him endlessly—not unlike an international community that sees what's happening but doesn't do enough about it. Directors Anne Sundberg and Ricki Stern (The Trials Of Darryl Hunt) tell Steidle's story with a no-frills clarity that gains in urgency what it might lack in formal distinction. After all, it's important to get the information out there, even if it's greeted with a shrug.