“The Devil Came on Horseback” falls under the category of Horrifying Documentaries That Compel You to Action But That Are Not, Strictly Speaking, Great Movies. (It is an unwieldy category title; we’re working on simplifying it.)
Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, the duo behind the similarly blood-boiling “Trials of Darryl Hunt,” the film is about an ex-Marine named Brian Steidle who went to Sudan in 2004 to help oversee the ceasefire that was supposed to end the civil war. That war had been primarily religious, between the Muslims in the north and the Animists and Christians in the south.
While Steidle was in Sudan, a new problem emerged. The Arab central government started systematically torturing, raping, and murdering the inhabitants of the Sudan’s super-poor western region, known as Darfur. This time it’s not religious but ethnic: The killers are Muslim Arabs, while most of the victims are black.
These death squads are called “Janjaweed,” roughly translated as “devil on horseback,” and Steidle’s mission is to let the world know about what’s going on, what this country is doing to its own people. He’s frustrated by the fact that he’s only allowed to take pictures of the atrocities, and not shoot the bad guys.
Furthermore, there’s a huge semantic debate over whether to even call it a “genocide.” If it is classified that way, then the Geneva Convention requires the United Nations to take action. If it’s not a “genocide,” then the U.N. has no obligation. Of course, even if the U.N. does take action, all that will mean is having more hearings and writing some sternly worded letters. President Bush has called it genocide but hasn’t taken action beyond that. (Let’s be honest: If Sudan had oil, we’d be there right now.)
After his time in Sudan, Steidle returned to the U.S. and told his story to anyone who would listen, armed with a huge collection of photos he had taken and documents he had collected. The New York Times ran a story about him in March 2005, and American awareness of the crisis began to grow.
As a film, “The Devil Came on Horseback” could use a tighter focus. Steidle is earnest, with no self-aggrandizing tendencies; the movie, on the other hand, worships him. But geez, when you see a hero like Steidle feeling guilty because he couldn’t do more — even though he’s already done more than 99 percent of the world’s leaders — well, it’s hard to feel anything but admiration for him and the movie.
B+ (1 hr., 25 min.; )