‘Blood Diamond’ entertains, educates

“Looking for you,” I improvised. “My son wanted his picture taken with a brave soldier. Would that be you? My camera’s in the bag. Do you want to see?” Within seconds, half a dozen menacing youth, brandishing assault rifles, were good-naturedly jostling to be in front of the lens, asking my “small boy” how he liked Liberia, would he like to stay with them, would he show their pictures to everybody in America.

That long-forgotten moment lurched into my mind during a pre-release screening of Edward Zwick’s new film, Blood Diamond, starring Djimon Hounsou, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly. During a tense encounter with young rebels in Sierra Leone, U.S. journalist Maddy Bowen, played by Connelly, defuses the threat by taking their pictures.

The scene has been cited in at least one pre-release review as an example of moments in the film that rang false. Not to me.

Anyone who has traveled in Africa’s war zones, encountered child soldiers and seen the pathos on every side of the continent’s tragic conflicts will recognize the complicated realities the movie captures. The time is January 1999, when rebels in Sierra Leone, funded by sales of illicitly mined and smuggled diamonds, take the capital, Freetown. In the countryside, an alliance-of-convenience between a soldier of fortune and a father searching for his family advances the risky search for a rose-coloured stone of rare value.

Comments on blogs and movie websites, by viewers who saw sneak previews, suggest Blood Diamond may be a popular hit. The combination of charismatic stars, an engrossing storyline and action-film elements ‘ machete-made atrocities, chase scenes, spectacular explosions, helicopters spewing fiery rounds ‘ may overcome quibbles about uninspired lines of dialogue and a romantic subplot that breaks no new ground. Numerous postings name the movie one of the year’s best.

Director Zwick told film critic Emanuel Levy [emanuellevy.com] that the graphic violence has a purpose. “I don’t think movies can ever be too intense, but people have to understand why you’re showing them the things you are showing them. In the case of Blood Diamond, there are brutal truths, but there is also great beauty and emotion to be found in the lives of those caught up in those situations.” Co-producer Paula Weinstein, whose credits include over two-dozen films, including the anti-apartheid “A Dry White Season,” has said she was drawn to the project because of its larger message.

As for any movie based on real events, knowledgeable audiences will find elements to fault. At a pre-release screening in Washington DC by the Council on Foreign Relations, viewers questioned locations recognizable as Mozambique or South Africa; characterizations seen as two-dimensional; historical context slighted; and DiCaprio’s South African accent (though many praised its non-distracting professionalism, if not its complete authenticity).

Such critiques can obscure essential truths. No fictional rendering of reality can encompass the messiness of real life. Dramatic contrivances designed to attract broad audiences are necessary in a commercial release.

But if you think DiCaprio’s character evinces too much evolving conscience for a soldier of fortune, let me tell you about the U.S. mercenary I knew before he was captured, and eventually executed, in Angola. Is Hounsou’s character, the father who would risk anything to save his son, too good to be true? Countless friends of Africa can name men and women like him. Are the brutalized and brutal child soldiers capable of redemption? Visit one of the underfunded projects that seeks to reclaim them, and often, against the odds, succeeds.

Scenes in Blood Diamond echo the real images in Sorious Samura’s prize-winning documentary “Cry Freetown” ‘ much of which was considered too violent to broadcast while the events were taking place. Evidence that Zwick sought to get the story right is that he sought out Samura’s work, and the Sierra Leonean journalist, who risked his life over and over to portray the carnage to a largely oblivious world, became engaged in the project.

Zwick told Levy: “Sorious was a Godsend . . . He became much more than a technical advisor . . . He was a friend, a consultant, an authority. He was the soul of the production.”

The filmmakers say that the issue of child soldiers and forced labor, which became a central theme, emerged from the need to reflect those realities, and the portrayal is wrenchingly affecting. An aspect of the region’s wars that remains seriously under-explored, however, is the pervasive sexual violence against women and girls.

Blood Diamond spares us the stories of young girls, made sex slaves as well as killers, bearing children while still children themselves. We should not forget that they are often conflict’s first victims. ‘ allAfrica.com

December 2006
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