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MOVIE REVIEW

Eyewitness to Darfur's horror

`The Devil Came on Horseback' documents one American's role as cease-fire observer.

June 01, 2007|Michael Ordona | Special to The Times

There's a scientific principle that the act of observing alters the phenomenon being observed. But in the case of the unfathomable genocide in Darfur, what happens to the observer?

"The Devil Came on Horseback" views the Sudanese humanitarian crisis through the eyes of former U.S. Marine Capt. Brian Steidle. Hired by the African Union to monitor a 2004 cease-fire, he became widely known when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about what Steidle had learned, supported by the observer's damning photographs.

In the film, Steidle wrestles with the constraints of his role as an "unarmed military observer ... all I had was a camera, a pen and paper," helplessly witnessing horrific acts. He says, "Our job was to receive complaints of violations of the cease-fire ... and make recommendations. And then we'd send our reports up and something magical was supposed to happen."

Documentarians Ricki Stein and Annie Sundberg do a good job of explaining, through Steidle, the complex conflicts in the region. As the web gets more intricate, involving Chinese influence and oil rights, the story feels like a true-life "Syriana."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 02, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
'The Devil Came on Horseback': A review of the documentary "The Devil Came on Horseback" in Friday's Calendar misspelled the last name of filmmaker Ricki Stern as Stein.

The filmmakers help audiences by defining the players, including the SLA, the JEM and the death squads known as the Janjaweed ("Devil on a Horse"). The latter are Arab militias armed and funded by the Khartoum government, despite repeated official denials -- a monstrous force paid in plunder, given free rein to explore the limits of inhumanity.

Stein and Sundberg use slick, modern-feeling cinematic techniques and disturbing images, not for the weak of stomach, to prove their point. There are testimonials by refugees who have seen their families destroyed and one man's heartfelt, and heartbreaking, thanks for American humanitarian support.

The horrors taken in by the "American witness" clearly take their toll on Steidle, as they would on anyone: "The things you see here were not meant to be seen," he says. How could anyone remain unchanged after not only seeing such atrocities but meeting the perpetrators face to face? "They are truly evil, evil people," he says. "They'll sit there and smile at you and shake your hand, but you can see it in their eyes, you can see it ... it's like seeing the devil. And you know when they leave here, they're going to do it again."

"The Devil Came on Horseback." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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