All About Darfur is a documentary film directed by Taghreed Elsanhouri, a woman born in the northern region of Sudan who emigrated to the UK as a child. It consists more or less of a series of interviews cut together, overlaid with narration by Elsanhouri providing context.
In my estimation, All About Darfur is an excellent contribution to the discussion of this conflict as it takes place in the West. My criticisms are largely aesthetic: the cinematographer is a little close-up happy for my taste, for example. The interviews, which help provide a much needed set of Sudanese voices to the slew of media outputs in the West that deal with Darfur, seem on first viewing to be a collection of highlights rather than excerpts cut together to tell a specific or coherent story. My film school training as a documentary filmmaker and video editor prompts me to point these things out. Having said that, I think the choice of whether to tell a specific story or provide the audience with more structure is a stylistic one. In that sense Elsanhouri doesn’t insult the intelligence of her audience. And although I initially felt strongly about this, from an artistic standpoint, I soon realized that I quite liked the journey-driven order and lack of collective structure of the interviews. The film has a very home-made feeling to it, which felt to me like a device that (whether used intentionally or not) drew me into these people’s lives more than a high-production-value project could have.
There a number of things really valuable about this film. First, it makes no effort to pander to the West’s appetite for conflict and poverty porn. The interviewees, even Teresa, the Darfuri who fled north, tell their stories and discuss their ideas as normal people living in a country where security is tenuous. Their words, and their voices, and their ideas—these are the important things in this film. Shocking footage of death and tragedy are not used to titillate or outrage—such footage is essentially completely absent. Some of the most interesting scenes for me were the ones where Elsanhouri was visiting and talking and having tea with her aunts at their home. This is largely because of my anthropological interest in what constitutes normalcy in other societies and my fascination with family ties and genealogy. But these scenes are important for another reason—they are our direct connection to Sudan as a place that is not “over there” or in another “world.” Here, Elsanhouri is simply taking us to visit her aunts. With her Western upbringing, she is immediately someone we can relate to. When she takes us to visit her family, we are polite guests. When her aunts talk about the war, it affects us, in a way, even more powerfully than it would have if we were to have heard it from a battle-scarred refugee in a dire environment. Scenes like this diffuse that false boundary between “us” and “them,” and poke holes of doubt in our own sense of we-live-in-a-civilized-country security.
Second, as a Sudanese native Elsanhouri is able to transcend many cultural and lingual boundaries, despite her upbringing in the UK; this gives her access to people and neighborhoods that would be unreachable for a complete outsider. I can’t help but feel this also makes her an ideal liaison between the Sudanese, who she speaks to in her interviews, and us in the West, who she speaks to with this film. Her dual identity also serves as a sort of story of self-discovery when she returns to Sudan, as in the UK her reality is that of a member of a minority while in Sudan she is identified as a northerner along with the ruling elite in Khartoum.
Elsanhouri interviews Sudanese people from different regions and with a variety of opinions on the government and the conflict in Darfur. For the past year or so in my research on Sudan, the question mark that kept growing bigger for me was what northern Sudanese make of all the trouble. What do they think, and why? What kinds of challenges do they face? One of my favorite things about this film is that I can finally hear some of their voices when Elsanhouri interviews people on the street.
In Khartoum, a Darfuri woman who fled the war, Teresa, owns a tea shop. When Elsanhouri asks her about the conflict, she laughs and says she knows nothing about politics, that her “head is empty.” Her friends, regulars at her café, argue and discuss politics and Darfur and the government. Some are native to Khartoum or the north, others displaced from the south or west. They all openly discuss loaded and emotionally charged issues with each other. When tempers flare, they flare only mildly. They demonstrate a deep, sensitive, and intelligent understanding of their own points of view and make concerted efforts to listen to each other when they disagree. Two of the regulars eventually convince Teresa to tell her story to Elsanhouri.
The conversations about the meanings of “Arab” and “African” as identity markers were particularly interesting. Although not dealt with in depth, the main points were touched on. One interviewee, for example, explains how in Tanzania he would be considered Arab; but if he were to travel to Egypt or Morocco, he’d be seen as an African. What comes out in the interviews is a perception among some that the conflict is not about race or ethnicity at all but about access to resources, security, and power. There is also a scene in which some school girls reenact an episode from history and the teacher tells half the class they will play the part of the Arabs and the other half will be African. Elsanhouri anticipates the West’s discomfort with this, and explains that the terms African and Arab, and their attendant social meanings, are not the same in Sudan as they are in the West.
I think this film is valuable and accessible whether you have a lot of knowledge of the region or not. I think whose without much knowledge of Darfur would learn a lot—at the very least, they would learn what sort of questions they should be asking themselves about how their own understandings of social categories like race shape their perception of the way those categories operate in other places. They would also see that the conflict and its causes are not so simple as they are made out to be, and that perhaps certain loud-mouthed American activists have it all wrong. For those with a more solid understanding of Darfur, this film is highly valuable for the exposure it gives to a variety of voices from an extremely small but diverse sample of points of view. I, for one, was grateful for the chance to listen to people tell their stories in their own time and more or less on their own terms. The tea house political discussions were particularly enjoyable. I definitely recommend this film for anyone with more than a superficial interest in Darfur.