The enormity of the conflict in Darfur is such that many
have been numbed by its complexity and seemingly endless violence. It’s a
situation that the makers of the new documentary,
Darfur Now (featuring
Don Cheadle and expanding into theaters this Friday), hope to help correct.
In short, the conflict involves several loosely-affiliated
rebel groups that have been brutally suppressed by the Sudanese government and
proxy militias. Though it’s hard to get accurate figures, it’s likely that
nearly 450,000 people have been died and more than two million displaced by the
Rotten Tomatoes spoke with Oscar-winning producer
Cathy Schulman, one of the producers of the project, about the
difficulties in making the film, the delicate balance between activism and
entertainment in cinema, and how to mobilize to end the violence.
What do you hope the response to Darfur Now will
Cathy Schulman: First and foremost, I hope it
contributes to making a difference in the crisis itself. The reason for making
it so quickly and getting it into the marketplace so quickly was in the hope it
could inform people and make some noise about the film. That’s the most
important thing. That’s intimately connected to what its theatrical life is too.
I want the movie to perform and I want the people to love it but it was always
done as an expression of activism. I don’t want people to think it’s medicinal
either, I guess I should say that.
How did you get involved in the film?
CS: Don Cheadle and I had obviously worked really
hard together on Crash and we won the Academy Award. If there was ever a
time to use our fame and momentary fortune to give back then was the time. When
you get an Academy Award, you feel like you’ve got a little gold star on your
forehead and now you can really get something interesting done. Don radicalized
me on the issue of Darfur, which happened during the structuring of Crash.
I was sitting in a meeting listening to a narrative pitch, a story about a
soldier who goes to Darfur, and it came to me like a rocket. I thought, “Truth
is stranger than fiction.” How could we possibly do a fictional film about an
issue people aren’t even aware of in real life? And I knew what we’d do was make
a documentary about this subject matter.
In talking to various agents about this, I was introduced
to [Darfur director] Ted Braun, who had come up with this notion for Darfur Now. I thought
his way of approaching the material was spot on because he wanted to make a
movie that was about making a difference as opposed to doing an expose, a movie
that had hope. For Don [Cheadle] and I, [it] was so important to us to answer a
certain question. In our own lives we ask, "Why, when we hear tragedies
happening on other sides of the world, do people say, ‘Well, that’s too bad but
it’s so far away and so complicated, what can possibly I do?'” So the question
was can we make a film that brings the conflict closer? Make it more familiar to
the people and offer a sense of sameness? So this was an interesting way to go.
Your film didn’t get all that far into the minutia of
this very complicated conflict; it was more about what you can do.
CS: That was very much our goal. In regard to the
humanitarian crisis nationally and internationally, the best thing you can do is
gather voices and make a lot of noise at the people who can help make a
difference. It’s crucially important with human interest and humanitarian issues
like this that people get loud. Get educated, get loud, and say “No more.” And
that’s when you can get mobilized. Believe me, we can make a difference in
Darfur. There they have a situation that is primarily driven by a portion of a
government that has allowed this and we can change all that by putting these war
criminals behind bars, first and foremost.
In the film, you feature people like Sam Brownback and
Hillary Clinton, which shows that people on both sides of the political aisle
agree on the issue. Yet there hasn’t been any sort of critical mass movement.
What’s the obstacle there?
CS: I think it’s the remote nature of the conflict.
We live in a touchy-feely world where the closer the problem the more capable we
are of coping — if at all. Not to put words in Don’s mouth, but he always says,
“There’s something about West Africa. Like, if it’s there, it’s an ‘African
problem.’" Like, that’s the continent where that stuff happens. People don’t
take the time [to explore] and otherwise people have grown desensitized to
violence. Which is one of the reasons we decided not to make a film where every
other frame you’re seeing a shot of a body or atrocity of some sort or another.
As you saw in the film, we only have one shot of violence, which was a very
conscious decision. For whatever reason, seeing so much news or being
overwhelmed with violent imagery all the time, the reaction isn’t “God, what do
I do to stop that from happening?” The reaction seems to be to go cold. I think
you put up your emotional barriers as an individual and think, “I can’t cope
with that.” I think that’s happening on a macro level. How would you read about
2.5 million displaced people and over 200,000 people murdered in this violent
way and not do something? We keep reading stuff like that in the world we live.
You witnessed these things firsthand?
CS: No, I personally did not go to Darfur. We sent a
crew of five people.
So your end was insurance and logistics.
CS: Yeah, gosh. It’s taken so much to get it mounted
and keep everybody safe. [It was] really hard to shoot there. Usually the
problem with shooting in a foreign place is you’re trying to figure out the
infrastructure and trying to deal with the lab. With this film, we had to deal
with keeping our film from getting stolen, how [we were] going to house our crew
because we can’t find hotel rooms because of the embargo, how [we were] going to
deal with communications if we can’t bring GPSes. It was crazy stuff.
Were you constantly concerned with the safety of the
CS: The day they got on that plane to come back and
they called me from the London airport — they’d gone from Khartoum to London —
I’ve never felt a bigger stress reliever in my life. I had a backache for weeks
that went away that day. I realized I was stressing. And the phone calls were
erratic and in the middle of the night and it did make me anxious the whole
time. I hated it when I couldn’t talk to them for days on end because, you know,
they couldn’t get a signal or something. That would happen [and] it was
You’ve worked on a lot of films that have social
messages. How do you balance the message and your duty to the audience?
CS: The most important thing is that I apply the
same rules to a documentary or a social action film that I do to a narrative,
fictional film for general marketing. We cannot be boring, and we have to be
involving for 90 minutes. We have to be self-distinguishing and worthy of
conversation so there’s something people can talk about and so that the word of
mouth can live and people can say, "This is something worth seeing," even if the
subject matter might be more serious or politically oriented or socially
focused. The truth is all those things are to be applied to any film I work on.
I know you went through some tough times producing Crash.
Did the Oscar make it all worth it in the end?
CS: I look back on Crash fondly because the
shooting of that movie and the post-production was the greatest collaboration of
my career. I loved everyone I worked with and
Paul [Haggis] and I had the best
working experience. Secondly, there’s nothing bad about winning an Oscar, but
all that is overshadowed by the financial debacle. The thing I’m sad about is
instead of it being shared celebration it’s turned into this unnecessary
economic battle. (A suit filed by Shulman’s former business partner
seeking production credit on Crash was dismissed in late 2006.)
Did it change your perspective? Do you get onto projects
and think, "This might have a shot because my last one did?"
CS: [Laughs.] You mean an Oscar shot? It’s funny.
One of the most amazing things about winning an Oscar is that the minute you win
one there’s only one the thing you want. And that’s to win another one. It’s
like that whole thing your mother tells you: be careful about a goal because
once you get there…
I also understand a little more of what it takes to go
through that kind of a race. You can’t start a film thinking about awards or
accolades. You can only start a film thinking about what it is you care to
communicate or think will be interesting to audiences. The rest has to be gravy.
Darfur Now is in select theaters now.
The North American box office exploded thanks to the scorching debuts of the
Crowe crime drama
Seinfeld‘s animated comedy
Bee Movie which
combined for over $85M in ticket sales. Following weeks of sluggish business
where the marketplace failed to match 2006 levels, this weekend’s box office
enjoyed a healthy bounce over last year and kicked off the holiday movie season
with a bang.
Washington and Crowe both scored new career highs with the estimated $46.3M
opening weekend for the crime saga
which dominated the multiplexes. Universal opened the R-rated tale in 3,054
theaters and generated a scorching $15,175 average per location. Directed by
Gangster tells the true story of a drug kingpin who built up a heroin empire in
Harlem in the early 1970s. The opening easily beat out the former all-time
biggest debuts for the Oscar-winning actors: Washington’s
Inside Man with
$29M and Crowe’s Gladiator with $34.8M.
American Gangster enjoyed the second highest launch of the year for an
R-rated film trailing only 300‘s
$70.9M. Much of the success came from strong sales from young males and the
urban audience which saw it as a
today’s generation. The same audience also helped to power
hip hop drama 8 Mile
to a surprising number one opening of $51.2M in November of 2002. Brian Grazer
produced both Mile and Gangster. Reviews were mostly favorable and
early Academy Award buzz could help the film in the weeks ahead. Despite the
long running time of nearly two hours and forty minutes, moviegoers lined up and
found their showtimes.
Paramount and DreamWorks settled for a second place debut for their latest
animated film Bee
Movie which grossed an estimated $39.1M in its opening weekend. The
PG-rated toon averaged a sturdy $9,954 from 3,928 locations and performed just a
bit below the levels of recent November animated titles. Last year, the penguin
pic Happy Feet
bowed to $41.5M while the previous year’s
launched with $40M. The two went on to gross $198M and $135.4M, respectively,
from the North American market. Co-written by and starring Jerry Seinfeld, Bee
Movie enjoyed virtually no competition in the current marketplace for family
audiences. Critics were not too kind, but ticket buyers showed interest on the
opening weekend. For 2007, the toon posted the fourth biggest debut for an
animated film after
Shrek the Third
Simpsons Movie ($74M) and
Suffering the largest sophomore drop in franchise history,
Saw IV tumbled 65%
from its top spot bow and grossed an estimated $11M. The Lionsgate title has
still banked an impressive $51.1M in ten days and should finish with nearly
Dan in Real Life
fared much better in its second weekend dropping a slim 31% to an estimated
$8.1M. With $23M in ten days, the romantic comedy might find its way to around
$50M despite playing in less than 2,000 theaters.
Neglected and landing in seventh place was the new
Child which opened with an estimated $3.7M. Playing in 2,020
locations, the PG-rated story of a man that adopts a boy who says he’s from Mars
averaged a pitiful $1,807 for New Line. Child was the seventh wide release in
the past six weeks to debut with an average of less than $2,000.
Three adult-skewing fall pics followed.
Michael Clayton collected an estimated $2.9M, down 41%, for a sum of
$33.2M for Warner Bros. Lionsgate’s
Did I Get Married? got hit hard by Denzel’s arrival tumbling 52 to
an estimated $2.7M. Cume is $51.2M. The Miramax mystery Gone
Baby Gone captured an estimated $2.4M, off 37%, for a $14.9M total.
Warner Independent saw a solid platform bow for its documentary
which saw an estimated $24,000 in ticket sales from only three theaters.
Averaging $8,000 per venue, the Don Cheadle-narrated film will expand on Friday
to more cities.
Three October titles fell sharply and left the top ten this weekend. Disney’s
latest re-release of
Nightmare Before Christmas saw its post-Halloween sales slump 55% to
an estimated $1.5M for a cume of $12.8M. A $15M final seems likely. The
We Own the Night
fell 59% to an estimated $1.4M. The Sony release has taken in $27.7M and could
make it to $30M. The spoof comedy
grossed an estimated $1.5M, down 56%, and has collected a disappointing $11.9M
for Fox. Look for a $13M final.
The top ten films grossed an estimated $124.1M which was up 14% from last
year when Borat debuted
in first place with $26.5M; and up 8% from 2005 when Chicken Little
opened in the top spot with $40M.
Author: Gitesh Pandaya,
This week at the movies, we’ve got crime lords (American Gangster,
Denzel Washington and
Russell Crowe), busy bees (Bee Movie,
starring Jerry Seinfeld), and kids from another planet (The Martian Child,
starring John Cusack). What do the critics have to say?
It’s a crime flick starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe that’s directed
by Ridley Scott. How could this possibly go wrong? According to critics, it
American Gangster tells the story of a low-level criminal
(Washington) who moves up the ladder when his boss dies; Crowe plays an
outcast cop on his trail. Pundits say Gangster is a remarkable entry into
the crime genre, with excellent performances, a compelling sense of moral
ambiguity, and an outstanding eye for 1970s period detail. At 80 percent on the Tomatometer, American Gangster is Certified Fresh. (Check out
this week’s Total Recall, where we examine some notable organized crime films from the
Jerry Seinfeld lends his distinctive brand of observational humor to
Bee Movie, a CGI feature about our
pollen-producing pals and their interactions with people. Seinfeld stars as the voice of a recent bee graduate
looking for a purpose in life. Leaving the hive for the first time, he comes
into contact with a human (Renée Zellweger) and becomes concerned over
humanity’s rampant consumption of honey. Critics say Bee Movie is
elevated by Seinfeld’s witty humor, but otherwise, this is an amiable but
forgettable affair. At 57 percent on the Tomatometer, this is no killer Bee.
(Check out RT’s interview with Seinfeld
Also opening this week in limited release:
re-release of the 1981 French action classic, is at 100 percent;
Joe Strummer: The Future is
Unwritten, a documentary about the late, great singer of the Clash, is at
94 percent on the Tomatometer (check out our interview with director Julien
here); Sharkwater,a documentary that explains the importance of are sharp-toothed friends in the
global ecosystem, is at 75 percent;
Fat Girls, an indie comedy about a
pair of high school outcasts, is at 60 percent; and
Darfur Now, a doc
about efforts to end the genocide in Sundan, is at 45 percent.