Africa: "Blood Diamond" Entertains, Educates - Djimon Hounsou, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly Confront Death and Diamonds in Sierra Leone

8 December 2006
column

Washington, D.C. — In the early days of Master Sergeant Samuel Doe's 1980 coup in Liberia, I was entering a hotel in Monrovia with my five-year-old son when soldiers lounging in the lobby started shouting and indiscriminately shooting. Flight seemed the wrong option, especially when one of the shooters challenged me, "Lady, wheh you goin' wi'dat bag?"

"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. [cryfreetown.org] 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.

Sierra Leone's worst torment is now over. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, blamed for fueling the rebellion from his power base across the border, is imprisoned in The Hague, awaiting trial for war crimes. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, ably led by United Methodist Bishop Joseph Humpers, began the process of healing Sierra Leone's yawning societal rifts. Refugees have been flowing home.

Liberia, where competing factions profited from sales of timber and rubber, as well as diamonds, is also on the mend. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's government is committed to transparency, to accountability and to sustainable economic development that gives particular consideration to traumatized women and children.

Survivors in both countries are trying to honor the half million dead by rebuilding. But before breathing a sigh of relief that consigns the death and destruction to the past, viewers should remember that similarly harrowing events are being played out in such places as Sudan's Darfur region, in Chad and in eastern Congo (DRC), where – incredibly and largely without notice – some four million have already died in the violence and disorder of another natural-resource-fueled conflict.

Both the diamond industry and peaceful diamond-producing countries worry that viewers will take the film so seriously that diamond sales will decline this holiday season. The World Diamond Council, representing the governments and the industries that mine, cut and sell the stones, has launched a costly public relations campaign and a website, diamondfacts.org. The Council calls attention to the Kimberly Process, a four-year-old system to certify the origin of gems and block the entry of conflict diamonds to the market. More than seventy countries endorse and participate in the effort.

After the Council on Foreign Relations screening, representatives of diamond sellers cautioned that misinterpretation of the film could hurt African development. Although Council events are typically off the record, World Diamond Council General Counsel Cecilia Gardner and Kago Moshashane of Botswana, who chairs the Kimberly Process, agreed that AllAfrica could cite their views.

Gardner complimented fellow panelists from Global Witness and Amnesty International with having helped develop the Kimberly Process, through the work of their organizations. She said more than 99 percent of diamonds sold are now certified as conflict free. African nations reap more than U.S.$8 billion from diamonds, money that supports education, health care and infrastructure development.

In Botswana, said Moshashane, diamonds account for more than 45 percent of government revenue and three-quarters of the country's export earnings. Because of diamonds, a country that was one of the world's poorest at its independence in 1966 is today an upper-middle income country that has been the world's fastest growing economy for most of the past quarter century. Over 40 percent of government revenues in Namibia come from diamonds, and last year a peaceful Sierra Leone exported over U.S.$142 million worth.

But campaigners against conflict diamonds aren't satisfied. Global Witness and Amnesty International maintain blooddiamondaction.org, supported in part by the Blood Diamond film, urging continued vigilance. The groups estimate that 3.7 million Africans have died in diamond-fueled wars.

Consumers in the United States buy more than half the world's annual diamond exports. Advocates of stricter controls cite a September report by the U.S. Government Accounting Office, which says uncertified stones can enter the U.S. market through a poorly policed Kimberly Process and major weaknesses in the implementation of the Clean Diamond Trade Act, the U.S. law implementing the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme. A United Nations report the same month expressed similar concern about flaws in international controls and alleges that rebels in northern Cote d'Ivoire are currently earning millions of dollars in illegal diamond sales, a charge the rebels deny. The European Union and a group of 46 governments have warned Ghana, which borders Cote d'Ivoire, that it risks expulsion from the Kimberly Process for becoming a conduit for conflict diamonds. Ghana, a democracy generally lauded for good governance and effective economic policies, has been given three months to tighten controls on diamond smuggling or be barred from the international diamond trade.

While pledging to continue to refine the international controls, diamond producers and marketers say they want people who see the film to understand that they can buy diamonds without guilt. DeBeers, which controls most of the international diamond trade, has gone on the offensive, hoping potential purchasers won't identify the company with the film's greedy international cartel, whose executives knowingly buy conflict diamonds while participating in the Kimberly Process.

Hip hop entrepreneur-turned-jewelry-designer Russell Simmons spent nine days in southern Africa last month, touring diamond mines and social projects that mining revenues help finance. While in the region, he announced a Diamond Empowerment Fund that will use earnings from his firm's diamond sales to support education and training in South Africa and Botswana.

Liberia's government hopes that it, like Sierra Leone, will soon be able to benefit from the gems that funded so much misery. United Nations sanctions against Liberian diamond exports remain in place, out of concern that the country's enforcement capacity is too limited to guarantee compliance with the Kimberly Process. But the ravaged country is desperately short of resources to rebuild, and fulsome compliments for the new president and her plans have failed to yield needed support. For example, $50 million in urgent aid voted by the U.S. Congress last May, after President Sirleaf addressed a joint sitting in Washington, has yet to be disbursed. A Security Council vote on lifting the Liberian sanctions is expected.

All participants in the continuing debate say the film, if properly interpreted, can educate the public about both the perils and the possibilities that diamonds represent. Blogger Nancy Reyes, who lives in the rural Philippines, worked as a physician in Liberia over twenty years ago. "If the film familiarizes Americans with what is going on in Africa, including the work of the UN in stopping such murderous civil wars, it will be money well spent by Hollywood," she says.

Princeton Lyman, a former U.S. ambassador to two resource-rich countries, South Africa and Nigeria, who now heads the Africa program at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued at the screening that dealing with diamonds – which, can't, by themselves, kill anyone – is not enough. Noting that a central point of Blood Diamond is that Sierra Leone rebels traded gems for weapons, he announced that the Council is launching a study group on the thorny issue of the international arms trade.

There are numerous ways to help the people of west Africa reclaim their countries from chaos and conflict. Two recently launched foundations targeted at grass-roots development accept contributions (tax exempt to U.S. donors).

Greys's Anatomy star Isaiah Washington started the Gondobay Manga Foundation, which supports village-level initiatives, including road, water and electricity projects.

Deborah Harding, a longtime friend of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, spearheaded the Liberian Education Trust  to build 50 schools, train 500 teachers and fund 5,000 scholarships, primarily for girls, as well as to promote literacy for marketwomen.

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