Interview: Darfur Now Producer Cathy Schulman On Getting Involved

November 7, 2007 at 4:22 pm Leave a comment

Cathy SchulmanThe 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 fighting.

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 be?

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 crew?

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 terrible.

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 Bob Yari 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.



Entry filed under: Interviews. Tags: , , , .

The Golden Age Director Shekhar Kapur Talks Review: No Country Is Vintage Coens

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed




Recent Posts

%d bloggers like this: