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Interview with Ricki Stern, Co-Director of The Devil Came on Horseback

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Click here to learn more about The Devil Came on Horseback and to view clips of the movie.


Q: Brian gave you access to thousands of photos, but how else did you find such footage?


A: We did a lot of film research … I have to give credit to our associate producer who was on YouTube and found footage from Darfur … I contacted the man who shot the footage from Darfur and he happened to be in New York that day (he was from London) … this young filmmaker just happened to be in Darfur in 2003 … he liked the fact that we had no money and were independent filmmakers; this was the one time it was to our benefit not to have money! … he was our renegade filmmaker. When we heard about and met Brian, Darfur had already been closed off to journalists … we wouldn’t have had as much access as what we were able to get from this person who’d been there from 2003–04.



Q: Of the thousand photographs from Brian, did you feel you couldn’t show certain ones?


A: It was definitely a consideration when we started. We didn’t want to be exploitative with the images—on the other hand we couldn’t not show what’s actually happening over there because that’s the whole point of the movie … We included the most gripping photographs: The baby shot and lying dead in grain to me are the most heartbreaking photographs … to see bodies desecrated with their eyes plucked out is horrifying … but I think there’s something about the innocence of the children in their everyday lives … especially the last attack that Brian witnessed: they were going about their everyday life and they were just sabotaged, that footage in particular was the most disturbing for me.



Q: And also the idea that people who’d already been displaced (IDC camps) also got attacked …


A: Some people have said, “We wish there were more testimonials from Darfurians in Darfur” … but it’s just footage we didn’t have … there are films focusing on this now [like Chad and refugees there] …



Q: What drew you to documentary filmmaking?


A: I started making documentary films when I was in college … what drew me to it was the people’s stories … in documentary filmmaking, it’s a very creative hands-on process. It’s almost like being an artist in some ways. You actually get to do and feel and touch and make the story happen …



Q: What inspired you to make The Devil Came on Horseback?


A: I heard about Brian through his sister, Gretchen … She told me what he’d been witnessing [as an unarmed observer] and that he was taking these photographs … partly what Annie and I both got from Brian’s perspective is that he’s not a typical hero or do-gooder … It was his transformation that drew us to his story and we needed a way to get into telling the story of Darfur. He’s accessible to an American audience. One thing we’ve learned from making films is that you have to know who your audience is. If you want a film on American television or in the theaters, you have to a have a protagonist people can identify with. He was that for us. Purely, it was the photographs, and just knowing we had access to such material, we thought we could make a movie out of it. We had to animate a lot of the photographs to bring them to life …



Q: Was Brian hesitant to do this film?


A: He was open to exposing the photographs in any way possible … he’s cautious, rightly so, and protective of his identity … he feels there’s a security risk for himself personally. But he was very open about it …



Q: We talked about how horrific the photos were. How did you process all that emotionally?


A: For me, I was like a doctor in some ways. After the first immediate shock, I just looked at the images and  tried to distance myself emotionally … but the one image of the baby lying in the grain, maybe because I have a two-year-old, really got me. I personalized those images. It would get me. Sometimes I would just cry … I asked my editor, “Do you ever just cry?” And he said, “Yes, I just find myself unexpectedly moved” … as editors you can be detached from the material … but when you really look at the people, at the pants they’re wearing, the shoes on their feet, it is very personal …



Q: Did you ever consider interviewing some of the lost boys or is that a whole other story?


A: It is … we had to cover a very broad topic with all the intricate players, politically, socially, and culturally and we really had to stay focused on Brian in order to make a streamlined story. We interviewed Elie Weisel, the head of Human Rights Watch … we had all these interviews that we did because we needed to do it, partly for research … they never made it into the film because it really was such a personal narrative of his [Brian’s] experience there. We thought that made the film stronger … Then contextual material came in from the outside news reports … that was a way for us to tell the outside world perspective … When the U.S. named it “genocide,” from his [Brian’s] perspective in the field, they thought, “Wow, something’s going to change” … but it didn’t …



Q: Has this film changed your outlook as a director?


A: It changes every time I do a film … You become a mini-specialist on the topic … making a film on Darfur certainly made me so much more aware of what was going on …



Q: What was the biggest challenge for you?


A: Doing it so quickly … collecting the footage quickly, finding out what was shot … the biggest challenge was doing it quickly and also having a cohesive story. We didn’t really know until we were in editing how the story would come together.



Q: Do you think Darfur is finally getting the attention it deserves?


A: One thing that could be encouraging, as we go into the next elections, politicians, Obama specifically, have spoken about it … I think it will require U.S. citizens to tell politicians this is a concern of mine. You need to put it on your agenda. I won’t elect you unless you seem concerned …



Q: When Brian returned to Rwanda and Chad, how was that?


A: Actually, we didn’t go. We were finishing editing our other film [The Trails of Darryl Hunt]. But we did send Jerry Ryrisius [our cinematographer] …



Q: Do you have advice for women documentary filmmakers?


A: If you’re just starting out in the business, my advice would be to learn a skill like editing or writing … Pursue those things because you need to make a living while you’re doing it. I think there’s more opportunity now with all the reality television … They want hungry people who don’t want to get paid a lot … more people are learning how to shoot … and these home videos/commercial cameras are making it easier for people to be shooters … when I got out of school we were shooting in 16 mm … and there was no AVID! … The whole medium has changed …


 

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