October 14, 2007

The 2007 Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award: Documentarian as Humanitarian: Ted Braun

Darfur Now director Ted Braun in Darfur

Ted Braun is the recipient of the 2007 Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award. He wrote and directed his first theatrical documentary, Darfur Now, the interwoven stories of six individuals who are investing their lives trying to end genocide in the Darfur region of western Sudan, a long-running conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and left millions displaced. The film had its world premiere at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival and opened theatrically through Warner Independent Pictures November 2.

The powerful characters in the film include Adam Sterling, a young activist seeking legislation that would divest California’s money from companies that do business with the Sudanese government; Ahmed Mohammed Abakar, a refugee-turned-camp leader liaising between aid workers and his countrymen; Luis Moreno-Ocampo, a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, working to build a case against government officials who sanction and prompt murderous actions; actor Don Cheadle, who uses his celebrity to call attention to the crisis; Pablo Recalde, an aid worker on the ground in Sudan, working to deliver food to hungry people despite serious obstacles; and Hejewa Adam, who joined the revolutionary army after Janjaweed—Arab militiamen responsible for much of the violence—killed her infant son.

It is particularly appropriate that Braun should receive this award, since Jacqueline Donnet, a long-time PBS producer and later a supporter of first- and second-time documentary filmmakers through The Donnet Fund, had a specific interest in Holocaust studies. “I was frustrated by the world’s indifference to the catastrophe in Darfur,” says Braun, “so I wanted this film to reach a wide audience, not just people who already knew about the subject.” As we watch the stories unfold, the elegance of this film’s form belies the arduous road Braun took to produce the work. In essence, Braun’s quest to carry forth the message of genocide in our own time is the implicit seventh storyline of the film.

Braun began his career in filmmaking like so many others: in college, where he worked as a projectionist for filmmaker Mark Harris’ documentary course at University of Southern California in the late 1980s. There he studied documentary and attempted to make one on his own, but when he didn’t get into Harris’ production course and wanted to leave film school, Harris convinced him to stick it out. He became a friend and mentor, and later, when Braun approached him with Darfur Now, Harris came aboard as a producer, along with Cathy Shulman (Crash, The Illusionist).

“One reason you study the past is to apply the lessons to the present,” says Harris. Having won two Academy Awards for The Long Way Home (1997) and Into the Arms of Strangers (2000), both stories of Holocaust survivors, Harris was sensitized to the issue of genocide. “So when Ted approached me, I felt a moral obligation and I wanted to help a friend and colleague,” he maintains. Braun, like Harris and others who worked on this project, had his own brush with witnessing suffering in his youth, traveling in South Africa during Apartheid. “I was unprepared for the injustice, poverty and suffering that I saw,” Braun reflects. “When I started looking into Darfur, I had this feeling that I had left something unfinished with Africa.”

After college, Braun worked for many years as a screenwriter, producing short fiction work for HBO and even attending the Sundance Lab. He went on to write and direct television documentaries for PBS, A&E and The Discovery Channel. His most recent film, We're Here To Speak for Justice, chronicled the battle for civil rights of California's developmentally disabled citizens. “I wanted to bring in my personal view of the world to my work,” he notes of his early films.

To film inside Sudan, particularly the rebel camps, Braun brought what Harris describes as incredible patience and interpersonal skills. “People think of the Sudanese government as monolithic, but there are divisions within the government,” says Braun. The access to his subjects, whether inside Sudan or the International Criminal Court, sets Braun’s film apart from many first features. It also drew the attention of industry heavyweights Participant Productions and Warner Independent Pictures, which for most first-time documentarians seems improbable, at best. Braun’s access also attracted Thom Powers, the Toronto International Film Festival documentary programmer: “His ability to gain access to the wide array of interests in the film, and win the trust of Participant and Warner Independent Pictures, is a remarkable feat.” 

But Braun is quick to credit his collaborators, each of whom had a special interest in the topic and brought their respective talents to the work. “I’m always looking for that moment when the ball starts bouncing back and forth between collaborators, to bring this shared vision into the world,” he notes. “It’s creative magic but it takes work.” Darfur Now is powerful because of the topic that it addresses and the quality of form, cinematography and sound—but also because of the remarkable subjects. And Powers adds, “It was well received from average viewers to celebrities like Angelina Jolie, who showed up at the public screening.”

Awards, festivals, and even articles aside, Darfur Now is an urgent call for Americans to become involved and contribute to ending the genocide in Sudan. Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and author of Night, a memoir of his experiences, wrote, “Just as despair can come to one only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings.” Braun’s first theatrical documentary is a message of hope that it is possible to make a difference, but that it takes hard work and utilizing all of one’s skills and talents to do so. “Take stock of who you are and what you have to offer,” he advises. “Learn what you can about the conflict and come to your own conclusions. If you’re a talker, talk to people about Darfur. If you’re a money person, do something with money… Start small and realistic and just take one step. That alone can make a huge difference.”

 

Agnes Varnum is a freelance writer and communications manager for the Austin Film Society.

 

Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award

2003   Alex Rivera
2004   Jonathan Caouette; Jehane Noujaim
2005   Marshall Curry
2006   Christopher Quinn

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