Friday, 26 January 2007

Blood Diamond - Review by Emma J Lennox

Director: Edward Zwick
Screenwriter: Charles Leavitt
Running Time: 143 mins
Certificate: 15
Released: Now

Indicative of growing international concern, Western filmmakers have increasingly discovered Africa to be a rich source of stories and controversies. Ed Zwick's Blood Diamond is one of many following the trend, tailing Kevin MacDonald's The Last King of Scotland, and preceding Phillip Noyce's Catch a Fire. Global campaigns to Make Poverty History and cancel debts have maneuvered Africa to top of the agenda in the current political climate. Yet instead of opening the door for African filmmakers and a heterogeneous perspective, international companies are developing films that redress issues in their own terms. Inevitably concessions in large scale productions can lead to disingenuous depictions, such as having Sierra Leone landscape in Blood Diamond shot in Mozambique three and a half thousand miles away. For Zwick, however, exploitation is the subject and not the product of Blood Diamond and his intentions are to accurately portray a moment of history, in a style which resonates with its audience.

With a population roughly the same as Scotland, Sierra Leone's $300-450 million per year diamond revenue should make it one of the richest countries in the world. Yet the turmoil of an eleven year civil war has displaced a third of its population and killed tens of thousands more. Blood Diamond takes place in 1999, during a resurgence of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), who are embroiled in battles with Government forces, mercenaries and foreign militia for control of the diamond mines. The conflict stone in question is a rare pink diamond mined by Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) a Mende fisherman who is enslaved by the RUF. Callous South African mercenary, Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio,) hears of the diamond and manipulates American journalist, Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly,) to help find Vandy's family in exchange for the stone's whereabouts. Blood Diamond excels during action sequences and it impressively encapsulates the terror of a nation in free fall in visceral explosions of violence. Not since Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down (2000) have audiences experienced the reverberations of earth shattering street fighting. But whereas Scott's Somalian fighters are a faceless army against predominantly white American forces, Zwick has invested in countering views and personal journeys. The most potent storyline features Vandy's son, Dia (Kagiso Kuypers,) who is taken by the RUF and trained as a child soldier.

Africa is rendered as a diverse and conflicting continent including the portrayal of slums and upmarket bars in Freetown, South African vineyards and refugee camps in Guinea. Free to transcend the highs and lows of the spectrum is Archer, who is a natural focus as he links the blood stained mines to international corporations. The despicable Archer is played with nihilistic verve by DiCaprio and his Afrikaans and Krio accents are effective. DiCaprio's A- list status has no doubt broadened accessibility to the film and cynics claim Archer is no more than a thinly veiled Indiana Jones. However, DiCaprio's portrayal of a disaffected South African has its own merits. The character of Archer was American in early drafts of the script but research into the issue thankfully disposed of the idea. The dynamic culture clash between the two Africans Archer and Vandy is a sharp reminder that the apartheid still exists in the collective memory. The good natured Vandy is subjected to ugly and relentless racist jibes from Archer forcing him to fight back. Although the relationship could have developed further if Hounsou was given more to do than enact the desperate father again and again.

Connelly is given the thankless task of being the Western eyes of the film; a familiar role in international African based films. Issues of exploitation are raised in the story by her representation of the media, but the impact is lost as Connelly herself is used for conventional means. In the end she is more offensive as the supposed romantic interest than as the patronising Westerner. The complexity of the token white foreigner is often the rule by which a film's intentions can be measured. James MacAvoy's Scottish doctor in The Last King of Scotland is a flawed protagonist; both arrogant and cowardly, an apt metaphor for British involvement in African politics. Ralph Fiennes' mild mannered, ineffectual foreign diplomat in The Constant Gardener (2005) is oblivious to his Kenyan surrounding until the realities of corporate manslaughter take a personal toll. International films are valid cinematic experiences in areas which concern interference of foreign governments or corporations, but it will only emphasise contrived filmmaking if a character exists simply to ease the portrayal of 'otherness'. Had Zwick had a little more faith in the inclusive and exploratory nature of cinema, Blood Diamond would have benefited.

The failure of Blood Diamond is that it doesn't live up to its own high standards. So intent on covering all the angles, Zwick forgets that small personal tales can be effective drama. Dry scenes of G8 meetings are boring and unnecessary, and they dissipate the tension built up on ground level in Sierra Leone. Its value as an entertainment story is also undone by an incredulous ending. At times it seems impossible for convention to sugar coat this tale of atrocities, but Zwick finds a way. Regardless of the outcome, ripples of discontent have already caused the diamond industry to retaliate with an expensive campaign, 'Diamond Facts'. It proves Hollywood still has an influential moral role if it can keep corporations on their toes. Concerns over cultural manipulation shouldn't stop anyone viewing Blood Diamond or other politically motivated blockbusters, for 'intelligent entertainment' films are rare jewels in Hollywood. Exploitation would appear less exaggerated in a market balanced with home grown African films, but Abderrahmane Sissako's critically acclaimed Bamako, released February 23rd, is less likely to draw the same attention as Blood Diamond. Africa is a large continent which can exhort many competing view points, there is room in the film goers diary for both.
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