Blood Diamond


For brief, fleeting moments almost every decade now, the rich world tends to embrace Africa – a continent badly wracked by poverty, wars and related crises – as pet project. Africa as the object of the fantasies of the West is an old pathology, and it is not limited to the entertainment industry – though Hollywood has represented its most crude and egregious form in recent decades. Stalked by the disaster of Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair (who, to be fair, cannot by any means be accused of prior indifference to Africa) embraced the old continent with renewed vigour, in 2005 producing “Our Common Interest,” a sprawling, well-meaning document which sets out detailed plans for wiping out African poverty and related crises. Less than two years later, the document is all but forgotten.

Africa, however, has not been, at least by Hollywood. By the end of 2006, Africa became “suddenly hot” to the entertainment industry, to use the appropriately frivolous words of the New York Times. Before the end of the year, the continent somehow managed to attract the interest of big name stars – and therefore big media – beginning with Bono, then Clay Aiken, Jessica Simpson, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, George Clooney and a few others. Even Madonna, not usually associated with high-mindedness, was “suddenly casting an ice-blue eye toward Africa” (this is from the New York Times), that year famously adopting a child from Malawi. Ed Zwick and Leonardo di Caprio and Jennifer Connelly took the pathology a step higher (or lower), coming from nowhere and seeming to adopt a whole country, Sierra Leone. Their ‘Blood Diamond’, a film that purports to recreate the horrors that befell Sierra Leone mainly in 1990s, came out just before Christmas. The producers of this film, which makes the word narcissism inadequate, claims that the intention is to save Sierra Leone (and countries like it) from the predatory degradation of diamond hunters and their wretched native allies who pressgang children into their militia and commit unspeakable atrocities.

There was a time, a few years back, when films like ‘Blood Diamond’ would have been most welcome, not least by the long-suffering people of Sierra Leone. The diamond-fueled war in the country began in 1991, but scarcely got a mention in most of the world’s media until 1999, after fighters of the demented Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a criminal, nihilistic group, attacked and nearly destroyed Freetown, the country’s capital. Their campaign was distinguished by gratuitous attacks on civilians, including the crude mutilations of women and children. A large UN force, 17,500 strong, backed by some British troops, was then sent in, and two years later succeeded in disarming most of the militias. In 2002, with the successful conduct of nation-wide democratic elections, the war was declared over. Most estimates put the number of those killed at 70,000; well over two-thirds of the country’s infrastructure, already seriously troubled by the time the war started, was destroyed during the conflict.

It is nearly five years since the war ended, and the country is planning to conduct its second democratic elections, in July. Sierra Leone’s economy has registered marked improvement: growth for the past two years has been at 7 per cent. Sierra Leone’s critical diamond industry, while still problematic, is much improved. In 2006, after rigorous application of the international control system, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), Sierra Leone officially exported over $140 million worth of diamonds, about the same as in the previous year, and doubling that for 2004. In 1999, at the height of the war, official export was slightly more than $1 million; needless to say, most of the country’s diamonds were then stolen and smuggled by the RUF and its allies, through Liberia and into the international diamond market. In return, the RUF was showered with weapons, with which they killed and maimed defenceless women and children.

That diamonds, universal symbol of love, can actually be implicated in hate and destruction and frenzied violence is a highly compelling story. And ‘Blood Diamond’, featuring Leonardo di Caprio as a charmingly gruff South African diamond smuggler and mercenary against the backdrop of larger intrigues and all-consuming violence, is, by any measure, compelling thriller. But since Zwick makes very large claims for the film – as a ‘socially-conscious’ effort, as something more profoundly cerebral than the usual Hollywood offerings of tear-filled love or mad lust violence – ‘Blood Diamond’ has to be evaluated as such. I feel even more convinced saying this because ‘Blood Diamond’ has been immediately preceded or followed by a number of other lesser known efforts, some of them offering starkly different, sub-revisionist versions of what Sierra Leone went through during its war. There was Ismail Blagrove’s ‘Mad Den Nor Glady’O,’ produced by a London-based company, which rather obliquely disputes the popular claim that the war was all about diamonds; and there has been the nasty, stupid film, ‘Empire in Africa,’ produced by a Frenchman named Philippe Diaz, which actually shows the RUF thugs as misunderstood and romantic heroes who were thwarted by murderous UN troops and corrupt local officials (Diaz’s key informant, who appears throughout this film as interviewee, is the drunken and insipid RUF commando Mike Lamin, for whom the word wretched might have been invented.) Just before the year ended, History Channel produced ‘Blood Diamonds’, an excellent documentary which should be viewed by anyone interested in the subject. Soon to be shown will be ‘Bling’, produced by the New York-based Article 19 Films. ‘Bling’, with which I marginally cooperated, tells the Sierra Leone diamond story by using American rap artists, juxtaposing their vulgar use of diamond products (‘bling’) and the destruction and terror that diamonds have caused in Africa. A Canadian company, Kensington Studio, will also be showing ‘Diamond Road;’ since I know the producers and have somewhat followed what they are doing, I can say that ‘Diamond Road’ will probably be more exalted and comprehensive that the previous films.

‘Blood Diamond’ (noticed that it is singular) centres around a single ‘pink’ diamond which had been found and hidden in the bush by Solomon Vandy (Dijon Hounsou) while mining under the RUF’s grim watch. Vandy had recently been violently enlisted into the RUF’s army of miners after his capture in a brutal attack on his village which left many dead and his family (including his much loved son) captured and taken away. Danny Archer (Di Caprio) learns about this diamond while in a crowded cell (after his capture by Sierra Leone government troops as he tries to smuggle diamonds through the skin of a goat) which also features both Vandy and the rebel commando who saw him hid the diamond (they were both immediately after captured by government troops.) Archer works for bigger interests (De Beers, the giant diamond conglomerate, is hinted at but never mentioned by name), but his interest is purely himself. Intrigues and bloodshed follow more intrigues and bloodshed (one of the film’s merits is its quite realistic portrayal of attacks by RUF fighters). Archer and Vandy agree to make a trip together to the rebel-invested area where the diamond is hidden; incredibly they are successful (even though a band of South African mercenaries, hired by the government, are trying to kill them to take the diamond for themselves). But Archer is critically wounded; he couldn’t make the trip out with Vandy and his son (who had been found already a RUF fighter). Before all this, Archer had enlisted a beautiful Western journalist he had met at a sleazy bar (which looks quite like the famous Paddy’s Bar in Freetown), Mandy (Jennifer Connelly). Mandy had been in the country for sometime, but she is almost completely uninterested in the country’s people, its politics or history. She is obsessively interested only in the diamond story, believing that she would end the war by simply showing to the Western world – prime consumers of diamonds – that the diamonds they value as symbols of love were in fact causing death and destruction in Africa. Once Westerners realize this, they would stop buying diamond products (valued at nearly $70 billion a year), and rebels like the RUF which fund their armies with proceeds from diamonds would be starved of funds and collapse. She is clearly not being treated with irony: although she looks very much the part of a starry-eyed fool, the simplicity is not hers; it is the film’s core defect.

Now there is absolutely no doubt that diamonds helped fund, and therefore fueled and prolonged, the war in Sierra Leone (as they did that in Angola). This aspect of Sierra Leone’s tragic recent past has been exhaustively studied, following “The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security”, co-authored (with Ian Smillie and Ralph Hazleton) by this writer in 2000. The study exposed the unregulated nature of the international diamond trade at the time, documenting evident smuggling of Sierra Leone’s diamonds by the RUF through Liberia (under Charles Taylor, now an indicted war criminal), which then exported the gems as its own. As reaction to this study (as well as a UN report which it precipitated) showed, Mandy’s approach, on the face of it, is utterly reasonable: the outside world may not able to do anything about the degraded politics of Sierra Leone that helped bred the nihilism so much in evidence in the film, but it can do something about diamonds – and ultimately this (along with thousands of UN troops) would be crucial. The problem is that the diamond story is allowed to run completely berserk, making almost everyone in the film look silly. An old man, surviving a rebel attack, is heard saying “It’s just the diamonds. I hope they don’t find oil here as well!” Excuse me, but this looks very much like some desperate NGO campaign stunt: it is completely unexpected and irritating in the context.

The most obvious objection to the film, voiced by De Beers (which strangely – given its unwholesome history – now seems to be saying all the right things) and the government of Sierra Leone, is that Sierra Leone’s war ended a long time ago, and recreating it now and blaming diamonds for it all as though it is still ongoing is misleading and a disservice to the longsuffering country as it tries to project a new image of stability to attract external investors and tourists. This is a very important objection, although De Beers’ self-interest was soon made clear – partly by it setting aside millions of dollars to fight the negative publicity around diamonds that it envisaged the film would generate. A less clear-cut objection is that even at the height of the wars in places like Sierra Leone and Angola, ‘blood diamonds’ accounted for just a fraction of the billions of dollars worth of diamonds traded internationally, and to tar the diamond business as bloodstained is potentially to undermine economies, like Botswana’s, which completely rely on the diamond trade but whose diamonds are undoubtedly conflict-free. This objection was rejected by many when it was first voiced out at the height of the NGO campaign against ‘blood diamonds’, in the 1990s and early 2000s. I think that in fact it is also a legitimate position. It is easy to argue, from a distance, that the good economies of Botswana and hundreds of thousands of jobs elsewhere cannot quite compensate for the lives lost in Sierra Leone or Angola. But this position is glib, and does little to address the issue. An effort in this direction was the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), which was initiated by the South African government, some NGOs and De Beers, and which aimed to make sure that only diamonds traded by legitimate governments would enter the international system. The agreement was signed in 2002, and was adopted by the UN Security Council. It is far from being perfect – diamonds continued to be smuggled, as anyone should expect, and have continued to move from conflict areas in places like Ivory Coast – but as such agreements go, the KPCS is reasonably effective, and there is continuing efforts to improve its monitoring activities.

‘Blood Diamond’ acknowledges both that the war in Sierra Leone has ended and that the KPCS is in place, but only at the end of the film – after the manic violence, the destruction, the pious effusions about the evils of the diamond trade – and in writing which many viewers would probably not stay around to read.

Such inanity surely should excuse a bit of bitching from a reviewer. The film is about Sierra Leone but it is obviously not set in the West African country. If one didn’t know that already, the zebras and elephants (none of which could be found in present day Sierra Leone) should be the giveaway; as should the very bad, almost incomprehensible Mende (Vandy is Mende) spoken throughout the film. In fact the landscape tells you this is Mozambique, in Southern Africa – close enough to Sierra Leone in recent experience but very far indeed geographically. The seductive little scene where Mandy and Vandy and Archer, surviving many attacks by the rebels, run into an apparently disciplined and determined Kamajors (the pro-government militia) goes well enough until you remember, if you knew already, that the Kamajors would not have allowed a woman to so flirtingly hobnob with them, as Mandy (as usual) does. (It is against their ritual to touch a woman when they are in action – which explains why incidence of rape was completely absent among the Kamajors, as various commentators have observed.) I am not also sure why it is Archer, a foreigner, who leads Vandy (who, as a denizen of the place, should be expected to know his way about a lot better) through the bush to Kono, except that the leading, macho role had to be exclusively reserved for Di Caprio.

These are trifling observations perhaps; but high-mindedness, as that which ‘Blood Diamond’ represents, always invites uncomfortable scrutiny. The film’s denouement takes its morality pitch to another level of (celluloid) clumsiness and fantasy. As Archer writhes in pain critically wounded, he gives the ‘pink’ diamond to Vandy, arranges for a helicopter to pick up Vandy and his son, and phones his friend Mandy (who had since gone to London) to arrange a flight to Europe for Vandy (plus sales arrangement for the diamond). Di Caprio’s earnest, passionate, selfless ‘Titanic’ moment is evoked: a remarkable twist for a hardcore mercenary and smuggler. Mandy gets her full story when Vandy arrives in London and meets the representatives of the great diamond cartel (Mandy is seen frantically snapping pictures…) Later we see Vandy, in nice suit (and 2 million pounds rich), appearing to address a conference on the evils of the diamond trade…The film ends.

I have to admit, as I stated earlier, that this is a powerful thriller. The acting, particularly Di Caprio’s, is stunningly good. As a credible recreation of Sierra Leone’s tragic story, well that is another matter altogether…

Lansana Gberie is the author of A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction Sierra Leone (Indiana University Press, 2006).

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