"There is no reason why challenging themes and engaging stories have to be mutually exclusive--in fact, each can fuel the other."
"To me, this movie is about what is valuable," says director/producer Edward Zwick. "To one person, it might be a stone; to someone else, a story in a magazine; to another, it is a child. The juxtaposition of one man obsessed with finding a valuable diamond with another man risking his life to find his son is the beating heart of this film."
"These two men set off on a journey, one with the intent of getting off the continent, the other with the intent of getting his family back," notes Leonardo DiCaprio, who stars as Danny Archer. "But each character ends up struggling with his own moral decisions."
Djimon Hounsou, who stars as Solomon Vandy, sums it up: "Archer is pursuing a diamond, but Solomon's diamond is his son."
The world sees diamonds as sparkling, beautiful and highly prized. They are symbols of love and fidelity, affluence and glamour. But in the African country of Sierra Leone, where many of the world's diamonds are mined, they have taken on a much darker connotation.
Zwick explains, "'Conflict diamonds' are stones that have been smuggled out of countries at war. They then go to pay for more arms, increasing the death toll and furthering the destruction of the region. They may be a small percentage of the world's sales, but, nonetheless, in an industry worth billions of dollars, even a small percentage is worth many millions and can buy innumerable small arms. In the late 1990s, people from such NGOs as Global Witness, Partnership Africa-Canada and Amnesty International gave them a name in order to help bring the crisis into the public consciousness:
"They called them 'blood diamonds.'"
Zwick had only a passing knowledge of the term and its meaning when producer Paula Weinstein first sent him the script. "I had heard the phrase, but I didn't fully understand its implications," he offers. "The more I learned, the more fascinated and horrified I became, and the more I realized this was a story that needed to be told."
Weinstein developed the screenplay with screenwriter Charles Leavitt and executive producer Len Amato. Producer Gillian Gorfil had initiated the project with C. Gaby Mitchell, who shares story credit with Leavitt. When they came on board the project, Zwick and producer Marshall Herskovitz continued to develop the story with Weinstein.
Weinstein recalls, "I had made an anti-apartheid movie called 'A Dry White Season' many years ago and spent some time in South Africa. I knew about conflict diamonds, so the idea of making a film that showed their effect on the people of Africa was very significant to me.
"First of all," she continues, "we had great writers, and then the moment we got the script, I wanted to go to Ed Zwick. Ed and his partner, Marshall Herskovitz, have demonstrated a sensibility that I share; they are interested in stories about the real world, and they are committed to telling them truthfully. I knew they would not only embrace the material but be fearless in telling the whole story. A project like this needed someone with a creative backbone in order to get it made, and made right."
Herskovitz has had an association with Zwick dating back almost 30 years. He acknowledges that the subject matter of "Blood Diamond" posed a challenge to the filmmakers in balancing images that have the potential to, at once, confront and entertain an audience but adds that there is ample precedence for walking that tightrope. "It was hard for us to look at some of the material about Sierra Leone and the truly horrendous circumstances there and imagine them in a Hollywood film, but history has repeatedly shown us you can do films that deal with difficult subject matters for a wide audience when there is an important story to be told."
Zwick agrees. "I don't think movies can ever be too intense, but people have to understand why you're showing them the things you are showing them. In the case of 'Blood Diamond,' there are brutal truths, but there is also great beauty and emotion to be found in the lives of those caught up in those situations."
"What really impressed me about Ed," Leonardo DiCaprio remarks, "was that he wanted to make an entertaining adventure film, but mixed in were some complex, highly charged political statements. That's what really got me excited about this film."
"It has been my belief that political awareness can be raised as much by entertainment as by rhetoric," asserts Zwick. "There is no reason why challenging themes and engaging stories have to be mutually exclusive--in fact, each can fuel the other. As a filmmaker, I want to entertain people first and foremost. If out of that comes a greater awareness and understanding of a time or a circumstance, then the hope is that change can happen. Obviously, a single piece of work can't change the world, but what you try to do is add your voice to the chorus."
Working on the script, the filmmakers found that they themselves gained a better awareness of the issues at hand. Zwick notes, "It seems that almost every time a valuable natural resource is discovered in the world--whether it be diamonds, rubber, gold, oil, whatever--often what results is a tragedy for the country in which they are found. Making matters worse, the resulting riches from these resources rarely benefit the people of the country from which they come."
Producer Gillian Gorfil, a native of South Africa herself, stresses that, while shedding light on the issue of blood diamonds, this movie is not intended to cast a shadow over the entire diamond industry. "It is important to me that this film is not anti-diamond. The issue is blood diamonds, which have very specific origins."
Zwick also emphasizes that the story of "Blood Diamond" is not exclusive to one corner of the globe. "There is something universal in the theme of a man trying to save his family in the midst of the most terrible circumstances. It is not limited to Sierra Leone. This story could apply to any number of places where ordinary people have been caught up in political events beyond their control. There are just so many innocent victims."
As the filmmakers delved into the tragedy of blood diamonds, a more far-reaching crisis began to resonate with them. "It's a remarkable thing when a movie tells you what it wants to be," Zwick muses. "While working on this film, the haunting theme of the child soldiers and the debasement of children took on greater import. The exploitation of resources in the third world has inevitably been linked with the exploitation of children. There was a phrase I wrote on the outside cover of my script. It was the first thing I saw at the beginning of every shooting day. It read: 'The child is the jewel.'"
"Sorious was a godsend… He was a friend, a consultant, an authority. He was the soul of the production."
A self-described "perpetual student," Zwick immersed himself in learning all he could about the history and repercussions of conflict diamonds, child soldiers and the revolution in Sierra Leone before exposing a single frame of film. An internet search led to a connection with another filmmaker who would prove invaluable to every facet of "Blood Diamond": award-winning documentarian Sorious Samura.
"I went online to look up a documentary I had heard about called 'Cry Freetown,'" Zwick recalls. "I put in a credit card order for it, and a week later a letter arrived saying, 'We couldn't help but recognize the name on your card and wondered if you were thinking of doing something about Sierra Leone. If so, please feel free to call me.' I couldn't believe my good fortune. Sorious Samura's documentary about Sierra Leone is the single most authoritative record of what happened there during the civil war. While many journalists were fleeing the country and much of the world chose to ignore what was happening, here was someone who stayed and actually filmed it."
Samura reveals that his decision to film the atrocities unfolding around him in 1999 was less an artistic decision than "a desperate cry in the dark for us to be saved. I had seen the difference the media made in covering the war in Kosovo, so I decided to take a camera and film what was happening in Sierra Leone. It was very dangerous--they had already killed about nine local journalists--but I thought if I could survive, then the world would see; if I could give the international community a wake-up call, maybe they would take action."
The result was "Cry Freetown," which brought Samura worldwide recognition and several prestigious awards, but he could not imagine that, years later, it would bring him to the set of a major motion picture. He relates, "When I learned that Ed Zwick was working on a feature film about Sierra Leone, I wanted to make sure he got the details right. Even though it was going to be a drama with fictional characters, it was important to convey a sense of what really went wrong--when it happened, how it happened, and why. When I talked to Ed, I could see he was as committed to getting it right as I was. I gained great respect for him, and told him I wanted to be a part of the film."
"Sorious was a godsend. He made himself available to me, and I took full advantage of that," Zwick says appreciatively. "You cannot put a value on having someone who was actually there. He became much more than a technical advisor. He didn't just advise us on practical things like wardrobe and props. He led us to people who understood the Mende language, Krio dialect, and so many nuances of Sierra Leonean culture. He had spent time with child soldiers, smugglers and mercenaries. He was indispensable to the actors, especially Leo and Djimon. He was a friend, a consultant, an authority. He was the soul of the production."
"The story of three very different people with very different agendas, whose lives intersect, was fuel for a very moving and dramatic adventure."
Like the filmmakers, the cast dedicated themselves to gaining as much knowledge as they could about the time, the place and the circumstances surrounding the story of "Blood Diamond" in preparation for their respective roles. Leonardo DiCaprio, who worked extremely hard perfecting his accent to play the part of ex-mercenary Danny Archer, affirms, "As soon as I read the script, I knew there would be a tremendous amount of personal research involved and that was one of the reasons I was immediately drawn to it. It was imperative for all of us to immerse ourselves in this world and hear firsthand accounts of what happened. For me, playing this man from what was Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), it was especially important to listen to the local people speak. This was an environment unlike anything I'd experienced in my life."
Jennifer Connelly, who stars as the driven journalist Maddy Bowen, sought out reporters who could give her a better grasp of the life of a female war correspondent. She notes, "I have a friend who, it so happens, had been in Sierra Leone in 1999 writing a piece on conflict diamonds. I got a lot of information and insight from her and from friends of hers. I became very intrigued by these women who were always fiercely intelligent and knowledgeable and often, I found, deeply feisty. I saw an apparent love of adventure, matched by an unflinching commitment to their work. I think that combination of attributes also applies to Maddy."
Originally from the African country of Benin, Djimon Hounsou came to the role of the Mende fisherman Solomon Vandy with perhaps a more innate understanding of his character. "One of the most interesting things about this film is that it shows what average men and women of that continent deal with on a daily basis," Hounsou comments. "Solomon is a simple fisherman who is caught in the middle of the chaos of civil war. He is torn away from his family and loses his son to the rebels. In many countries like my own or Sierra Leone, a son represents so much. A son has the potential to be all the things his father dreamed of being but never had the opportunity to become. It means everything in his life to save that child."
Zwick offers, "The story of three very different people with very different agendas, whose lives intersect, was fuel for a very moving dramatic adventure."
Zwick goes on to note that DiCaprio's portrayal of Danny Archer, a soldier turned soldier of fortune, fits squarely in the tradition of classic movie anti-heroes, "where great actors have been willing to go to a very dark place in service of a role. To see Leonardo DiCaprio take on that challenge was thrilling for me."
DiCaprio acknowledges that Archer's principles have been corrupted by the violence and greed that have plagued his homeland. "He has certainly become jaded," the actor attests. "He has a cynical view of the world; he looks at the continent of Africa not as his home but as a place where people take advantage of one another. There is no real right or wrong…it's only about survival."
"Archer is cut off from feeling and has lost himself in the process," Zwick observes. "He has exhausted his options; he has seen things and done things that he doesn't want to admit even to himself, and now he just wants to get out."
"That's why the diamond doesn't just represent money to him; it means his freedom and escape from his past," adds DiCaprio. "But as the story progresses and he is confronted by Maddy's idealism and Solomon's courage, Archer begins battling his own morality--what he's done with his life and what he is doing now."
"Leo was ferocious in his commitment to his role," Zwick states. "He has this uncanny ability to completely inhabit the character, a willingness to go all the way. He hung out with ex-mercenaries, NGO workers and former soldiers and spent hours just listening to people talk. He finally reached a point where he could improvise even in the dialect. But what emanated from him was not just the language; it was the essence of Danny Archer."
"To me, Leo is one of the finest actors of our time," Paula Weinstein declares, "not just in the way he speaks his lines but in what he is able to express without a single word. An emotion can simply cross his face and you know what he is feeling. Every day on the set, he was professional and committed and curious and present, and I was in constant awe of what he brought to his role."
Gillian Gorfil adds that she was equally in awe of DiCaprio's aptitude for the regional dialect. "Leo took on the challenge of speaking in an authentic southern African accent, which is extremely difficult to master. I think what he achieved was astounding. There were times when, if I closed my eyes, I would have mistaken him for one of the members of the local crew. He even started saying 'howzit'--the local slang for 'hello, how are you?'--as a greeting."
In contrast to Archer, Zwick contends, "Solomon Vandy is the moral center of the film. He is like so many men who have endured the depredations of war. His village is attacked, he loses his freedom, his family is taken, and he is forced to go on this odyssey, but he never loses hope. Even in this foreign environment, his situation is familiar to us…the love of a child, the compelling strength of family. I felt the only fitting way to tell the story was through his eyes--through his pain and anger and frustration and courage--because it's about his place, his country. As much as we may come to understand Archer's point of view, this is profoundly Solomon's story."
"I thought it was a beautiful story, an opportunity to deal with the difficult issues of conflict diamonds, child soldiers and refugee camps," says Djimon Hounsou. "There were so many aspects of the film that appealed to me. Certainly, as an African myself, I appreciated that the story is viewed through Solomon's eyes."
While Hounsou has not lived in Africa for quite a few years, he has shown it is never far from his heart in his support of organizations like Oxfam and Amnesty International. He recently filmed a public service announcement on the issue of illegal arms trafficking for the latter's "Make Some Noise" campaign.
"There is always a way to make a difference," the actor avows. "But do we choose to make a difference, that's the issue. My understanding is that if you took even half of all the money that is essentially stolen from that continent, you could address hunger, education, health problems…"
Gillian Gorfil recalls, "I could tell Djimon was very moved by his experiences making this film. He is a child of Africa, so he could relate to Solomon and his circumstances in a very personal way."
"Djimon's performance was just wonderful. The fact that he is from that continent, that it is in his blood and in his bones, contributed so much to the role. There is just no substitute for that," asserts Zwick.
On the journey to recover the diamond, Solomon and Archer are inexorably divided by lines of race and class that have existed for generations. "They are both African men, but their histories are very dissimilar," Zwick says. "Yet they have a mutual connection to this continent as their home. In many ways, it is a shared identity that supersedes their backgrounds. It is the common ground on which they ultimately recognize each other's humanity in an inhumane situation."
Nevertheless, Marshall Herskovitz counters, "There is an understandable motivation for these two men to work together, but they have conflicting objectives that keep them in opposition. This is not in any way a buddy movie: Archer and Solomon have very different ways of looking at the world, and we did not want to compromise on that."
The character of Maddy Bowen brings an altogether different perspective into focus. An American correspondent, Maddy is an outsider; she is in Africa only to expose the real story behind conflict diamonds. On her own, she's been able to uncover compelling evidence of smuggling and subterfuge--including the fact that for five years Sierra Leone had reported almost no diamond exports, while its neighboring country of Liberia had exported a great number…without any significant diamond mining to speak of. Nevertheless, Maddy is still in need of the hard facts that will lock her story down. She seeks out Danny Archer as an inside source for her article, never imagining that her contact with him will change her from an observer to a participant, or that he will lead her to the human face of her story: Solomon Vandy.
Jennifer Connelly offers, "Maddy wants to trace and expose the course of blood diamonds from the source to the marketplace. Given Archer's involvement, she feels confident he has the information she needs. She realizes he's probably done some horrendous things in his time but also opines that no one is entirely good or bad, and sometimes in a world this desperate, the lines are blurred."
"What I love about the character of Maddy is that she is cynical and idealistic at the same time," Herskovitz remarks. "She is motivated by a real desire to make a difference in the world, but she is also an adrenaline junkie who always has to be where the action is, and that's part of her motivation for being in Sierra Leone on the trail of an important story."
Connelly came to her role in "Blood Diamond" having demonstrated her own commitment to making a difference. In 2005, the actress was named Amnesty International USA's (AIUSA) Ambassador for Human Rights Education and served as an AIUSA spokesperson for the United Nations' screening of "Innocent Voices," a film about child soldiers in El Salvador.
Zwick adds that Connelly was the perfect choice for the role of a fearless and ambitious reporter, saying, "Jenny is someone who exudes extraordinary intelligence and empathy, and that is not as easy to convey as you might think. She also did her homework. She met with women journalists, watching them and assessing some of their habits and attitudes. It really informed her performance."
Connelly was especially intrigued by a journalist's constant struggle to avoid crossing the fine line between reporting the story and becoming the story. "A lot of the reporters I spoke to told me how hard it is to control the urge to intervene, to do something to effect a more immediate change. It is difficult to be in that kind of environment, surrounded by tragedy, and feel like you are in some way benefiting from another person's grief," the actress notes, adding, "I think that is the conflict Maddy faces, especially with regard to helping Solomon. She knows he might not ever find his family without her, but would she have gotten involved if it didn't help her article?"
INFANTRY MEANS CHILD SOLDIER
"When you really look at what happens to a boy who is forced to kill--that is the destruction of a human soul."
Through Maddy's connections, Solomon finds his family in a refugee camp. It is there that he learns his 12-year-old son, Dia--a promising student with dreams of becoming a doctor--has been taken by the rebels and forced to become a child soldier. Dia is played by Kagiso Kuypers, a young actor discovered at the National School of Art in Johannesburg, South Africa. Zwick chose him over hundreds of other young hopefuls from townships all over the region. "Many of these kids were just remarkable, but Kagiso stood out," Zwick says. "I really pushed him in his audition, and it impressed me that he understood what is done to Dia and how he changes as a child and as a son."
Zwick adds, "I have a teenage son, and the idea of one's child being taken and brainwashed by a group of vicious, cold-blooded killers is a horror beyond imagining."
Sadly, there are thousands of fathers and mothers in the world for whom that horror has become all too real. Sorious Samura attests, "Child soldiers were around long before the war in Sierra Leone, and it continues today because there are people who realize how effective children can be against their enemies. They mess with the minds of these children and teach them to do terrible things."
"When you really look at what happens to a child who is forced to kill--that is the destruction of a human soul," declares Herskovitz. "It is an incalculable crime against humanity."
Gillian Gorfil agrees, stating, "Two of the most precious qualities children have are their honesty and their innocence. When you take away a child's innocence, it can never be regained. That is unforgivable."
"What do you rob these children of when you put a gun in their hands and teach them to kill, and in the name of what?" Weinstein submits. "I admired the fact that Ed was intent on portraying that part of the story honestly."
Even as they unflinchingly depicted the indoctrination of the child soldiers, the filmmakers took great care to protect not only the bodies but the hearts and minds of the young actors in those scenes. "There were all sorts of rules and guidelines as to what the children could and could not be exposed to," Herskovitz expounds. "It was all thought out with their protection in mind, so we were happy to comply."
Zwick also dealt with the children directly. "I spent a lot of time talking to them about the scenes and explaining the history of child soldiers. It was essential that they understood the implications of what they were doing, and these kids got it."
Perhaps the proof of how well the young actors "got it" can be found in the words of Kagiso Kuypers, who, after filming "Blood Diamond," said, "I have never and I will never use a gun in a way that could hurt somebody."
Samura is optimistic that the onscreen depiction of Dia's cruel initiation will help bring about a positive change in the real world. "Some people in Sierra Leone cannot forgive the child soldiers, but maybe if they see it was not the children's fault, they will understand the need to forgive these kids."
Two adult characters in the movie represent the horror and the hope of the child soldiers. David Harewood portrays the merciless rebel soldier known as Captain Poison, who is personally responsible for capturing and enslaving Solomon Vandy and then victimizing his son, Dia. Harewood comments, "I think you can sum up my character in one line that he says: 'You think I am a devil, but only because I have lived in hell. I want out.'"
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the character of Benjamin, a dedicated teacher who runs a school for the youngest victims of the war, including former child soldiers. It is a place where they can, in Benjamin's words, be brought "back to life." Basil Wallace, who plays the part of Benjamin, offers, "From his vantage point, although these children have been put through some hellacious things, they are still our future. We have to love and nurture them, because if we have a generation of children who know nothing but suffering and inflicting pain, we have no future."
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