Food for Thought- Screening Room: ‘Diamonds’ in the Rough

Food For Thought is a regular feature profiling books, music, and movies with a human rights angle.

Blood Diamond (2006)and “Diamonds” (2008)

With  the testimony of Naomi Campbell and Mia Farrow at the war crimes trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor bringing the topic of blood diamonds to the forefront of conversation, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond, the 2006 film that depicted the toll the blood diamond trade can have through the eyes of a fisherman (Djimon Hounsou) and a mercenary (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the guise of a slickly mounted Hollywood thriller.

As a thriller, Blood Diamond works pretty well, utilizing a number of great action set pieces and raising the stakes for the characters fairly high. And if the requisite female love interest role-here personified by Jennifer Connelly as an American journalist-is particularly extraneous and clumsily handled, her role as a means to drive the plot along at least provides her with more to do than sit in hotel rooms wringing her hands.

Unfortunately, Blood Diamond also serves as a prime example of the Hollywood tendency to whitewash, introducing Caucasian characters into the story as saviors and depicting its African characters in the paint-by-the-numbers fashion as victims and savages. In Blood Diamond, Hounsou’s character is resourceful and gutsy, but he simply doesn’t have the smarts to do what needs to be done until the characters played by DiCaprio and Connelly enter the picture. Additionally, the film loses its way in its attempt to have it both ways, struggling to be both a commentary on international human rights issues and a action-packed star vehicle for DiCaprio that necessitates the marginalization of its other characters.

“Diamonds” a 2008 Canadian miniseries starring Judy Davis and picked up and aired by ABC last year, is perhaps more honest in its intentions- placing all of its characters on a pretty level playing field . The four-part TV movie-boasting a Traffic-like structure, though certainly not as intelligent a screenplay-looks at the blood diamond trade from a wider range of angles.

The film follows a U.S. Senator who travels to the Congo looking for closure when her humanitarian worker daughter is killed, the ambitious new C.E.O. of a diamond corporation who is willing to restore his company’s standing at all costs, a geologist working for a competing diamond company in the arctic, a young orphan in Sierra Leone on the run from a warlord, and an English model whose ancestry comes into conflict with her new gig.

The difference in approaches between the two is that, whereas Blood Diamond positions itself as a take on the issue from a human level, “Diamonds” tries to cast a wider net and paint a bigger picture of the problem. This makes it less single-minded in subject matter than Blood Diamond, but often bogs it down in soap opera elements and conveniences. Whereas Zwick’s film aimed to place an audience in the eye of the storm, “Diamonds” is a hodge podge  of disparate elements, and their connections stretch believability.

Ultimately, my takeaway from these two films is the realization that the problems inherent in the blood diamond trade are complicated and intricately tied up in a variety of economic, cultural, and political factors that make it–for all intents and purposes–excessively difficult to depict realistically on celluloid.

According to an article posted on WorldPress.org, upwards of 50,000 people had been killed in conjunction with the blood diamond trade in Sierra Leone at the time of writing, not to mention the many tortured and displaced. The problem of blood diamonds has launched international campaigns and facilitated the need for the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, a set of legislation to police the world’s diamond sales. The reality of blood diamonds, realistically, cannot be understood in the guise of  a glossy Hollywood product. The reality is more intricate, more legislative, and more human.

Nevertheless, these filmmakers should be applauded for placing the spotlight on the issue- it’s certainly hard to imagine the Blood Diamond didn’t educate some audiences who came in expecting a mindless shoot ’em up. For this very reason, it’s important for filmmakers and actors to use their capital to place focus on international issues.

It’s just that the real life problem of blood diamonds- like in high profile cases like the Charles Taylor trial (see picture below)- is so much stranger, complex, dramatic, and tragic than anything they could have dreamed up.


Photo from the dinner party for Nelson Mandela’s charity where Charles Taylor (center) allegedly gifted Naomi Campbell (3rd from left) blood diamonds from Sierra Leone. Also pictured are Nelson Mandela and actors Mia Farrow and Tony Leung.

Have you seen either of these films? Know of another that tackles this issue? What do you think? Have your say in the comments.

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