Thursday, December 07, 2006

Blood Diamond' in the rough


LOS ANGELES  Diamonds have long been Hollywood's best friend, but that relationship could soon be on the rocks. Blood Diamond, the Leonardo DiCaprio thriller that opens Friday, takes a brutal look at the African diamond trade and the civil wars spawned by it. And though the movie isn't the first Hollywood effort this year to skewer big business and question American consumerism, filmmakers concede they have been surprised by the international dispute over the movie's message and intent. MORE: How to avoid buying a conflict diamond | Watch a clip from Blood Diamond Humanitarian groups are rallying behind the movie, calling it a wake-up call about the political unrest in the region. The diamond industry is waging its own publicity campaign, hoping to offset a possible backlash. And Warner Bros. is using the publicity frenzy to wage its own campaign  for Oscar nominations. Of course, all that furor doesn't mean a thing when it comes to creating a hit. If anything, Hollywood is finding the going rough when it turns big business into cinematic villains. Earlier films this year including Thank You for Smoking, which skewered the cigarette industry, and Fast Food Nation, which takes a bleak look at the fast-food industry, have done middling business in theaters. But with a budget well above $40 million, Blood Diamond marks a sizable gamble on message films. And its director and stars make no apologizes for its tough take on an industry that treats Hollywood so well, particularly at Oscar time. "I know that the studios like to say that movies about Africa don't make money, or movies with something important to say don't make money," says Djimon Hounsou (Amistad), who plays a man who discovers a rare pink diamond and sets off a cross-country manhunt. "But that isn't the only reason you should be making movies," he says. "Sometimes there are stories that are touching, or important, and you can't be afraid to tell them." Still, Warner Bros. is hedging its bets. It's marketing Blood Diamond more on its action than its politics. The studio is anchoring the film around its white, mainstream faces. DiCaprio and co-star Jennifer Connelly dominate the movie trailers. And executives put the film in the hands of director Ed Zwick, who has proved he can turn heavy material into mainstream fare with films including Glory and The Last Samurai. Set in 1999 Sierra Leone, where civil war claimed more than 40,000 people and turned children into rebel soldiers, Blood Diamond includes graphic re-enactments, including villagers having their hands chopped off so they cannot mine for the precious stones. International reaction to the film has been mixed and pronounced. The World Diamond Council, which represents diamond firms from more than 70 countries, is touting the industry's progress in eliminating "conflict diamonds," stones that come from war-torn regions or that are used to finance insurgencies. Representatives from Sierra Leone, meanwhile, are initiating their own ad campaign to counter the movie's portrayal of the African nation, which is rebuilding slowly after the war ended six years ago. "We are concerned about how well Hollywood can handle something this complex and delicate," says Niyi Robbin-Coker, a spokesman for the Sierra Leone Network, an umbrella organization that represents businesses, charities and social aid groups reconstructing the country. "We're worried that people are going to see this and want to disassociate with African diamonds, or think that Sierra Leone is still at war," he says. "To Hollywood, it's just a movie. But for us, a lot of people are depending on the recovery of the region. They're living on the knife's edge." Stars with a cause Zwick had no idea the level of controversy he was courting when he ordered the documentary Cry Freetown online to educate himself about Sierra Leone's diamond trade. Instead of one movie, he received three. The package also came with a note from filmmaker Sorious Samura, who shot Freetown, a graphic documentary that includes footage of people being executed in the streets of Sierra Leone. "Sorious wrote that he hoped we would do something on Sierra Leone, that there was still so much to say about the place," Zwick says. "After I saw the documentaries, I convinced him to be a consultant on the movie." Persuading stars to shoot for two months in Mozambique proved relatively easy. Though he has become one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, DiCaprio also has become one of the most selective, having starred in only seven movies in the nine years since 1997's Titanic. "I want to seek out more movies that will say something about the world," DiCaprio says. "It sounds corny, but you get a beautiful feeling from making a film that you think is going to have social or political impact." For Hounsou, the decision was more personal. Born in Benin, in western Africa, Hounsou vowed that he would make more movies about Africa while shooting 1997's Amistad. Several of the extras in the film had fled from Sierra Leone and told him of the horrors there. "I heard about child soldiers, about how deprived their lives were," Hounsou says. "When you come from that place, it doesn't feel so remote. You want to give people the magnitude of the issue." The magnitude struck Connelly almost immediately. Although she has been a member of Amnesty International for years, Connelly says she wasn't prepared to witness how ravaged Africa has been for its natural resource. "It has so much beauty, but so much poverty and illness as well. You can't help but become involved." During the four-month shoot, Connelly volunteered at Mozambique orphanages, feeding children and changing diapers for babies who slept on rubber mats. "There was one baby they brought in that was a premature newborn," Connelly says. "I looked after her for the night, and I thought, 'Maybe they'll let me be a foster parent while I'm here. Maybe I'll even do more after I talk with my family.' "But the next day, she was gone," she says. "They said she was adopted, but I'm not sure I believe it. I was devastated." Not anti-diamonds The experience emboldened the stars and filmmakers to take a damning look at the precious stones trade in the late 1990s. The movie accuses the diamond industry of turning its back on war-torn regions and stockpiling stones to create a false demand. Zwick, though, is quick to say that the film is not condoning a boycott of diamonds. "The diamond trade is vital to the region," he says. "We are simply taking a look at recent history, and urging that people have an understanding about the stones they buy, and where they come from." That isn't stopping humanitarian agencies and the diamond trade from waging an intense publicity battle. "Blood diamonds are not just a problem of the past," says Bonnie Abaunza, director of Amnesty International USA's Artists for Amnesty program. "More than $23 million in blood diamonds is currently being smuggled into U.S. and international markets from West Africa. Entertainment and industry leaders have important roles to play as advocates who can influence the United States to demand better checks on the diamond industry." The group has launched a website, blooddiamondaction.org. The World Diamond Council is countering with its own campaign, including full-page newspaper ads and a website, diamondfacts.org, to assure consumers that the industry adheres to the Kimberley Process, an international diamond policing mechanism created in 2002 to winnow out conflict stones. According to the council, fewer than 1% of the world's diamonds are conflict stones. And spokeswoman Cecelia Gardner says that her group welcomes the film  as long as it doesn't paint the diamond trade of 1999 as the diamond industry of today. Once consumers "learn what the industry has done to end the trade in conflict diamonds, I think they'll have a lot of respect for what the industry has done," she says. "The chances of a consumer walking into a store and getting a conflict diamond have virtually been eliminated. That's not satisfactory to us. We want to make sure there are absolutely no conflict diamonds available." Robbin-Coker of the Sierra Leone Network is less confident of the public perception. "If people confuse the Sierra Leone of 1999 with the Sierra Leone of today, there could be real collateral damage," he says. "We need tourism. We need a healthy diamond industry. We just hope the film is fair." Zwick says that was his only motivation in making the movie. "Film can never give a comprehensive view of the complexity of a political circumstance," he says. "But film can go to the beating heart of something. You can see victims caught up in an attack in a city. Or think about the debasement of children. "If your movie has people at least thinking about the issues, you've done something remarkable.

Source: Blood Diamond' in the rough - USATODAY.com