WEB EXTRA: Diamonds From Sierra Leone: “Blood Diamond” Takes a Look at Conflict Rocks

In Silver Spring, Maryland, a group of film enthusiasts, reporters and AFI donors traveled through Africa on a hunt for diamonds and salvation. They witnessed crushed dreams and harsh reality in war-torn Sierra Leone and felt the pain of desperation. Dazzled and revolted by the snaps of gunfire and splattered blood, the audience sat wide eyed gripping their armrests at the pre-screening of Blood Diamond.

Amidst the squalor of poverty, death and destruction in Sierra Leone, Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) embark on a journey for that which is most valuable to them in Blood Diamond. Danny, a white South African seeks an enormous pink diamond that only Solomon, a Mende fisherman, can lead him to. While Danny is obsessed with a search for treasure, Solomon seeks to find his missing son, Dia (Caruso Kuypers), and reunite his displaced family.

Blood Diamond is set in 1999, in Sierra Leone’s civil war. From 1991-2002, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) plagued the West African nation in an attempt to overthrow the government. The RUF used the natural resources of their nation, diamonds, to fund their bloody campaign. Blood Diamond is an unrelentingly honest portrayal of the havoc created by diamond hungry rebel forces and their Western business partners that turned millions of innocent people into refugees, fleeing for their lives.

The film opens peacefully with Solomon sending his Dia off to school. But the moment of fatherly guidance is interrupted with RUF brutality. A truck full of armed men comes around the bend of a dirt road and opens fire on Solomon’s small village full of women and children. Bodies fall to the ground and men are rounded up and one by one put before the rage filled Colonel who cuts off their arms to prevent voting. Solomon escapes this fate after being chosen to work for the RUF. Sifting sand for diamonds to fund the rebel’s war, Solomon comes across the rare pink diamond and through a serious of unexpected events collides with Danny. Danny convinces Solomon that he will lead him to his family if he will lead Danny to the treasure.

Enter Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), a tough reporter determined to write a story that will make a difference and call attention to some of the horrors she has witnessed. Her idealistic personality immediately clashes with Danny’s cynical and narcissistic attitude. Maddy believes that Danny can lead her to a story about diamond trafficking that could crush Van De Kaap, the leading diamond company, but Danny considers her na’ve and inexperienced. “In America it’s bling-bling, out here it’s bling-bang” he explains to her in an impeccable South African accent. Maddy joins Danny and Solomon for part of their adventure and assists them as best she can with sharp wit and smart reflexes. In an interview, Jennifer Connelly explained her character as “a woman who would…become drunk on a dance floor but the next day would be incredibly serious about her work and tenacious and optimistic.”

She and Danny form a quasi-romance of mutual manipulation to find a story and a diamond. Maddy exposes Danny’s weaknesses and sympathetic character despite his greed and insensitivity to the violence around him. Unfortunately, Connelly and DiCaprio have little chemistry and their interactions, though welcomed distractions from the disturbing imagery, detract from some of the important themes. As Maddy consoles Danny, one becomes aware that the film, though provocative and fascinating, is still a slave to a Hollywood studio.

“Blood Diamond” is a frantic collage of beautiful and lush green forest splattered with the blood of innocents. The camera captures the beauty and color of Africa with the sharp contrast of poverty, death and mile long lines of refugees marching toward an illusion of sanctuary. Scenes of RUF camps display the members’ nightly orgies of violence- shooting bullets into the air, drinking into oblivion, taunting women and dancing wildly to music while ranting about rising up against the government. Your eyes will never shut unless you find the time to blink out the tears, and your heart will pound to the music that ignites elation, anger, fear, and exhilaration.

As Solomon and Danny run through villages of burning huts and hacked up corpses, one can’t help but feel that one are running along side them, fleeing from the crackling AK-47s that flash from within the forest. In an interview, Director Ed Zwick (Traffic, The Last Samurai) explained that he wanted his cameramen to capture the documentary style footage- gritty and realistic. “We went out of our way to create circumstances and put our camera men in a situation where they had to try to capture things just as the cameramen in those circumstances would have had to do themselves and we hope that gave it a feeling of imminence.” But the shakey camera and dutch angling is constantly interrupted with smooth panning and circling dolly footage that produce the Hollywood “money shots”- perfect for posters and press packets. The audience doesn’t have to wait long to catch a glimpse of DiCaprio’s abs, Housou’s arms, or or Connelly’s chest protruding from beneath her tank top.

Zwick explained that he was drawn to Blood Diamond because “you always look for stories. that have the ability to resonate in outward themes.” The compelling story of two men’s quest through a war-torn nation allowed Zwick to send the powerful message to audiences “that what happened there is one of the worst things that has happened in this world.” Zwick explained his altruistic motive that,”the agenda is telling the truth so that. we can prevent the truth from happening again.”

The US is responsible for 2/3 of all diamond purchases, and though only a small percent of diamonds in 1999 were conflict diamonds, in a multi-billion dollar business, that still translates into a hefty sum. Edward Zwick suggested that “to have an awareness that the things that we buy come from some place and that the people in those places aren’t necessarily benefiting. is an important thing to begin to think about.”

Zwick arrived in Africa six months before shooting the film to conduct research. “I saw everything,” Zwick stated, “both the good and the bad.” “Blood Diamond” reflects Zwick’s impressions in that along with the violence are moments of love and hope.

Archer and Vandi dodge bullets and narrowly escape capture and certain death, with Danny’s quick thinking and trickery coupling with Solomon’s strength and determination. Unlike the weak quasi-romance between DiCaprio and Connelly, the chemistry between DiCaprio and Housou is disturbingly apparent. Both men mastered their characters and give tremendous performances that will certainly be recognized by the Academy. “I was compelled to play somebody who was so opportunistic, so narcissistic.it was unlike anything that I’ve ever done before,” DiCaprio reported in an interview. For his role, DiCaprio had to take on an entirely new accent and prepare for the scenes with rapid gunfire and explosions. “We all got pretty banged up,” he reported.

For Hounsou, who was born in Benin, mastering his character had a very special meaning. “It hit home for me,” said Hounsou about diamond trafficking in Africa. Hounsou is especially emotionally charged and provides hope and promise throughout the film.

Overall, Blood Diamond is an excellent film that explores the irony of coincidence, the terror of civil war, and the struggle to make a difference in a damned nation. It is frightening, disturbing and sometimes revolting, but presents the moral dilemmas that humanity constantly faces. Jennifer Connelly confessed that she took the role of Maddy in the “hopes that perhaps we could foster a more politicized, conscientious generation.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.