The Roots of Bling: Blood Diamond and Blood on a Stone
A diamond is a symbol, a promise of love. A diamond is the hardest mineral substance in the world and because of this quality it has industrial applications. Due to their exquisite visual qualities and how they disperse light, diamonds have been used as jewelry for at least 2,500 years, if not longer. Almost 50% of the world’s diamonds come from South and Central Africa. Diamonds are judged by the four “C’s”: carat, clarity, color, and cut. Diamonds are serious bling.
A new film released on December 8th, Blood Diamond, asks where today’s commercial diamonds originate, that is, those sold in the jewelry stores and counters in the United States and other developed countries. Oscar-nominated Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator, Catch Me If You Can), in the role of his life, plays mercenary Danny Archer. During the height of Sierra Leone’s civil war (1991 – 2002), Archer is arrested and while in jail hears that a man in the next cell, Solomon Vandy, played by Djimon Hounsou (Amistad, Gladiator, and the upcoming Eragon), has found a large, pink diamond. Vandy was kidnapped from his village and made to work in the diamond fields by paramilitary forces until his escape and capture by the police. Archer is determined to get the diamond and promises Solomon, more or less sincerely, that he will help him find his family if he will lead Archer to the diamond that Solomon buried.
The two men start off but are on two very different quests. A journalist, Maddy Bowen, (Jennifer Connolly, A Beautiful Mind) is on her own odyssey; she’s heard about conflict diamonds and wants to find out how they are smuggled out of Sierra Leone to fund the civil war, and who is buying them. She asks Archer if he ever thinks of the people who are killed, raped, and maimed for diamonds, or the plight of child soldiers as he pursues his diamonds. He answers honestly that he does not. Though born in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), he just wants out of Africa and Solomon Vandy’s diamond is the way to do it. Archer helps Solomon find his family in a refugee camp, but his son has been kidnapped by the rebels and become a sniper through brainwashing and drugs. Archer, Vandy and Bowen’s journeys intertwine as the secrets about the consequences of conflict diamonds are revealed to each one, and the audience.
DiCaprio gives an intense, driven, flawless performance, complete with a regional accent. Both he and Hounsou deserve Oscar consideration because their compelling performances convince us that though fictionalized, Blood Diamond tells a true story.
Sierra Leonian documentarian Sorious Samura won numerous awards for his 1999 film about his country’s civil war, Cry Freetown. Directed by Insight News Television’s Ron McCullagh, the film’s astonishing and repelling footage of the violence, the plight of child soldiers, rape, and mutilation and other human rights violations perpetrated during that war are reflected now in Blood Diamond. There are 200,000 child soldiers today in Africa alone (a fact that reminded me of Luis Mandoki’s 2004 film about child soldiers in El Salvador during that country’s civil war, Innocent Voices.) Samura and McCullah’s most recent project, Blood on a Stone, was shown at a gathering sponsored by Artists for Amnesty and Global Witness last week in Santa Monica. The film focuses on the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme, a procedure that 47 countries have signed, to assure that conflict diamonds are not smuggled and sold to world markets thus continuing to fund wars.
“Africa needs trade, not aid,” explained McCullagh when describing Sierra Leone’s debt to the West (to corporations, governments and the World Bank) and how diamonds are not helping the development of African nations and Sierra Leone in particular. “Sierra Leone is the second most corrupt country in the world, the third poorest,” according to Samura, “and the second richest in natural resources. The West makes short-term deals with my country that will keep us in debt forever. We need long term planning and development. It is a little known fact, however, that the Chinese are now investing in Sierra Leone and building an infrastructure that will benefit their country.”
Filmmaker Sorious Samura: Cry Freetown & Blood on a Stone
Blood on a Stone traces the diamonds to legitimate mining companies in the Kono region of Sierra Leone and show that living conditions are primitive, with no schools for the worker’s children, no electricity for their homes, and no hospitals. Like company-employed miners, illegitimate diamond miners, who may find a diamond every two-three years, have never heard of the Kimberly Process and have no idea of the eventual value of the diamonds for which they live and die – and they do die. The Kimberly Process is a start, but the lives of Sierrra Leone’s poor still receive no benefit from even the legitimate diamond industry. The filmmakers embark on a journey to show how easy it is to smuggle stones out of Sierra Leone, and once in New York, using rough, legitimate diamonds loaned to them, find that nine out of the ten merchants they approached were willing to buy the “illicit” diamonds. Conflict diamonds continue to fund unrest in the Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and have the potential to fund not only new wars, but perpetrate human rights violations and stunt the development of African nations. According to Samura, “Diamonds, secrets and death” all go together.
McCullagh, originally fromthe United Kingdom, worked for the BBC4 Radio in Africa, and founded Insight News TV in order to report the news in the context in which it occurs. McCullagh told me that “The Catholic Church is eminently well placed to help Africa in these times, to make a difference.” Both Samura and McCullagh emphasized that the goal of their film is to show that the Kimberly Process is a start but has serious shortcomings that need to be remedied.
When speaking about the dangers he faces as a journalist in his country, Samura said, “We need freedom of the press.” Jennifer Connolly’s role in Blood Diamond highlights this need for African nations.
When I asked Sorious Samura why the faith community should care about the consequences of conflict diamonds he said, “I’d want to say that diamonds are not forever; what we need to do is to help people understand and ask questions about where diamonds come from. We live in a global village and if we call ourselves God’s children we should be able to look after, and out for, our neighbor.”
Amnesty International suggests that consumers ask four questions: 1) How can I be sure that none of your jewelry contains conflict diamonds? 2) Do you know where the diamonds you sell come from? 3) May I see a copy of your store’s policy on conflict diamonds; 4) May I see a written guarantee from your suppliers that the diamonds are conflict free? Writing letters to legislators and jewelry companies is very powerful as well, an Amnesty spokesperson said.
Warner Brothers produced Blood Diamond and hired Sorious Samura as a consultant. Director Edward Zwick (Shakespeare in Love, Traffic) said that "Sorious was a Godsend… He was a friend, a consultant, an authority. He was the soul of the production." Samura’s documentary, Blood on a Stone, will be included on the DVD of Blood Diamond when it is released in 2007.
Amazing Grace, directed by Michael Apted, is due out in early 2007. It is about the life of William Wilberforce whose efforts led to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1807. Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, was founded by the British for freed slaves and today buildings and streets there still bear Wilberforce’s name. It will be important to study the contemporary economic and human rights consequences of slavery and abolition on Africa and Sierra Leone in particular, as the 200th anniversary of this event draws near. The release of Blood Diamond is fortuitous.