It was not a typical George Clooney premiere.
Of course the handsome Hollywood star took centre stage in the film, which also featured exotic locales, scenes of moving tragedy and a sense of derring-do against the odds. But the footage was real and it was being shown in the US Senate, not a cinema.
The subject is a grim one: attacks by the Sudanese government on the people of the Nuba Mountains. Clooney, whose work in Darfur has won him wide acclaim from human rights activists, had just returned from a hair-raising trip to the Nuba region and was aiming to highlight the plight of people there.
In testimony before the film was shown, he pulled no punches before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He described bombing runs by ageing Sudanese Antonov airplanes where bombs are simply pushed out the back of the plane. He talked of children being maimed and wounded. “These are not military targets. They are innocent women and children. That is a fact,” Clooney said.
He described seeing corpses by the sides of the road, shrapnel being pulled from bodies and rockets being fired overhead. “We found children filled with shrapnel, including a 9-year-old boy who had both of his hands blown off,” he said. He talked of entire villages living in caves and facing starvation after being forced from their fields by the bombs. “It is a campaign of murder, fear and displacement and starvation,” Clooney stated.
It was a performance guaranteed to suck the wind out of the sails of any observer aiming to express a cynical disdain for the favoured causes of movie stars and other big name celebrities. Especially as Clooney’s words about the terrible situation were then backed up by film evidence. At the urging of Senator John Kerry, a short film from a recent trip by Clooney to the troubled region was screened to the committee, the watching public and a mass of journalists who would not normally be hanging out at an obscure committee meeting about a war being fought so far away.
The footage showed Clooney inside a Jeep bumping along a dirt road, meeting a boy who held up bloody stumps where his hands used to be and looking at shards of shrapnel pulled from an innocent victim of the bombs. He spoke with rebel soldiers and stood by a bloody corpse splayed out in the dust.
It was a portrait of a desperately grim situation. Though the independence of South Sudan – which split away from the rest of Sudan last year – has been hailed as an international triumph, it has left a fraught and dangerous border dispute behind, complicated by the existence of massive oil wealth. The Nuba Mountains sit in the middle of those problems in the disputed Sudanese province of South Kordofan.
Clooney said the attacks were planned by Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, government official Ahmad Harun, and defence minister Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein, who previously orchestrated long-documented attacks in Darfur. “They are proving themselves to be the greatest war criminals of this century by far,” Clooney said. The situation in Nuba, he declared, could easily become another Darfur.
In his testimony, Clooney urged the US to work closely with China – which has major oil links with Sudan – to try and solve the issue. He wanted a US envoy to be sent to China to talk about the problem and see if the two nations could work together to pressure the Sudanese government to halt its military actions. He also called for firmer sanctions against top Sudanese government figures and an international campaign to track down and freeze bank accounts that they might hold abroad and use to buy arms.
Clooney’s bravura performance certainly impressed the assembled senators. Each one in turn paid tribute to the Oscar-winning actor and director, and the staff of the Satellite Sentinel Project, which Clooney co-founded with veteran activist John Prendergast, that works to monitor the Sudanese government’s military actions. Kerry, in particular, seemed dazzled by Clooney’s presence. “This is a tremendous example of the best citizen activism,” Kerry told the movie star.
Then, when the meeting was brought to a close, Clooney stood up and was mobbed by journalists and well-wishers. It was back to Hollywood normality.
• This article was amended on 16 March 2012. The original headline referred to South Sudan. This has been clarified.
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