Recall the most unpleasant film you have ever seen. Was it a particularly graphic Holocaust documentary? If not, you have never seen a film nearly as unpleasant as The Devil Came on Horseback.

Of course, that is sort of the point.

Some facts: in early 2004, former US Marine Brian Steidle took a position in southern Sudan monitoring a newly brokered ceasefire in that country's civil war, on behalf of the African Union. From the moment he arrived, he heard rumours of violence in the Darfur region in the west of the country, with the SLM (Sudan Liberation Movement) and JEM (Justice and Equality Movement) rebel organisations agitating for increased representation for Darfur in the government in Khartoum, and the government's forces, primarily an alliance of nomadic Arab horsemen known as the Janjaweed, "devils on horses."

Armed only with cameras and notepads, Steidle and his fellow monitors inched their way as closely as possible to Darfur as they could get within their officially assigned region, just as the Janjaweed began to launch a series of unfathomably violent raids on the African Muslims living in the region. In no time, their mission was revised: go into Darfur, and figure out what was going on.

As we know well know, what was going on was a brutal genocide against the Africans living in Darfur, and Steidle and his comrades were right in the thick of things, reaching village after village full of burned buildings and gruesomely butchered corpses. After six months of waiting for someone - the UN, the United States - to take the initiative in sending armed forces to defuse the conflict, Steidle went home in disgust at his impotence, where he almost accidentally began communicating with Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist noted for his Africa reporting, on the Darfur situation in particular. Without apparently trying to, Steidle became an outspoken activist, meeting with members of Congress and the Bush administration in addition to speaking in front of public gatherings, all in the name of raising awareness of the situation on the ground in Darfur.

This is the story told in the film from the perspective of late 2006, when the documentary directors Anne Sundberg and Ricki Stern chose to use Steidle's personal history as a vehicle by which to do a little consciousness-raising of their own. The film they produced is certainly not flawless, but for its first half it is nevertheless one of the most direct and shattering documentaries in history, and certainly the most important film produced in this country about the current troubles in Africa.

This is done in the simplest and least cinematic way possible: the directors take a wide cross-section of Steidle's photographs, and edit them into a slideshow over his narration. I do not know if they went out of their way to choose the most visceral photographs, or if they merely chose the most representative, but I can say that either way, the collection of images that make up the first forty-odd minutes of The Devil Came on Horseback are among the most horrifying I have seen in all my life. In terms of cinema, I can only name one film, Alain Resnais's concentration camp short Night and Fog, that traffics in more unbearable imagery than this; and there aren't many places in the media that are willing to show such explicit documentary photos. At the risk of seeming hyperbolic, these are images unlike virtually anything I have ever seen.

In other words, The Devil Came on Horseback isn't much of a date movie,* nor is it a good film to check out when you're just in the mood for a picture. It is in fact not a movie that any person could ever plausibly "want" to see. But it is a movie altogether worth seeing anyway, because of how important its goals are and how well it succeeds at those goals. This film is unashamedly didactic: it wishes to educated a largely ignorant American population on the situation in Darfur, where it comes from and where it is going. I consider myself both well-educated and well-read, having followed the Darfur story on and off for three years now, and I still left the film having learned many sobering things. There are very few movies that are legitimately and objectively "important" - only one or two a year, at the very most - and this is exactly that sort of film. It is shameful that so many people have spent such a long time ignoring Darfur, and at it's finest moments this film makes it impossible to keep on in ignorance.

After all that, it seems like the most churlish thing I have ever done to turn around and complain about all the ways that the film qua filmmaking stumbles and falls. Primarily, I'm thinking about how the film rather sneakily changes focus on us, without actually changing focus. It's not obvious while you're being blindsided by one hellish image after another, but this isn't actually a documentary about Darfur: it's a documentary about Brian Steidle's observations on Darfur. As such, when it hits the point in its narrative that he came back the US, the film comes back right along with him, and we spend most of the second half hearing the story of his fruitless meetings in Washington, the times that the Sudanese government has sent plants to his speeches to try to discredit him, and his frustration watching the West drag its feet over this issue. All of which is certainly worthwhile material, and it gives some very important context about why the genocide hasn't been stopped, but it feels so terribly prosaic and procedural after the first part of the film, even as it is probably vital for our well-being that we're given a break from all that misery.

The other significant misstep, and one that is pervasive throughout, is that Sundberg and Stern see fit to tart up the production with a great deal of low-budget eye candy, I would guess to keep the audience interested in the goings-on (which, since those goings-on consist of narration and stills, is probably a fair goal). There is a CGI map of Sudan that they keep trotting out, every time that Steidle mentions a new physical location, whooshing in on whatever city or region he talks about. And since he traveled around a great deal, we see that map much too often. There are a lot of transitions like that, using piped-in sound and computer editing tricks to make the film seem more exciting, and that really just strikes me as sad, as though the directors don't trust the material to keep our attention. I truly can't imagine how anybody could drift off in the face of these photos. Look away, certainly, but lose interest? They are much to powerful and awful for that.