Controversy has surrounded the upcoming movie Blood Diamond ever since it was announced. Primarily, diamond resellers are concerned the film portrays the entire diamond industry in a negative light and could turn consumers off to buying diamonds for fear their money would be supporting murderers. Considering it’s December and the holidays are just around the corner I would say there is some legitimacy to their concern. However, when it comes to child soldiers, poverty, murder and corruption I would say it is an issue that needs to be addressed.
An LA Times article published in early October cited De Beers, the international diamond cartel that controls the majority of the world’s diamonds, as going on the offensive to try to distance the industry from the history depicted in the film. Folks involved with the film could just look at the attention as additional, and free, publicity for the new film which opens this Friday, December 8, but it is important to know that the film tackles the conflict diamond trade, which does not include all diamonds you buy in stores, and while the filmmakers and cast thought the topic was important they didn’t all think it would become this big of a controversy.
I had a chance to sit down with Leonardo DiCaprio who plays Danny Archer, a South African mercenary, Djimon Hounsou who plays Solomon Vandy, a Mende fisherman, Jennifer Connelly who plays an American journalist and director Edward Zwick to talk about their thoughts on the world of diamonds and the film itself. They all seemed to take something a little different from the picture, but it seems like the theme definitely stuck in their head.
Did you anticipate the response of the international diamond industry to this film?
Zwick: Well, we knew there were things that happened in the past that people would have rather be forgotten. Their job is the image of their product and the notion that they have devoted many, many millions of dollars to that image is not surprising, that is what they do for a living.
DiCaprio: I didn’t anticipate it, no. But when you approach situations like this these are things that are based on real events and we’re depicting a specific time in history where diamonds resulted in a lot of civil unrest in these countries. I had never anticipated that it would be this intense by any means.
Before starting your work on this film what was your knowledge of the problems surrounding conflict diamonds and what did you learn through the process of making the movie?
DiCaprio: I think I was like anybody else, I had heard whispers about it, but until I got there and until I read the script and started to do the research I didn’t really quite understand the immense impact these specific diamonds had on Sierra Leone and other place in Africa. I heard certainly the Kanye West song for example and I heard bits of it in conversation but it wasn’t until I got to Africa and heard the first hand accounts and started to read the books and learn about it that I really learned what was going on. What really had happened.
Zwick: I think one of the privileges of being a filmmaker is the opportunity to remain a kind of perpetual student and I had known a bit about what had happened there, but the access that one gains to experts, to people who have devoted their lives and put their lives at risk to learn these things, is such a remarkable opportunity that it became and odyssey for me. I immersed myself in this field. I went and met victims and victimizers, smugglers and mercenaries, traders and politicians and it was the most incredible opportunity to really try and delve deeply into a place and what one hopes is that you honor that, you honor those people, that you do well by those that know much more than you. I was very lucky that I encountered a man named Sorious Samura who’s a journalist from Sierra Leone who had made the documentary Cry Freetown, which was the award-winning documentary. In fact he became the British journalist of the year and won a Peabody Prize for it. He and I connected through the most wondrous serendipity and he became my consultant on the film. I was helped by so many people throughout the process and that’s one of the treats of it.
Djimon, being from Africa do you feel a responsibility to bring attention to these issues?
Hounsou: Yes, of course, being African…, but I think we have a responsibility as citizens of the world to do what is necessary to change the outcome of this trading issue. I think to do nothing is intolerable and to do something is just not enough, so as citizens of this world we must do everything we can to bring the awareness to the world so that everybody knows what the issues are.
As for being African, of course I feel a need and a strong desire to be in films that deal with important issues. With our lifestyle it is so difficult, we are always running, running, chasing, chasing so we have very little time to get an education the way we used to be educated, from books and so forth. So, a lot of education we are getting today is from movies. It’s unfortunate, but it can be fortunate, the movie industry now has a responsibility of telling compelling stories, stories that mean something and changes our lives. Stories that make us reflect on the way we conduct ourselves and treat one another, and treat neighboring countries or how we view people from different continents.
Has this movie changed you at all and your opinion on diamonds?
Connelly: Well, I’m wearing diamond earrings right now that are from Bulgari. I have done research into retailers and certified that their diamonds are conflict free. I don’t think that the film suggests a boycott on African diamonds because I think they are human rights implications in the boycotting of African diamonds as well. So, what I got out of the film was a desire to be a more ethical consumer so I went about doing some research and there are companies like Bulgari, like Tiffany who are striving to be clean and accountable and provide written guarantees that their diamonds are conflict free and that will also provide consumers with educational materials.
Hounsou: Certainly we made this film to raise the awareness of the trade of diamonds, clearly. Personally I love diamonds, I don’t have an issue with diamonds, I have an issue with the way western businesses go to Africa and certain places and conduct business without giving back and without respecting the people or the environment in the places where they conduct business. We certainly are not discouraging people to not buy diamonds, we just want to bring the awareness out about the trade of diamonds and how it is conducted. That’s my take on it. I bought a diamond for a friend, as a gift before, way before… I had my own brother telling me there were so many countries in Africa that were offering diamonds, that if I knew anybody in America that has their own private jet they can fly there and buy their own diamonds very cheap. I was very, very suspicious when my brother calls me and tells me this, I was like hmm. I talked to people about it and actually realized that there is an issue about the trade of diamonds, the conflict diamonds and people are losing their lives over it.
Jennifer, you have a friend that was a journalist and I was wondering if she gave you anything concrete regarding the conflict and what it was like to be there?
Connelly: She was incredibly helpful, and I met with a number of women that had been in Sierra Leone at that time writing stories it just so happens on conflict diamonds, and I got all the information I possibly could from them, some of it quite superficial. Silly things like what kind of notebook did you have, what kind of shoes did you wear, who did you hang out with and all that practical everyday things so I could make specific character choices in terms of what she looked like. Also in terms of what she saw and how she dealt with that conflict of seeing so much and being limited in terms of what she could do on a daily basis to help the people that she saw.
From all over the information that I got was so harrowing and I think the film does a great job of giving a clear depiction of what actually happened. As viewers watching the film you can get a good glimpse of what reflects a lot of what I heard from these women and from a lot of the reading that I did, just really one of the great tragedies of our time.
Leonardo, some people are saying that you have now left the boy behind, you are a man now. Is this true and how did you accomplish this?
DiCaprio: As far as growing up, what can I say? I have to be honest, I never thought about that ever throughout the entire course of my career about choosing a specific role because – it would – make me more man-like. Even with roles like Catch Me if You Can, I was eight years and ten years older than the character than I portrayed, it was an interesting character and I knew that it may be one of the last time I could play a character like that. I think these things are really something that are intangible, that you can never control. You keep doing these movies and you give it out to the world and you never know how people are going to react to you or the subject matter. I have been in several situations where I thought the film would turn out one way or my performance would be looked at one way and it was an entirely different situation. Once you make these movies you give it out to the world and then you guys get to pick it apart.
Did you form any friendships over there?
DiCaprio: For me, Djimon and I became really close over the course of making this movie, and this is going to be a lasting friendship for me.
Djimon, can you talk about the relationship with Leo?
Hounsou: Being African I can only embrace a guy that comes and tries to do better and try to bring awareness about my continent, I can only embrace him. Also he has done things for me that only I on the receiving end know what he has done. I can say he has opened his house to my friends that came to visit, he’s giving me his chef to cook for me, he stood up for me because somebody threatened to shoot me at a place in South Africa and he said, ‘You are going to have to go through me because I know this guy and I am sure that he didn’t do anything wrong to you.’ The guy showed him his gun and that’s where he got that line from, because the guy said to him, ‘We don’t do things like you do in Hollywood, bling-bling, here it is bling-pow.’
Why was he going to shoot you?
Hounsou: To this day we can’t find out. So, those are the reasons why I like him. [smiling]
Leo, has this film changed your own life?
DiCaprio: Playing a character like this, one that is taking advantage of the poverty, it was an uncomfortable situation for an actor to portray this man on set amongst an African crew. Any of the locations, like Mozambique where there was a tremendous amount of poverty, and Mozambique is a country right now that is having an economic resurgence, but still four out of 10 people have HIV or AIDS. What I was left with after spending time with Africa, and this is not at all to sound trivial, was the power of the human spirit there and the fact that these people have been through so much, they’ve been through civil war for 30 years, but literally people were still dancing in the streets. The joy and the energy and the happiness that they exuded toward everyone that came into contact with them was unbelievable and it made me come back home and not want to listen to anyone’s problems. I don’t want to hear about what we as Americans have to deal with. When you are immersed in a place like that for six months, when you see the extreme levels of what people have to deal with there and what their lives are like, yet they’re able to keep a positive attitude.
Blood Diamond opens in theaters everywhere on December 8. For more on the film including cast, synopsis, pictures, clips and more click here.