U.S. filmmaker Mark Brecke takes center stage (and never yields it) in this odd documentary, which focuses on how people view his photographs of the Darfur genocide.

The idea of recording reactions to a tragedy might make an interesting sociological experiment, but what is highly peculiar is Brecke’s decision to interview unsuspecting passengers on an Amtrak train.  Indeed, Brecke positions himself next to folks on Amtrak, pulls out a portfolio of his photographs, shoves a microphone into his seatmates’ faces and begins peppering his stunned traveling companions with questions about their knowledge of Sudan’s civil war and its devastating impact in Darfur.

Interspersed with these interviews are extensive comments from representatives of non-governmental organizations about the human rights catastrophe within Darfur and the indifferent world response to the crisis.  Taking a supporting role in this film are the people of Darfur, who are only seen in Brecke’s photographs.

While the film clearly intended to call attention to the lack of U.S. awareness to the genocide, it actually serves the opposite effect and trivializes the genocide by making Brecke and the NGO representatives the centers of attention. Ultimately, “They Turned Our Desert Into Fire” tells us more about the self-promoting Brecke than the bloodshed in Sudan.

Also featured on this DVD is Brecke’s 2002 short documentary “War as a Second Language,” which compares contemporary Vietnam and Cambodia to the tumult of the 1960s military conflict. The short, on its own terms, is interesting, but it is wasted as a special feature to the inept feature-length presentation.

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