Blood Diamond director Ed Zwick is furious over yesterday’s gossip report alleging that Warner Bros made a promise during filming on location to provide prosthetic limbs to orphaned African teenaged and child amputees, and then reneged after the movie wrapped, or that the pledge fulfillment is tied to publicity for the film. “This is a very cynical and appalling tack to take and in the worst taste, especially given what we all tried to do while we were there.” Zwick told me by phone from London. “What I do think is this is the work of someone who clearly bears the film ill will.” All along, the real question behind the scenes of Blood Diamond — an action-adventure pic set against the backdrop of civil war and chaos in the diamond-mining center of 1990s Sierra Leone, starring Leo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly and Djimon Hounsou — is not whether it will be an Oscar contender (probably) or a critics’ favorite (possibly). It’s just how much mud the World Diamond Council and its flacks and flunkies and friends are planning to throw at the well-intentioned film and its too-liberal-for-the-room credits.
Now the answer is clear: a lot, more than enough to dirty its awards chances.
Bonnie Abaunza, the Los Angeles–based director of Amnesty International’s celebrity-outreach program, called the smear “beyond loathsome” because she also knew it was false. “Anybody in the entertainment industry who knows Ed and Leo and Djimon and Jennifer would know that these people would never, ever condone anything like this. Neither they nor we would risk our reputations,” she told me. “I believe a line has been crossed. To give the impression that this despicable act was done against people who’ve already suffered tremendously is just unconscionable, and whoever planted that story should be held accountable.” Abaunza went on the record with me about her suspicions as to who was the culprit. “I don’t think it happens to be a coincidence that, as we get closer to the movie’s release, this story happens, and so many stories pitting the diamond industry against this movie in September and October happened. Yes, I think this story was planted by the World Diamond Council, and I think this story was planted in an attempt to impact the Oscar buzz on this film. But there’s no way to prove it. And the stories are going to get nastier.”
Here, the tactic of choice is to smear the film’s production by accusing everyone involved of exploiting the Africans in much the same execrable way the diamond industry has done for decades. So now I can report what really happened on set, which no media outlet has done yet. The production arrived in Africa ready to film for the next four months in two places: South Africa’s South Zulu Nataal and Mozambique’s Maputo. “To be there is to want to do something. So, to be in those places for that length of time, you can’t help but be moved by what you see every day,” Zwick told me. “And, all of us together — Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly, Djimon Hounsou, the whole cast and crew, and producers like Paula Weinstein, and me — just talked about what we ourselves could do. And knowing all the while that would turn out to be a drop in the bucket compared to the needs all around us. But the need was so great, and the people and the villages had welcomed us with such generosity, we wanted to do what we could. And so, at the suggestion of the Mozambique production manager Nick Laws, everyone contributed to a fund. There was no twisting of arms: everyone agreed. And then we asked the studio to match it, which they agreed.” The “Blood Diamond Fund,” as it came to be called, totals in the six figures. I’ve heard varying numbers ranging from $200,000 up to $500,000. “That may seem trivial,” Zwick emphasizes, “but the Blood Diamond production was also pumping as much as $40 million straight into the local economy. Cash for building roads, hiring drivers, paying for hotel accomodations. When you make a film in a place where the need is desperate, money is like a shot in the arm of the local economy.” Since its inception, and continuing even now past the end of filming, the fund is being administered by a Maputo-based international accountancy firm under the supervision of Laws and João Ribeiro, the production manager in Mozambique. So far, says Zwick, “the fund has targeted specific needs in those villages and some neighborhoods that were more improverished where we had worked. To wit: one neighborhood was in terrible need of a well being dug, another neighborhood needed help with a septic system, still another had to repair road damage that was making it hard for villagers to go to and from work, still another needed a classroom repaired, and so on. And replacement of prosthetics was among the them.” The fund isn’t done assessing needs, administering its funds or making disbursements, and filling more prosthetic needs is on the list, I’m told. Money from the fund has gone to childrens’ organizations which disberse prosthetics. “Using the money in a targeted way could be at least a gesture. In that spirit, everyone contributed. So you can imagine, this having been done in May-June, that we might see this as suggestive of our sense of responsibility,” Zwick told me. The gossip report cut like a knife for those involved not just because the film is touted as an Oscar contender, but because the movie involves some of Hollywood’s most well-known humanitarians: DiCaprio, known for his eco activism, including his own foundation to fight global warming and other environmental crises; Connolly an ambassador for Amnesty International; Weinstein a progressive activist; Zwick, a maker of movies with a message. In addition, Blood Diamond is often described as “the baby” of Warner Bros. president and CEO Alan Horn, himself a progressive political and environmental activist. “From the stars to the grips, every single person contributed to the fund. While I’m told by a studio source there was no specific promise to provide prosthetics to everyone who needed needed them, “People are still continuing contributing to the fund months since production ended. They were really trying to affect positive change. The fund has gotten to a number of things on the list, but there’s more to go. And in the list of things to do, prosthetics are part of that list.” The movie doesn’t open in theaters until December 15th, so the production and Warner Bros. are just now planning the Blood Diamond premieres in the U.S. and England. African relief groups and charities will benefit, and some of that money, too, will go towards prosthetics. “Who receives the proceeds is still a subject of conversation,” Zwick explained. “There are a number of organizations in Africa lined up to be beneficiaries.”