Kidman should not star in 'immoral' film about our Emma, say family

Relatives furious at portrayal of British aid worker who married a rebel warlord and died in Africa
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The Independent Culture

She was a convent-educated girl from Middle England who worked with the downtrodden in Africa. He was a Western-educated Sudanese warlord. She had looks. He had charisma. They fell in love and were married.

She was a convent-educated girl from Middle England who worked with the downtrodden in Africa. He was a Western-educated Sudanese warlord. She had looks. He had charisma. They fell in love and were married.

It is a story made for Hollywood. But a new blockbuster film of the life of Emma McCune, starring Nicole Kidman and directed by Tony Scott, the brother of Gladiator director Ridley, has run into trouble even before filming starts.

Johnny McCune yesterday denounced the portrayal of his sister Emma, saying it made her out as a reckless dilettante in Africa and a "wanton thrill-seeker" addicted to serial love affairs with black men. He said: "I suspect Nicole Kidman has no idea that she is about to embark on a project which makes the real cast of the story - my family - saddened and shocked."

Mr McCune also accused the American academic Deborah Scroggins, who wrote the book Emma's War on which the film is based, of "underhand and sloppy journalism".

"How would the Scott brothers or Deborah Scroggins feel if I turned the tragedy of their children into a book and a film lining their own pockets? It's immoral," he said. He claims Ms Scroggins falsely used his name to gain access to family friends and colleagues, and often invented salacious details such as Emma's fondness for red mini-skirts. "The problem for my family is that we have not been consulted on our own story - no facts have been checked."

The tale of the convent girl and the warlord is so remarkable that there seems little need of exaggeration. When Emma McCune arrived in Sudan in the late 1980s it was, as it is now, one of the most remote and undeveloped areas of the world. The Muslim government in the north was opposed by the non-Muslim rebels in the south, where Emma was to work.

Emma found work in Sudan with the Canadian charity Street Kids International, which set up schools in remote areas. She overcame the shortage of teachers by persuading frightened locals to teach in remote areas in return for soap and salt. They held classes under trees and Emma worked tirelessly to provide them with books, chalk and pencils.

Her vivacious personality and physical bravery made her a celebrity in Sudan - she was called the "Tall Woman from Little Britain" - and villagers drew pictures of her on the walls of their huts.

During her time there, Emma met Riek Machar, a Sudanese rebel leader, in a Nairobi hotel. Machar was a charismatic soldier who had studied engineering in England. The attraction between them was instant.

Machar's officials were suspicious that she was a spy, and it was a year before they met again. In January 1991, Machar sent a message inviting her to his headquarters. When she arrived, he asked if she knew of a Nuer myth: that a left-handed Nuer chief, like him, would marry a white woman. It was his way of proposing.

In June 1991, Emma married Machar. She knew he already had a wife and two children. "Imagine what the nuns would say if they knew I'd entered a polygamous marriage," she told her mother.

The couple lived on an army camp four hours by plane from Nairobi. Conditions were harsh. Emma was bitten by scorpions and suffered debilitating amoebic dysentery. Two months after the marriage, Machar decided to lead a breakaway faction of his guerrilla group. Emma found herself cut off from the outside world. The UN had given her a typewriter to help with her educational projects. Now she used it to type up manifestos for Machar.

Street Kids International sacked Emma in November 1991. It was a severe blow, as she was passionately committed to her schools.

Her life was now in danger. She went everywhere with an armed bodyguard. When rival troops ambushed Machar's men in 1993, Emma was forced to flee amid a hail of gunfire. She and Machar returned to their home to find a dead body on their doorstep and bullet holes in their books. The civil war intensified. There were accusations of massacres on both sides. Emma discovered she was pregnant and moved to Nairobi, putting down proper roots for the first time.

Her happiness came to a sudden end. As she drove to see a friend in Nairobi, Emma's car crashed into a minibus. It is still not known whether it was an accident or murder. She called out "My baby, my baby", and the rescuers wasted valuable time looking for a child they assumed was in the car. Emma and her unborn son died on the way to hospital.

Last night, the author of Emma's War, Ms Scroggins, denied that her book "sexed up" the aid worker's story. She said: "There is nothing sloppy about my journalism. Sex is part of the story - she had a passionate affair and married Riek Machar - that's what made her different.

"Emma helped me get to the essence of Sudan - she opened up the amazing people and passions of that place to me."

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