War Child
Lost Boys, or Merely Wandering?

One of the great failings of Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond was the rather perfunctory and uncredible portrayal of young Dia Vandy, kidnapped child turned soldier mercenary in one of Charles Taylor’s hideously backward armies.  If you’re going to claim that children become killers through brainwashing, you’ve got to demonstrate how that comes about.  You can’t just trot out an automatic weapon-toting boy who no longer recognizes his dad.  Many lads like Vandy are probably victims indeed; but other films, such as City of God and its “sequel,” City of Men, have credibly argued that passion for revenge is only partially culturally inculcated.  Many times, children become killers because they want to.

As good as God Grew Tired of Us was, that documentary also painted its protagonists as exponents of a purely noble suffering class.  In no way would I suggest that John, Panther, and Daniel aspired to be terrorists while living in refugee camps; but our natural sympathy for the “Lost Boys of Sudan” and other similar unfortunates tends to bias us toward certain conclusions… such as the notion that genocidal conflicts are always one-sided.  

C. Karim Chrobog, director of War ChildI even found the conclusion to Hotel Rwanda disturbing, as it seemed to whitewash—even celebrate—Tutsi payback for Hutu slaughter.  I suspect that, as Americans, we are particularly susceptible to this thinking because we’d like to ignore the vengeful sins of our own Puritan and militiaed past.

So going in, I was highly skeptical of the new documentary War Child, particularly since its subject was a former “Lost Boy”—and child soldier—turned rapper.  Would this be just another heart-string-tugging plea for African activism?  Would the culture of victimhood get a good, solid, reaffirming pat on the back?  Would I get any better understanding of what really went on in Sudan two decades ago, or would I just be left feeling like I’d been guilt-tripped again?

I’m literally stunned that first-time director C. Karim Chrobog has delivered not only a cogent and illuminating look at the civil war in Sudan and its relation to the ongoing genocide in Darfur, but that he’s managed—for the first time, I think—to present that conflict in a manner which clarifies both the geographic and globo-geopolitical complexities of the scenario.  I honestly feel that War Child taught me more about the Big Picture of African politics than the sum of every film I’ve seen prior to this.

It’s even more amazing that Chrobog accomplishes this by focusing on a single man’s story, that of now-British resident and rapper Emmanuel Jal—who at one time was the nine-year-old newsreel face of Sudanese refugee camps while simultaneously in training to become an AK-47-wielding assassin.

Jal—whose Christian mother was killed by government-backed Muslim militias—makes no bones about the fact that he in essence lied to news camera crews, cooperated with hoodwinking relief workers, and later participated in revenge-minded slaughter.  But in making the case for motivated cooperation, he never comes across either as a mere victim nor as a defensive self-justifier.  Yes, he raps that he was “forced to sin to make a living,” but he never tries to tell us that he was brainwashed; circumstances, not some unnamed villains, drove him to heinous crimes.  Once pushed down a certain path, he chose to stay on it. “The wrong seed” was planted, and it flourished.  It’s that tragic, and it’s that simple.

But as Jal’s story works its way toward adulthood, it’s clear that the former child soldier—providentially plucked out of the mire and smuggled into Kenya, as he sees it—has a faith which has sustained him, though at one time he was led to “ask God questions,” contemplated cannibalism to survive, and conducted himself in ways that he would now never condone.  Refreshingly, he’s also not completely reconciled with his past; he’s still on that journey, even though he sees the redemptive power in “forgiving and working with someone who was once your enemy.”  Like the rest of us, he’s still got a full life to live and knows that “we need a supernatural power to help us” get over the perceived—and very real—wrongs that damage us.

And “us” is the right place to end a conversation about War Child.  Like Jal, we’ve all “survived for a reason,” and have “a responsibility” toward our fellow children of God.  And as Jal notes, “people sing a lot before they go to war.” We need to be especially careful when we’re asked to sing any tune that’s not God’s.  As one policy expert who appears in War Child notes, “counter-terrorism trumps everything” in American global policy right now; and as long as we keep singing that tune, evil will continue to prevail in Darfur.  Pray to God that our hearts will change, and we’ll get over 9/11 sometime very, very soon.

War Child is now available for download from iArthouse or purchase on DVD through the film’s official site; it’s also now enjoying a limited theatrical release.

War Child is rated PG-13 for “thematic material and images involving war and related atrocities.”  And yet don’t be afraid to watch this film with your grade-school-aged children.  I’m not sure they’ll stick with it—but if they do, it could be a transformative experience for them to see how other children live… and heal.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of War Child.