SIFF ’08 - What Would I Be If They Never Rescued Me? a review of Emmanuel Jal: War Child

review by Chris Estey

Stories of African child soldiers have always saddened and terrified people who didn’t even know much about Southern Sudan or its desperate attempts for national liberation since the early 80s. That violent corruption of innocence, the idea that the inimical goals of politicos could enlist starving adolescents in the struggles of the deep Third World has always been something that creeps more ‘civilized’ people out. But the fact is, those children often had little choice -- when you’re absolutely starving, and someone feeds you and hands you a gun, you have little else besides prayer and huddling with fellow forced-warriors to get you through.

And, oh yeah, music. Ask Emmanuel Jal, who with two soldier-brothers had a break-out African rap hit called “Gua” a few years back, which starkly detailed the uprising that left well over two million people dead, and four million displaced, because “the world does not care about Africa.” That song helped Jal get out and preach honestly to the world about the depressing childhood he’d had, the need for people to own their government to prevent atrocity, and how we can’t make it without faith or each other. All of this is movingly detailed by first-time director C. Karim Chrobog, the strength and heaviness of whose 93 minute 2008 Tribeca festival award-winning documentary War Child is probably unpreventable considering the story being told.

In 1983, Jal’s family had cast him off in a boat and when it turned over no one came to claim him back to safety, two hundred children dying around him in the night waters. That initial voyage out of his township, where Jal’s father (a policeman for the standing regime who joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army) seemed a harbinger of the trials Jal would go through. “My dreams are like torments,” Jal says of the period, and with the memories of young troops drinking their own urine and turning eventually to cannibalism it’s easy to see why. At the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya, Jal was one of over ten thousand child soldiers who were then enlisted to engage in mass killings over a twenty year period -- unless of course they died or, as in the rare case of Jal himself, they were helped out and found their way to rescue and reinvention.

It’s the lighter focus on Jal’s resurrected life that carries the documentary through its bone-chilling grim moments, as he raps in concerts over electro-based pop-R&B for his fans to be aware of the poverty and injustice of his homeland, bitter reminiscences of losing his “guardian angel” Emma McCure (who saved his life and then later lost her own), and the dangers of imperialism, here described as “treating Africa like a vagina.” That song’s imagery might come off coarse and misogynistic if Jal wasn’t so obviously tormented by the rapes and mistreatments of his sisters, and if his own demeanor wasn’t so gentle, loving, and positive. Though obviously a religious person, his own art doesn’t hesitate to go into regions as brutal as his own survival. And politically speaking, nothing may strike an American more violently than the fact that the war criminals who helped starve and kill Jal’s country have been shielded by the United States government due to their knowledge about Al-Qaeda.

War Child begins with Jal on his journey from his home in London, eventually bringing him back together with his sisters and the rest of his family in Bentiu. When he shares loving moments with his “gran,” a God-fearing woman who made alcohol to sell to feed her family -- the film is almost unbearably close to the heart. Meanwhile, his band tours and plays concerts through Africa as he checks up on boys he has been sponsoring at schools, and the implication that the Southern Sudanese government currently in power needs to be held more accountable is as important to note as the startling collaboration Jal himself performed with Muslim musician Abdel Gadir Salim. The footage of two men singing together who at one time were pitted against each other ideologically by a war and encouraged to kill each other by their respective governments is proof just how much music can change things in the lives of individuals.

Emmanuel Jal: War Child
dir. by C. Karim Chrobog (USA 2008)
Wednesday, May 28 @ 7:15 PM (tickets)
Saturday, June 14 @ 9:30 PM (tickets)
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