March 27, 2009

Art From Conflict

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Regardless of how you respond to Emmanuel Jal’s documentary War Child, the truth of its footage destroys any debate over its political significance. Once a Sudanese child soldier, Jal has become a figurehead and spokesperson for genocide awareness by sharing his own story with the world. The film splits its time between Jal’s concert tours and seminars (he moonlights as a hip-hope with lyrics inspired by his childhood) and United Nations footage shot about 20-years earlier, prominently featuring a nine-year old Jal in the beginnings of his life as a child soldier.
The story is naturally one of unspeakable heartbreak, an idea and emotion difficult to communicate through film. Jal, however, is continually attempting to address the problem of perspective that has repeatedly maimed the Western comprehension of African genocide. At first, it is disconcerting to see Jal perform in front of seemingly bewildered white audiences while he pours out his past. Jal’s insistence, however, on his steadfast belief in democracy, of change through the people rather than government — begins to pay off by affecting change his audiences. As Jal says, “There’s no one really standing for us except for the normal people … they are the ones who are giving aid … the people are the only ones who can change the government.”
Structurally, War Child tweaks conventional documentary tactics by moving across literal borders, spending most of its time conducting interviews in American high schools and conference rooms, interspersed with footage of Sudanese guerrilla warfare.
Jal’s musical performances serve as interludes for his story, yet only in as much as a beat and song are added to his original message: each song echoes the idea of awareness and action provided visually throughout the film. The most beautiful music, however, comes from the refugee camps in Africa where cameramen caught two street performances. This seemingly superficial nod to local music is actually essential to the film. Including it not only uncovers the universality of song, but also its power as both a tool of change — as Jal demonstrates — and, as we hear in Africa, a faithful route to roadside beauty.
War Child’s most powerful moments, however, come from the United Nations’ footage of Emmanuel Jal as a child, a lucky fluke from their documentation of the Sudanese wars. The coupling of his childhood philosophies, hopes and dreams with his present-day success almost makes the film heartwarming. Jal is careful, however, not to let his audience lose focus of the violent genocide that serves as a constant backdrop for both his past and the film’s present. His childhood innocence caught on tape stands only as a testament to its eventual loss as we see Jal’s toothy grin supplanted by an AK-47.
Additionally, the audience is subtly reminded of just how mammoth of a task present-day Jal’s movement is: At each new meeting place or forum, Jal saunters alone and confident in a sea of ties and power suits, his sweatshirt and cargo pants cutting through the starched halls of U.S. Congress and the International Crisis Group.
The film’s second half finally breaks the barrier between Sudan as the past and the present America, reuniting Jal with the country he left 18 years ago. Again, while his reunions with long lost family are touching, they are set against a concrete backdrop of what is by now just referred to as the “stories.” Everyone seems to have one, these seemingly impossible histories of rape, murder and famine.
By giving an outline for Jal’s film, I find it possible only open the door for hopeful interest. War Child is a documentary, but one so rich in story and visual spontaneity that the message of African violence and war, so often presented as distant, detached and absolute, is flung at the viewers with an undeniable grace rarely found in the genre. Jal’s music reflects the vibrant color and tradition of his past, and his film is able to combine the sight and sound of his home — still pulsating with color after the tragedies only a few frames away.