Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.
An expert observes that if most Americans underwent the ordeal that many Sudanese child soldiers had, they would require many years of therapy. Hearing the unimaginable conditions they faced, I don’t doubt him. Yet Emmanuel Jal, the focus of the new documentary War Child, is an engaging young man with a positive attitude. His life is a great way to approach the atrocities of Sudan, but the movie falters when it tries to be just another message documentary.
This child soldier turned hip-hop star truly has a remarkable story. After his village (and mother) were slaughtered, Jal fled with many other boys to Ethiopia. Right away cameramen recognized Jal’s charm, and this young boy became a spokesmen for the boys who simply wanted to find a home. Even in these circumstances, he had a winning smile. Sadly, members of Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) also saw opportunity in the boys. Jal and the others were given a rifle and told to fight. Understandably, Jal does not dwell on this part of his life, but tells us that he was involved in four battles. Through a stroke of luck, Jal met Emma McCune, the woman who rescued Jal by smuggling him to nearby Kenya. Eventually the boy became a spokesman for Sudan, traveling around the US to promote his message of peace.
War Child works best when Jal interacts with others. Director Christian Karim Chrobog is from DC, and a significant chunk of the movie’s running time is devoted to Jal touring the city. He plays a show at Ibiza, and talks to students at Anacostia Senior High School. A smart-ass kid asks whether Jal killed anyone, but is silenced by the introspection of the answer. When Jal returns to Sudan and interacts with his sister, we see how genocide affects people and different ways, and how they still manage to maintain their optimistic attitudes. The DC scenes are enthralling because they demonstrate that even after suffering more than I could imagine, Jal still knows how to energize a crowd. As an interviewee, however, Jal does not capture my attention. I’m not sure whether to blame him or the director, but the interview footage (clearly intended to pull at the heart strings) does not illicit an emotional response.
The genocide in Sudan is an outrage, and it’s unfortunate that more people aren’t engaged with what’s happening in that part of the world. We need charismatic spokesmen like Emmanuel Jal to engage and inform us. Ultimately, War Child gives substantial insight into the man, but less into the larger conflict. It fails to invoke the same passion that Jal gets with his crowds. The movie is worth seeing*, but if you want to learn more, you’d be better served with other Sudan documentaries.
* War Child is playing at E Street, but only until Thursday.
Here are other movies about Africans that feature optimistic endings:
Dirty Pretty Things. Whether he’s examining the lives of royalty or record store employees*, fringe socioeconomic strata interest director Stephen Frears. Dirty Pretty Things, an absorbing thriller, is his examination of the immigrant class in modern London. The movie stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Okwe, a Nigerian doctor with a dark past, now working in a seedy hotel. One day he’s unclogging a toilet, and finds a truly unlikely obstruction: a human heart. Okwe spends the rest of the movie uncovering an underground organ market, eventually teaming up with Turkish immigrant Senay (Audrey Tatou) to use his discovery to their advantage. Ok, so this movie has only a tangential relation to the plight of an entire continent. But when asked about his past, Okwe simply states, “It is an African story,” a line that is both sad and deliciously mysterious. This is a good thriller that says a lot to say about group that are routinely ignored by the mainstream. Also, Dirty Pretty Things is also the first time I noticed Ejiofor, who is quickly becoming one of favorite actors.
Tsotsi. Before he signed on to direct the Wolverine origin story, director Gavin Hood won Best Foreign film for this movie. Presley Chweneyagae is great as the titular character, a South African street thug who has no trouble with murder. He kills a middle class woman and steals her car, only to find an infant in the back seat. As one who fundamentally has little respect for human life, he becomes an unlikely caregiver. Slowly, Tsotsi changes for better, and demonstrates genuine (if not reliable) care for the baby. One shot, in which spiders crawl over the baby’s face, is the among the most haunting I’ve seen. We see hints that this murderer used to be a happy child, and was transformed by the poverty surrounding him. This material could easily have been too sentimental, but Hood’s assured screenplay/direction does not take the easy route, which makes Tsotsi’s transformation all the more remarkable. Of course, a cold-blooded murderer must face reprisals, but when Tsotsi gets his comeuppance, his punishment pales in comparison to his regret.
Mooladé. Released four years ago, this is the happiest movie about female circumcision that you’ll ever see. It tells the story of a small village in Burkina Faso. Four young girls seek mooladé (meaning protection) from the village elders, who demand that the girls undergo the barbaric “purification” ritual. The girls find protection in house of Colle, the movie’s heroine, who was once “cut” and now fiercely defends the girls. Colle is brave and stubborn, risking her own life to protect those who sought refuge. Yes, there are scenes where girls get mutilated, but they are handled swiftly. The movie does not exploit. While all this is happening, a young man returns from Paris. His cosmopolitan status helps him gain the respect of the elders, and eventually thrusts the village into modernity. While the movie’s subject is not the most rosy, director Ousmane Sembene infuses his characters with human characteristics and genuine warmth. One merchant in particular is such a fool that his nonstop chatter provides unexpected laughs. As with Tsotsi, I couldn’t help but admire how the seemingly worst people have the capacity for change.
That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I get accused of kid touching.