Spotlight on child soldier movies at Berlin Film Festival

Society Materials 12 February 2008 14:09 (UTC +04:00)

( dpa ) - In the late 1980s when a small boy in Sudan, Emmanuel Jal's mother was killed and soldiers raped his sister. Longing for revenge he became a child soldier, carrying an AK47 rifle that was taller than himself .

Today Jal, aged 28, is an international hip-hop star, famous for giving concerts for homeless children in Nairobi. His first song Gua, which means "power" in Arabic, streaked to the top of the charts in Kenya.

Currently, Jal is a guest at the 58th Berlin International Film Festival where War Child, a documentary about his child soldier years, has been screened twice to packed audiences.

Made by first-time director Christian Karim Chrobog, the documentary is a stunning account of the five "lost" years in Jal's childhood, after he was sent to fight with the rebel army in Sudan's bloody civil war.

And, it tells how Jal was rescued - and subsequently adopted by - Emma McCune, a British aid worker with the children's relief organization Street Kids, who was later killed in a car crash.

Smuggled to Kenya, to resume his education the boy soon developed into a promising rapper, singing in English, Arabic and Swahili, in addition to two Sudanese languages.

After the second showing of War Child this week, Jal told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa how excited he'd been seeing the final edited version of the film for the first time.

" The film's important for me, for my future, and for all I want to achieve in the music industry," he said proudly.

Hip-hop singing was a difficult game, he said. "It's like a battlefield. Everybody seeks your attention, but I'm not in this game because I want to be famous or because I want to make money.

"I'm doing it because it's a healing passion, and I am representing my nation, my people. I'm their voice now," he said.

The film, included in the Festival's Generation 14plus programme, shows Jal being reunited with his father, sister and other relatives in southern Sudan recently after a near 20-year separation.

Several other films dealing with the plight of child soldiers in Africa are being shown in Berlin.

Italian director Luigi Falorni's in-competition movie, Hearts of Fire, based on singer Senait Mehari's best-selling autobiography, tells of her scary child-soldier experiences in war-torn Eritrea.

After being published in 2004, Mehari's Munich-published autobiography sold more than 450,000 copies. But now a Berlin court has issued an order against the singer, after witnesses strongly disputed some of the claims made in it.

The row is not, however, likely to stop the film being shown at the festival Thursday.

Another provocative movie is Phillipines' director Jim Libiran's Tribu (Tribe) in the Forum section for young and experimental filmmakers.

It deals with Tondo, Manila's darkest district, where youth gangs roam the streets in search of quick fixes, and dangerous thrills at night. After its screening, Libiran told the audience he'd come up with a novel approach when planning the movie 18 months ago.

"Since I didn't have the money to employ professional actors, I distributed posters all over Tondo asking gang members if they were interested in becoming actors," he said.

"Since most Filipinos dream of being actors, I was curious whether they would take up my offer. I was amazed when 52 of them from seven different gangs showed up for the auditions, including some who were armed with weapons and machetes.

"They explained that without these weapons they would not be able to protect themselves from rival gangs outside, but eventually they were persuaded to surrender them to a security guard during workshop sessions," he said.

During the making of the film Libiran, who himself grew up in Tondo, said gang members eventually became the best of friends. But one of them who appeared in the movie was shot five times and nearly killed after it was made.

"It was hard. People were telling me your movie is becoming real. Actually, it's the other way round: the movie is real. If it doesn't happen to you, it happens to other kids," he said.